The new Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience that became official October 1 has many evangelical worshipers concerned that the government will seek to terminate their religious activities.

The new law's preamble recognizes the "special contribution of orthodoxy" to Russian history, spirituality, and culture. And it lists "Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions" as respected traditional religions in Russia.

When the new religion law became effective, it superseded the first official act of the budding Russian democratic state, passed in 1990. The previous law, codified in Russia's constitution in 1993, allowed for complete freedom of religious practice for both Russian citizens and foreigners living in the country (see "Stepping Back from Freedom," p. 10).

The newly adopted law contains controversial limitations on religious groups that have not been active in Russia for the past 15 years. Religious and human-rights activists are protesting the law as discriminatory against "minority" confessions.

DEBILITATING RESTRICTIONS: Without legal status as a religious organization, groups cannot publish or distribute religious literature. They cannot hold worship services in hospitals, homes for senior citizens, schools, orphanages, or prisons. They cannot establish educational ministries or publish newspapers or magazines. Their clergy are denied exemption from military service.

Proponents of the law contend that the 15-year waiting period allows government authorities time to evaluate a religious group prior to granting full legal status. They claim the law is needed to protect the Russian people from the threat of "totalitarian sects."

But Vladimir Ryakovski, director of the Christian Legal Center in Moscow, says ...

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