Russia Steps Back from Freedom

The new law restricting religion is part of Russia'sstruggle to redefine itself.
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By an overwhelming majority, Russia's parliament passed new restrictions on religion in early September. President Yeltsin approved the law even though he had refused to sign a similar law in July. Reminiscent of repressive communist legislation, the law was forged largely by a coalition of Communists, extreme nationalists, and Russian Orthodox.

Why should a fledgling democracy, which only seven years ago passed a liberal law on religion, now pass such restrictions? To understand, we must listen to Russians' fears.

Praising the parliament for the new law, Patriarch Aleksi II said, "I am sure that the sects and pseudomissionaries who have flooded Russia are motivated by the desire not to enlighten but to divide our people along religious, confessional lines. And this poses a danger not only for the church but also for the state. For the state, unity of the people is the guarantee of the future."

"Religious and spiritual pluralism," said Orthodox priest Father Artyom in 1991, is "the most dangerous thing for Russia. … Moscow isn't a Babylon for second cults, for Protestant congregations who resemble wild wolves rushing in here or Catholics like thieves using their billions to try to occupy new territory. Democracy is an idol that will be broken like communism was."

Many U.S. Christians are not thrilled with religious pluralism either, but their commitment to democracy and religious freedom is bigger than any fears they may have of Hindu or Muslim encroachment. For Russians, though, neither democracy nor religious toleration is part of their tradition. And though Russia seemed eager to embrace Western, democratic values following communism's collapse, less than a decade later nationalism and anti-Westernism are seething.

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