Human rights activists join to fight Russian religion law

MOSCOW, Oct. 26 (JTA) – Human rights activists have established an organization to protect the freedom of religion in Russia. The new group, For a Secular State and Freedom of Conscience, formed as a direct response to a law passed last month restricting the rights of religions that have not officially operated in Russia for at least 15 years. Judaism is one of four faiths recognized under the law. The group’s organizers say they have two goals: to increase public awareness about the issue of freedom of religion in Russia and, eventually, to get the law suspended, according to Alexander Lieberman, the director of the Moscow-based Russian-American Bureau on Human Rights, an affiliate of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. Lieberman’s group is the only Jewish group that has joined organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group or the Committee to Protect Freedom of Conscience in the new effort. While Russian Jews in general appear to oppose the bill, they do not seem ready to mount a campaign against it. Last week, the new group adopted its first statement that, among other things, said the new law attests to a “clerical offensive” that endangers the “basis of civic society.” According to the statement, some regions in Russia are set to introduce the teaching of the Russian Orthodoxy into the mandatory curriculum at public schools. In July, President Boris Yeltsin vetoed the original draft of the bill, which was reportedly aimed at cults and missionaries that have blossomed in Russia since the fall of communism, after it was opposed by both the Pope and the U.S. Congress. He signed a new version of the bill after a committee made minor changes to it. Most Russians view the issue as one that is important only as it pertains to Russia’s relations with the West, according to a recent report by the Keston Institute, an England-based organization that monitors religious freedom in the former Communist countries. A Moscow rally opposing the law earlier this month only drew about 500 people.

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