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Russians Reassure U.S. on Religious Freedom

Worship: Legislation that would restrict activity to 'traditional' faiths won't be strictly enforced, officials of American denominations and government are told.

September 24, 1997|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Despite imminent limits on religious freedom in Russia, U.S. church and government leaders said Tuesday that Russian government and church officials are offering assurances that pending legislation will not be strictly enforced.

Those assurances, communicated in recent meetings in Geneva and at the Hague--as well as similar promises offered in Moscow to U.S. government officials--have prompted some U.S. church leaders and political figures to urge colleagues to avoid a face-off over the emotional issue of religious freedom.

"It was apparent to all that a confrontational approach would not be helpful and could be very destructive to future relationships," Bruce Robbins, the United Methodist Church's ecumenical officer, wrote to colleagues after a Sept. 14 meeting with a Russian Orthodox Church official in Geneva.

Church leaders and rights monitoring groups in Russia and the West remain deeply concerned about the legislation overwhelmingly approved last week by the state Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

The bill would restrict religious activity to "traditional" faiths--Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism--that have been active in the country for at least 15 years.

As written, the restrictions would prevent religious groups--including Roman Catholics, Mormons and Protestants--from recruiting, owning property and inviting foreigners to worship.

The bill is expected to be approved by the upper house and President Boris Yeltsin is expected to sign it.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said Tuesday that he has received assurances from Russian officials that Mormons and some other nontraditional religions would not be adversely affected. He attended a series of meetings earlier this month in Moscow at the request of the White House and U.S. State Department.

Among those offering assurances of tolerance were Andrei Loginov, Yeltsin's chief of internal policy, and Metropolitan Kiril, head of external affairs for the Russian Orthodox Church, according to officials with the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches.

Bennett said Vice President Al Gore telephoned him Monday from Moscow with similar assurances from Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.

In Moscow on Tuesday, the Kremlin's chief legal advisor, Ruslan Orekhov, who heads the Main State Law Department, said it will be easier for religions to qualify under the law than many in the West believe.

The Russian Orthodox Church, and Jewish, Buddhist and Islamic groups, are written in as "traditional" religions in Russia and those entitled to all religious rights. But Orekhov said any other faith can consider itself "established" in Russia if it can demonstrate having been active for 15 years. That doesn't necessarily mean it must be registered for 15 years.

Based on talks with Russian authorities, several U.S. church officials said the practical effect may be to target so-called religious sects outside the mainstream.

The legislation comes three months after the Russian parliament passed a similar measure, which was vetoed by Yeltsin and drew international outrage. In contrast, the reaction by many church leaders was more measured.

Some cautioned that the revised law remains vague and could be bent in either direction--toward a liberal interpretation with minimal consequences to most religious groups, or strictly enforced.

Nonetheless, the spate of assurances from Russian leaders and ranking clerics in the Russian Orthodox Church were welcomed, if for no other reason than establishing a public record.

Indeed, the Interfax news agency quoted unidentified analysts within the Yeltsin administration as saying that the draft law guarantees the right to profess any religion in Russia and that the law is "indispensable for ensuring the rights of the majority of believers and for protecting society from totalitarian sects."

Deciding who the winners and losers may be under the legislation was occupying the attention of several churches. But those who now believe they may be spared the worst impact say they remain disturbed that other religions may not be so fortunate.

Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Moscow contributed to this story.

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