Curb on Religious Freedom in Russia May Rise Again

Article excerpt

Members of minority faiths in Russia breathed a sigh of relief yesterday, welcoming President Boris Yeltsin's veto of a bill that would have sharply curbed their religious freedoms.

"The forces of light have prevailed over the forces of darkness," said Igor Diksa, a pastor and Evangelical church leader. "This is very important."

On Tuesday evening, President Yeltsin vetoed a bill that had been passed overwhelmingly by both houses of parliament, discriminating against nontraditional religious groups and favoring the Russian Orthodox Church. Yeltsin rejected the bill because "many articles ... infringe citizens' constitutional rights and freedoms, establish inequality of different confessions, and contradict Russia's international obligations," he said in a message to the Duma, the lower house of parliament. The draft law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association" was strongly backed by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Communist Party, both worried about the growing influence of foreign churches and emerging indigenous denominations. But it aroused widespread international indignation. President Clinton expressed his concern, the United States Senate threatened to withhold $200 million in aid to Russia if the bill became law, and Pope John Paul II wrote to Yeltsin last week urging a veto. Advocates of religious freedom in Russia complained that the bill went well beyond its stated intention of protecting citizens from cults and extremist groups such as the Japanese-based Aum Shinri Kyo, which had many followers here until it was accused of a nerve-gas attack on a Tokyo subway in March 1995. The law would have barred all denominations except those registered at least 15 years ago - when the antireligious Communist state controlled religious affairs - from qualifying as "religious organizations," including Roman Catholics, Mormons, and independent Baptists. They would thus have been denied the right to own property, invite foreign speakers, or open bank accounts, among other things. "We would have been sent back to the catacombs," said Pastor Diksa, secretary of the inter-denominational Committee for the Defense of Religious Freedom in Russia. …