Religious Freedom Threatened in Areas of Former Soviet Union

Religious freedom is a threatened commodity in the former Soviet Union. Two former republics, Belarus and Armenia, are considering legislation similar to a bill adopted by the Russian Parliament that would limit religious activity.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin this week vetoed the controversial bill, which the United States and the Vatican had strongly criticized.

The U.S. Senate, which views the legislation as a threat to religious freedom in Russia, voted 95-4 last week to cut Russia’s $195 million in foreign aid if Yeltsin signed the bill.

The bill now goes back to the Russian Parliament, which is in recess until September.

Yeltsin’s veto could be overturned by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliament — which is a distinct possibility, given the two chambers’ recent overwhelming support for the measure.

The bill has been sharply criticized by Russian and international human rights activists as discriminatory.

The Va’ad, the umbrella organization for Jewish groups in Russia, had urged Yeltsin to reject the measure, which would deprive religious groups that have been registered in Russia for less than 15 years the ability to own or rent property, hold public worship or do charitable work.

In a letter sent earlier this week to Yeltsin, the Va’ad said the bill fundamentally conflicts with the principles of an open society.

Roman Spektor, the acting president of the Va’ad, said that the bill was “especially dangerous” to adherents of Reform Judaism and other streams of Judaism that have come to Russia in recent years.

Backers of the bill — including Russian Chief Rabbi Adolph Shayevich — said it would protect Russia against foreign cults such as Japan’s doomsday sect Aum Shinri Kyo, which in March 1995 launched a Sarin nerve gas attack on a crowded Tokyo subway, killing 11 people and injuring more than 5,000.

The Russian Orthodox Church had lobbied for the bill.

In Belarus, similar legislation may be introduced that would give privileged status to the four “traditional” faiths of the country — Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam.

Other religions would be divided into two categories: “non-traditional” faiths, which would be allowed to function under restrictions reminiscent of those of the Soviet era; and “destructive” faiths, which would be banned outright, according to the Keston Institute of Oxford, England, which monitors religious freedom in former Communist states.

The proposal, which is believed to be sponsored by the Belarussian Orthodox Church, has been sent to the Belarus Parliament.

Similar to the proposed Russian legislation, the Belarussian measure is supposedly aimed at cults and sects that have become active in the former Soviet Union during the past few years.

But human rights organizations believe that the laws would have dangerous ramifications for many religions, including Judaism.

There are about 100,000 Jews out of a total population of 10.2 million in Belarus.

Meanwhile, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan has refused to sign amendments to a religion law and sent it back to the National Assembly for further consideration.

The bill would have introduced serious restrictions on religious organizations except for the Armenian Apostolic Church, to which over 90 percent of Armenians belong.

Earlier, Armenia’s Parliament overwhelmingly approved the measure.

It is unclear how the proposed law would affect the status of Armenia’s 500 Jews, who comprise the smallest Jewish community in all the former Soviet republics.

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