After allowing Russia to simmer on the back burner for the past two years, defenders of religious freedom are turning up the heat on Russia, making it the object of international concern.The first report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom states that religious freedom could deteriorate rapidly in Russia. Though some observers believe Russia's situation has stabilized, the future for religious freedom remains unpredictable under the administration of newly elected President Vladimir Putin. For example, Putin signed an amendment in March that extended the deadline (to Dec. 31, 2000) for churches and religious organizations to reregister with the state. Those who fail to meet the new deadline will be closed by court order. A 1990 law had provided equality for all religious groups and broad protections for the exercise of religious rights. But the 1997 Religion Law required that all religious groups reregister with the government by Dec. 31, 1999.About 70 percent of all religious groups failed to complete reregistration by the deadline, including many Russian Orthodox and other "traditional religious groups."This forced the Ministry of Justice to waive the deadline until a formal extension could be approved. Currently an estimated 7,000 religious groups need to register by the end of the year. Religious-rights experts question whether it's physically possible to complete such a daunting task in the remaining five months of the year. Local officials resist "nontraditional" religions, effectively blocking registration of minority churches. Citing State Department information, the commission says that 30 of 89 regions of the Russian Federation adopted regulations that further restricted activities of religious institutions. Vladimir Rykhovsky, president of the Christian Legal Center, says his office currently has about 50 cases pending, since these regulations violate the Russian Constitution. Most involve at tempts to close Pentecostal or charismatic churches.Still, Rykhovsky remains optimistic about the future. He is hopeful that Putin will continue to take the country along a democratic course and protect religious rights. As he does with most policies, Putin gives mixed signals about freedom of religion. Because he is a Russian Orthodox believer, some have been concerned that the Russian Orthodox Church would enjoy a favored position during his presidency. However, the Russian Orthodox patriarch's absence from the platform during Putin's May 7 inauguration was considered a positive sign for non-Orthodox groups.Patriarch Aleksi II had an official role in the 1996 inauguration of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin. Days before the inauguration, Putin's office received a letter signed by 21 human-rights activists asking Putin to keep the ceremony secular. During the inaugural ceremony, the patriarch stood in the front row with the other invited guests.Anatoly Krasikov, president of the Russian chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association, takes a more pessimistic view. He sees "a 50-50 chance" for Russia to return to something resembling its Stalinist past. However, he acknowledges that religious liberty occupies a more central place in Russian human rights discussions than it did a year ago."We must wait to see the first steps of the new government and then make our decision," Krasikov says.

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Christianity Today's previous coverage of religious freedom in Russia includes:China Should Improve on Religion to Gain Permanent Trade Status, Commission Says | Religious liberty in Sudan and Russia also criticized. (May 8, 2000) A Precarious Step Forward | Loosened rules in Russia may mean better times for religious freedom. (Feb. 3, 2000) A Russians Prepare to Elect New President, Putin Shows Interest in Religion | Russian Orthodox Church sees news church-state relationship. (Jan. 11, 2000) Russia's Minority Churches Welcome Liberal Ruling on Religion Law | 1997 ruling against 'sects' upheld, but religious groups claim victory. (Dec. 30, 1999) Moscow Meeting Eases Russia's Interchurch Tensions | First major interchurch meeting since 1997 religion law called 'highly important'. (Dec. 6, 1999) Baroness Caroline Cox: Rescuing Russia's Orphans (Aug. 8, 1999) Learning to Speak Russian | When the Communists fell, we discovered that we did not speak the same language as secular Russians. (Nov. 16, 1998) A Fuller for Russia | A new home is dedicated for the nation's only graduate-level Protestant seminary. (Aug. 10, 1998) Russia Steps Back from Freedom | New law restricting religion is part of Russia's struggle to redefine itself. (Nov. 17, 1997)There are also several profiles of Putin available online. The ABCNews profile notes that his official biography, released by the Kremlin, includes merely four lines of chronological information, with a gap between 1975 and 1996. Other profiles of Putin can be found at The Guardian , the BBC , and The New York Times .Check out the latest reports on religious freedom from the United States Council on International Religious Freedom.

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