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Religion Bill Sails Through Russia's Upper House

September 25, 1997| From Associated Press

MOSCOW — A hotly debated bill that many believe will curb freedom of religion in Russia won unanimous and final passage from parliament Wednesday and appeared certain to become law.

Boris N. Yeltsin's spokesman has indicated that the president will sign the legislation, which enshrines Russia's conservative Orthodox Church as the country's preeminent religion.

The swift 137-0 approval in the Federation Council, or upper house of parliament, ends a months-long public debate that drew opposition to the measure from the Vatican, the U.S. Congress and human rights groups.

Supporters say the new law will protect Russians from foreign sects and cults that have been seeking new members since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. But critics say it will sharply limit the rights of many religious groups, including some that have become increasingly active in Russia.

Yeltsin vetoed the original, similar bill in July in response to sharp criticism from the West and human rights advocates at home. He ordered several changes but allowed the most controversial clauses to remain largely intact.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexi II praised the bill as a strong barrier against foreign missionaries who have "inundated" Russia, the Interfax news agency reported Wednesday.

The bill pledges respect for Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity, but critics say it violates the 1993 Russian Constitution, which proclaims equal treatment for all religions.

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