Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Blow to Religious Freedom

Russian law targets 'newcomers,' to the Orthodox Church's benefit

September 23, 1997

The constitution approved by Russian voters in 1993 defines the Russian Federation as a secular state in which religious organizations are to be treated equally and left free of government control. This guarantee of tolerance, pluralism and independence is about to be negated by a measure passed by the state Duma, implicitly endorsed by President Boris Yeltsin and warmly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. It awaits only the pro forma approval of the upper house of Parliament to become law. When that happens, the legal status of religious groups that have been establishing themselves in post-Communist Russia will be largely revoked.

The legislation, slightly modified after an earlier Yeltsin veto, notes the Orthodox Church's special role in Russian history while recognizing such "traditional" religions as Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. Traditional faiths are defined as those that have been active in Russia for at least 15 years, meaning those that had a presence during the Communist era. That provision effectively excludes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Pentecostals and others from the rights and protections granted "traditional" religious organizations. Groups that do not meet the 15-year rule will not be allowed to own property, produce or distribute religious literature, operate schools or radio and television stations or conduct services in hospitals, schools, orphanages or cemeteries.

The Orthodox Church says the new legislation is needed to protect Russians against "cults," which apparently means any religious organization that the dominant church views as being heterodox--and competitive. Evangelical movements have been especially active in Russia since the collapse of communism six years ago, giving rise to 800 congregations. Populist politicians catering to historical Russian xenophobia have repeatedly attacked foreign religious activists, with Mormons being a special target.

Human rights groups, the Vatican and other religious organizations have strongly protested the pending religious restrictions. The U.S. Congress has threatened to suspend $200 million in aid to Russia over the issue. The goal of the new law is of course to halt proselytizing, which would deny Russian citizens the freedom of religious choice and conscience. If the constitutional guarantee of religious tolerance can be overthrown, then so can such other basic rights as freedom of expression and assembly. A Russia that seeks eagerly to be integrated into the community of advanced nations will be judged on many counts, not least on how it upholds its own basic laws. With the discriminatory religion law, Russia has taken a dangerous step backward.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|