Yeltsin Blocks Limits on Religious Liberty: U.S. Report Details Global Persecution

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Russian President Boris Yeltsin yesterday rejected a bill that would have placed tight restrictions on many religious groups, even as the State Department demanded that he do so in a report on the persecution of Christians around the world.

The State Department report also strongly criticized China for its treatment of unauthorized religious groups and noted religious abuses in numerous other countries, notably Sudan.

The Russian bill had drawn strong opposition from the Vatican and the U.S. Senate, which threatened to cut off aid to Russia if the bill became law. Mr. Yeltsin's action sent the bill back to the parliament, which can overhaul it or let it lapse.

"This was a very difficult decision," Mr. Yeltsin said in a statement, noting that the measure was supported by a large majority of Russian lawmakers and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The law would have officially recognized the central role of the Orthodox Church and promised respect for "traditional" religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.

But it would have forced other religions to register with the government and barred them from owning property or conducting public worship for 15 years after registration.

"We hope that President Yeltsin will do everything possible to prevent this bill from becoming law," John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said just hours before Mr. Yeltsin's action was announced.

The State Department report, requested by Congress, focused on Christians, the largest religious group under global persecution, but also addressed the mistreatment of Muslims, Bahais, Buddhists and others.

"I want to stress in releasing [this report] that administration policy and our actions around the world support religious freedom globally and apply to all religions and beliefs," Mr. Shattuck said.

The report detailed limits on religious freedom in 78 countries and listed the efforts the Clinton administration has made to encourage religious rights around the world.

"I think there has been no administration that has focused more on this topic than the Clinton administration," Mr. Shattuck said.

Religious-rights activists gave the report a lukewarm response. "It's a first step. Now we have to change our foreign policy. We need to show that this country cares as much about religious freedom as we do for the integrity of intellectual property," said Nina Shea of Freedom House, the author of "In the Lion's Den," a handbook on Christian persecution.

Ms. Shea said the primary impact of the report will be to "legitimize the issue and sensitize the diplomatic corps, who are tone-deaf to the persecution of Christians."

China, home to an estimated 30 million to 70 million Christians, comes in for the harshest criticism in the report. It accuses China of beating and imprisoning Christians and ransacking homes that are used for unofficial church meetings. …