Russian Old-Boy Network Threatening Religious Rights

Article excerpt

Russia is becoming more capitalistic but less free. Step by step it is moving closer to the "Chinese model" that many Russian leaders openly admire - wooing foreign investors while increasing state control over institutions such as newspapers.

In July, the Russian parliament took another such step by voting to repeal one of the landmarks of the glasnost era, Russia's 1990 law on freedom of conscience. Though President Boris Yeltsin vetoed the parliament's bill, on Sept. 4 he issued a "compromise" version which is as restrictive as the original.

In coming days the parliament is likely to decide whether to insist on the July bill, accept Yeltsin's substitute, or weave the two together. Any version would be a giant step backward in the effort to make Russia a law-governed country. The 1993 constitution states that all faiths are equal before the law. But both bills would divide religious bodies into two unequal categories. Congregations in the inferior category would have fewer rights than minority believers anywhere outside openly theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia. Whether a religious group receives privileged rank would depend on the legal status it had 15 years ago and 50 years ago under the Soviet state - a posthumous victory for Brezhnev and Stalin. Religious congregations in Russia today are somewhat like Jewish synagogues in Germany in the late 1950s: For obvious reasons, the great majority are less than 15 years old. This is true of local congregations in every confession, even those of the Orthodox Christians or Muslims whose roots here go back more than a millennium. Even congregations that have existed continuously for decades, especially among the Old Believers founded in the 17th century or the independent Baptists who arrived in Russia in the 19th century, often lacked legal registration until recently because they refused to compromise with a totalitarian atheist state. The parliament's bill as well as the president's version would deprive such religious bodies of most of the basic rights needed to function as corporate bodies in society. They would have no guaranteed right to publish religious literature, create schools or mass media, conduct services in places such as hospitals, or receive tax privileges. Many congregations would be reduced to little more than private prayer meetings in their members' homes. Either bill would artificially strengthen established, centralized hierarchies at the expense of local congregations, even in confessions whose doctrines favor decentralized church structures. A local Protestant church, for example, would have a mighty new incentive to affiliate with the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists rather than with its more independent rivals, because that Union was set up more than 15 years ago as a tool of state control. …