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Local Officials in Russia Refuse to Register Reform Synagogue

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Less than two months after President Boris Yeltsin signed a controversial law limiting religious freedom in Russia, the law has been applied against a Jewish congregation.

Provincial officials cited the law last week when they withheld registration from a Jewish congregation in Bryansk, a city about 200 miles southwest of Moscow.

A provincial official was quoted as saying that his agency had “not refused to register” the Jewish body, but had simply requested more documentation before making a decision.

But according to Vladimir Boroditsky, chairman of the Bryansk congregation, local officials did not make such a request.

Instead, said Boroditsky, the letter his congregation received from the authorities said only that they are “disregarding the congregation’s application for registration.”

Boroditsky said the congregation applied for registration about two months ago, shortly before Yeltsin approved the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association, which places restrictions on religions which cannot prove that they have existed officially in Russia for at least 15 years.

The law’s preamble grants Judaism — along with the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam and Buddhism — the status of traditional religions.

But human-rights watchers said the preamble is a non-binding declaration.

The denial of registration to the Bryansk congregation elicited a swift condemnation from the Washington-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

“What is happening in Bryansk is exactly what we predicted would take place in Russia’s provinces under the auspices of the religion bill,” the organization’s national director, Micah Naftalin, said in a statement.

“This law is in effect a hunting license, designed to intimidate and persecute Jews and Western-oriented Christians, despite all the assurances to the contrary.

“The Western media was duped into believing that Jews were exempted from the new restrictions.”

The Bryansk congregation is a member of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations, or KEROOR, an umbrella group representing some 50 Orthodox and Reform synagogues in Russia.

Sergei Weinstein, a KEROOR official, said that since his group is already registered as a centralized religious organization, all of its local affiliates should be able to obtain registration without difficulty.

“There is nothing unusual about” the Bryansk congregation, he added.

Boroditsky attributed the situation to a bureaucratic mistake.

“It seems that officials do not know yet how to apply the new law,” he said in a phone interview from Bryansk.

But at least one member of the Bryansk congregation attributed the denial of registration to anti-Semitism.

Tatyana Khenkina said there is strong anti-Semitic feeling in Bryansk, and local officials would be glad to find an excuse not to register the congregation.

Meanwhile, KEROOR officials have sent a letter to the Bryansk authorities asking them to explain their denial of the synagogue’s registration.

“We are not in a state of panic,” said Zinovy Kogan, the group’s executive director. “We are calling on the authorities to apply the law in a liberal and civilized way.”

Many Russian Jewish leaders, including the KEROOR leadership, had previously backed Yeltsin’s signing of the law, saying it would not hurt any Jewish religious groups operating here.

The three-year-old Bryansk congregation does not have a permanent building and conducts its services and activities in various locations.

It was first organized in the early 1990s by a Reform Jew who later emigrated to Israel and took most of its official documents with him. The congregation is now seeking new registration under Boroditsky’s leadership.

According to Boroditsky, who described the synagogue as having a non-Orthodox orientation, some 70 people take part in its activities.

Bryansk, which has a population of 500,000, including 3,000 Jews, has a second synagogue run by the Lubavitch movement.

Some human-rights activists said the controversy in Bryansk is just one of a series of similar events taking place across Russia since the law’s passage.

The Moscow office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki issued a statement citing four more such cases, all involving Protestant churches, which experts say are especially at risk since the law took effect.

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