Politics of religion Russia: New law protects the Orthodox Church, regulates 'foreign false-missionaries.'

September 24, 1997

THROUGHOUT MUCH of its turbulent history, the Russian NTC Orthodox Church has been part of the state machinery. Czars were its titular leaders until the 1917 Bolshevik takeover. And even though the clergy and the believers paid a horrible price in the persecution that followed, the church became an enthusiastic participant in Stalin's Great Patriotic War against Hitler. By the time communism collapsed, it had gained recognition as the official Soviet church in a state that advocated death to religions.

The Orthodox Church is now on the verge of solidifying its privileged status in non-communist Russia. Under a measure that has President Boris N. Yeltsin's blessing, it and Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist denominations recognized by the Soviet Union in 1982 would be regarded as the only genuine Russian religions.

In contrast, Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians and dissident Orthodox denominations would be in legal limbo, ineligible to run schools, hand out literature or gain tax exemptions. Orthodox dissidents would have to register with the state each year, a lengthy process.

A third category of religious groups -- those which choose not to register or are rejected -- would face even stricter limits, as would representatives of foreign religious organizations.

This odious piece of legislation has been welcomed by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, which views it as "effective protection of both the individual and society against the arbitrary actions of destructive pseudo-religious cults and foreign false-missionaries.

"The law is quite right in drawing a distinction between religious organizations according to the number of their followers and the time of their formation," the Holy Synod said in a statement. "The rejection of this law will lead to further spiritual and moral destabilization. . . ."

In the see-saw movement of history, the Russian Orthodox Church has often represented reactionary elements. Its strong lobbying for this legislation and its unholy alliance with the parliament's Communist power bloc show that the more things change,the more the church stays the same.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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