Minority religions, including evangelical denominations, face the most seriousattempt to restrict religious freedom in Russia since the breakup of theSoviet Union seven years ago.

On June 23, the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, voted 300 to 8to pass legislation that would supplant much of the country'sfreedom-of-conscience law. On July 4, the Federation Council, the upper chamberof Parliament, also approved the measure overwhelmingly.

President Boris Yeltsin holds veto power, which he has exercised severaltimes on religion bills in the past (CT, Feb. 5, 1996, p.104).

The bill strongly favors the Russian Orthodox, which lobbied heavily in itsfavor, and received enthusiastic public approval from Patriarch Alexi II.The bill recognizes Orthodoxy as "an inseparable part of the Russian historical,spiritual, and cultural heritage."

The bill would eliminate hundreds of recently registered churches, charities,and seminaries. They would be deprived of existing rights to own or rentplaces of worship or prayer, produce and distribute religious literature,conduct financial affairs, teach children or convert them without the consentof both parents, employ and train religious workers, and evangelize and instructothers in their faith.

Existing religious organizations registered less than 15 years ago wouldbe forced to register again by the end of 1998, and until approved they wouldbe deprived of legal rights. Groups of 10 or more that desire to meet inprivate homes for prayer or worship would have to sub-mit names and addressesof participants to local authorities and be monitored for 15 years. Foreignerswould have no rights to establish religious groups and could come as"professional" religious workers only on the initiative of a registered religiousorganizations.

While Yeltsin is under pressure to sign the bill, he may not want to compromiserelationships with foreign partners. President Clinton, for instance, encouragedYeltsin to veto the bill when the leaders met in Denver in late June. Andthe U.S. Senate voted 95 to 4 on July 16 to cut off aid to Russia if thebill becomes law.

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