Behind the Headlines: Russian Jews Oppose New Law Restricting Religious Freedom
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Behind the Headlines: Russian Jews Oppose New Law Restricting Religious Freedom

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Jews in Russia have learned, through centuries of experience, that government interference in their lives rarely bodes well.

So it was not surprising that many were not happy when Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a bill last week limiting religious freedom in Russia.

“Our constitution guarantees freedom of conscience,” said Diana Neisner, a 22- year-old Moscow law student. “I disagree with the president.”

Isabella Sterlina, a 67-year-old retired nurse who attended services at the Moscow Choral Synagogue a day after Yeltsin signed the bill into law, recalled how Jewish life was under Soviet rule.

“If the state begins to meddle too much in religious affairs, we can get what we had under the communists.”

But at least one Jewish worshiper spoke approvingly of the law.

“We need to protect our youth from cults and missionaries,” said Alexander Abramovich, a 65-year-old Muscovite. “The law doesn’t hurt anyone who seeks to preserve one’s own tradition.”

Many Jews here seemed to be unaware of the law, perhaps because of the scant Russian press coverage of the bill.

The law places restrictions on religions that cannot prove they have existed officially in Russia for at least 15 years.

Others, unsure of what the law’s impact would be, are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the quiet tenor of Jewish protest is that as critics of the legislation argue, the law is primarily targeted at Christian rivals to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Indeed, Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt described the law as “a fight between two Christian denominations” — a reference to the Russian Orthodox Church, which becomes Russia’s one of Russia’s four traditional religions under the law, and the Roman Catholic Church, which is denied certain rights accorded to “traditional” Russian faiths.

Most Protestant denominations would also be denied some rights under the law.

In addition to the status it gives the Russian Orthodox Church, the law also grants three other religions — Islam, Buddhism and Judaism — the status of traditional religions.

All other faiths will have to prove they have operated in Russia for at least 15 years or lose some rights.

The United States, as well as human rights groups, vigorously opposed the law, urging Yeltsin not to sign it.

The organized Russian Jewish community has been divided on the issue.

Some Jewish leaders have stated that the Jewish community might even benefit from the law since it would restrict groups like Jews for Jesus from operating in Russia.

This week, however, the Va’ad, an umbrella organization for Jewish groups in Russia, denounced the measure in a letter to Yeltsin.

Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, said his organization plans to work with other religious minorities who have come out against the law. However, he said, other Russian Jewish groups are unlikely to join the effort.

Goldschmidt, one of Russia’s most influential religious leaders, said he had “uneasy feelings” about the law, though the rabbinate had officially backed the measure.

He said that by accepting this measure, “Russia has been weakened as a democracy.”

The mood of cautious pessimism was perhaps best expressed by a member of Hineini, Moscow’s Reform congregation, who gave his name as Semyon: “I know that this law is not against us Jews. But who knows how things will turn out.”

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