Yeltsin finds a way to restrict religion and pacify critics Analysis: Compromise differs little from bill he vetoed in July. But the outcry is less among Russian Orthodox.

September 28, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Religious leaders accept that President Boris N. Yeltsin was following a divine plan -- and political instincts -- when he signed a law Friday greatly restricting religious freedom in Russia.

"It was God's will he signed it," said Joe Bryant, a Tennessee pastor who is trying to build a Church of Christ congregation here. "We don't always understand God's plan. Maybe he thought we needed to work harder."

If God works in mysterious ways, so do Russian politicians. In July, Yeltsin vetoed another bill that would have drastically limited the rights of Protestant and Catholic groups, protecting the Russian Orthodox Church and other "traditional" religions from foreign proselytizers. He did so because, he said, such a law violated basic human rights -- and because the United States and other Western countries complained vociferously.

Then he drafted a substitute bill, which his advisers described as a compromise, and sent it back to the Duma, which passed it a week ago. The Federation Council, the upper house of the legislature, passed it Wednesday.

"But all he did was change the word 'Orthodox' to 'Christianity' in a few places," Bryant said. "It's the same bill."

Having it both ways

Bryant thinks that Yeltsin was trying to have it both ways -- pacifying the West with a veto and talk of compromise while giving Russian nationalists and the Moscow Orthodox leadership the protection from foreign intrusion they were demanding.

"I think he's a good politician," Bryant said. "He changed it just enough to make a few people think it was a compromise, and he still satisfied the Orthodox Church. It's all a big political game.

"But what we're left with is out-and-out persecution. It's like it was hundreds and hundreds of years ago."

The U.S. Congress, which agrees, threatened to withdraw $200 million in aid to Russia if the bill became law.

"This is the most serious rollback in human rights since the

Soviet Union fell apart," said Lawrence A. Uzzell, a representative of the Keston Institute in Moscow. "The whole idea of a compromise was a smoke screen. I now realize it was only a bait-and-switch."

The institute, based in Oxford, England, is an independent interdenominational research center that monitors religious freedom in the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Uzzell said the Kremlin persuaded Protestant and Catholic leaders that it was coming up with a compromise that would protect religious freedom and as soon as it won an endorsement of that effort delivered the same sort of bill it was claiming to criticize.

Activity restricted

The law severely restricts the activities of religious organizations that have not been registered for at least 15 years, prohibiting them from publishing or distributing religious literature or obtaining visas for foreigners who want to preach.

They would also not be able to rent public buildings for worship services or publish newspapers or magazines.

Fifteen years ago, few religious groups were permitted to register, and the Orthodox Church was allowed to operate only marginally, under the strict supervision of the KGB.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a wide range of foreigners has arrived in Russia, all seeking converts and including the Billy Graham Crusade, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and others. The Church of Christ has 80 congregations, from Murmansk in the far north to Sakhalin in the far east. Cultists have also recruited, including some from Japan.

The Orthodox Church has lobbied hard to make itself the single most powerful religious -- and even political -- force in Russia. It has won privileges to sell oil abroad and to import duty-free tobacco and alcohol, which it can sell for its own profit.

The new law gives it spiritual protection along with the financial cosseting.

"The nationalists and the Moscow Patriarchate want to turn Orthodoxy into a tribal religion," Uzzell said. "They see the route to political power as playing to Russian nationalism."

Orthodoxy's history

The Russian leaders, Uzzell said, have conveniently forgotten that Orthodoxy was brought here by foreigners -- from Constantinople, seat of the Eastern Rite.

"If they had had this kind of law in the year 998," he said, "Russia would not be Orthodox today."

Now that Yeltsin has signed the law, only the Constitutional Court can overturn it. The Russian judiciary has not yet developed a tradition of independence, so the court is considered highly susceptible to lobbying.

"It's a close call," Uzzell said. "Some of my Russian friends are cautiously optimistic that the court will declare the law unconstitutional."

He is hoping a challenge will come from a religious group persecuted as a result of the new law. "Then the whole world can watch while the court decides what to do," he said.

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