Ending more than 60 years of official religious repression, the Soviet legislature last month approved a law on freedom of conscience forbiding government interference in religious activities. Among its provisions, the new law grants legal standing to religious organizations, permits religious instruction, and allows charitable and publishing activities.

While welcoming passage of the law, experts on religion in the Soviet Union have downplayed its significance. In fact, the law merely grants legality to practices that have been allowed for some time. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, churches have openly conducted evangelistic campaigns, Sunday schools, and other ministries.

Still, there are benefits in codifying glasnost’s reforms. “What was explicitly forbidden is now explicitly allowed,” said Paul Steeves, director of Russian studies at Stetson University. But he notes that government registration of religious groups continues. While a group (of ten or more) is not required to register to carry out activities, the law still requires registration for a group to gain full legal standing, which allows it to own property and enter into contracts. For many church leaders, any form of registration raises the specter of government control.

Sovietologists also remain cautious until they can observe the application of the new law, which took effect immediately upon its passage. “Administrative practice has always been more significant than law in the Soviet Union,” said Mark Elliott, director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Marxism in Wheaton, Illinois. “Local authorities have a lot to say in practice on how to interpret the law.”

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