MOSCOW (Sep. 22)
Most Russian Jewish leaders are either supporting an amended version of a controversial bill on religious freedom or remaining silent.
Their stances, however, stand in marked contrast to human rights watchers here and in Washington who see the measure as a threat to religious freedom in Russia.
Russian Jewish leaders here do not believe that the bill will hurt any Jewish religious groups operating here.
Given the relatively improved conditions Jews have enjoyed since the fall of the Soviet Union, they appear not to be concerned with the broader issue of how much religious freedom should be granted in a democracy.
An official of the Russian Jewish Congress, for example, recently stated that he did not understand “all the fuss about the bill.”
Zinoviy Kogan, leader of the Hineini Reform congregation in Moscow, gave his cautious support for the bill, saying that if it “contains any provisions that contradict the [Russian] Constitution, it would be sent to the Constitutional Court.”
Human rights activists, in contrast, are worried that it remains unclear how the bill would be implemented once it becomes law.
Even if the bill would not affect Jews, the activists are interested in the relationship between religious freedom and democracy.
Alexander Lieberman, director of the Russian-American Bureau on Human Rights of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said he was surprised by the silence of Jewish leaders.
“Apparently, they believe the law will not hurt Judaism,” he said.
He spoke days after the Duma, as the lower house of the Russian Parliament is known, passed the amended religion bill by an overwhelming vote of 358-6.
According to most observers, the upper house of Parliament, knows as the Federation Council, will approve the bill within two weeks and President Boris Yeltsin will sign it.
The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association was originally approved by Parliament during the summer.
But Yeltsin vetoed the measure in July after swift criticism came from Washington, where the bill was viewed as a threat to religious freedom. The U.S. Senate had threatened to cut Russia’s $200 million aid package if it became law.
Yeltsin then established a commission comprised of representatives of Russia’s leading religions to draft an amended version.
In both its original and amended forms, the legislation allotted to four established faiths — the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism — the status of “traditional” Russian religions.
All other religions would be required to prove that they officially existed in Russia for at least 15 years to receive full rights, even though under the Communist regime, many religions had to operate clandestinely.
In the bill’s amended form, groups that could not meet the 15-year probationary period would receive limited rights if they submit to a re-registration procedure every year.
The original bill could have imposed serious limitations on religious denominations such as the Lubavitch movement and Reform Judaism that could not meet the 15-year requirement.
But Russian Chief Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, who represented Russian Jewry on the commission, said recently that since Judaism is recognized in the reworked version as a “traditional” Russian faith, the amended bill would not discriminate against any segments of the Jewish community.
Valery Borshchov, one of the few Duma deputies who voted against the bill, termed it a “comeback to Stalinist times.”
Alarmed by the Duma’s passage of the bill, the Washington-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews issued a statement urging the Clinton Administration to convince Yeltsin to veto again the “Soviet-style bill.”
Another U.S.-based group, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, called on Vice President Al Gore to discuss American opposition to the bill when he meets this week with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
The conference’s executive director, Mark Levin, who is concerned about the bill’s potential impact on some Russian jewish groups, said the legislation was dangerous because the “principle of religious freedom is fundamental to a democratic state.”
Levin added that his group was consulting with members of Congress as part of its effort to “mount the type of public campaign to get Yeltsin to reconsider.”
Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, likewise said he believed that the only way to prevent the bill from becoming law was to urge the international community to press Yeltsin not to sign it.