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Russian Pres. Yeltsin Vetoes Bill Limiting Many Religions

By Daniel Williams
The Washington Post

President Boris Yeltsin vetoed a law Tuesday that would have sharply restricted the practice of all but a few specified "traditional" religions in Russia. His action followed weeks of controversy and criticism by human rights activists that Russia was on the verge of returning to its authoritarian past.

The measure also drew strong protests from Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Senate.

Yeltsin said in a statement that "numerous provisions of the bill curb constitutional human and civil rights and freedoms, make confessions unequal and are inconsistent with Russia's international commitments."

Signing the bill could "trigger religious strife in the country," he added.

Yeltsin called his action a "difficult decision to make" and proposed unspecified changes in the measure to reach a compromise with parliament, the Interfax news agency reported. It also said Yeltsin felt some law was needed to prevent "radical sects" from harming public health and morals.

"There can be no democratic society where the interests of any minorities are not protected," Yeltsin said in an appeal to the legislature, which passed the bill by big enough margins in both houses to potentially override the veto.

Alexander Bulekov, a spokesman for the Orthodox Church, said, "It's possible parliament will take into account some of the criticism and amend it, and we expect the representatives will eventually overcome the president's rejection." Church officials were surprised by the veto, he said. "We were counting on the president to note that this law was supported by both the right and left in parliament."

Nonetheless, the church is not fully united on employing the state to hinder other faiths. "I think the solution is to become better Christians. In the end, the state usually means trouble for us," said Alexander Borisov, a prominent dissenter from the Orthodox hierarchy's policy.

In Soviet times, the Communist-ruled and atheistic state intervened mainly to persecute religion. "If the president signs," wrote Human Rights Watch, "it will be the first time since the Soviet era that Russia replaces a federal law which adequately protects the rights and freedoms of citizens with a highly restrictive one."

The vetoed bill would have restricted religious organizations that were not officially registered at least 15 years ago. Among those qualifying would be the Russian Orthodox Church, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and the Baptist groups that cooperated with the Soviet state.

But for other organized religions, numerous bureaucratic steps would be needed to win permission to preach, proselytize or build and run a place of worship.

The Orthodox Church's most senior official, Patriarch Alexei II, had backed the bill, arguing Russia needs protection from the kind of cult activity that produced the mass suicides of the Heaven's Gate group in California and the subway terror campaign of the Aum Supreme Truth cult in Japan. In its campaign, the church was joined by Communists and nationalists in parliament.

Religions left unprotected by the bill, including some with long histories in Russia such as independent Baptists and the Roman Catholic Church, avidly opposed the measure. "God heard our prayers," said Pyotr Konovalchik, president of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists of Russia.

In June, Pope John Paul sent a letter to Yeltsin protesting the bill. He said it would "be a real threat not only to the usual activities of the Catholic Church in Russia, but also its survival."

The U.S. Senate had amended a foreign aid bill to threaten a cutoff of $200 million in assistance to Russia if Yeltsin signed the measure. That threat poured nationalist oil on the religious fire, and even some opponents of the bill now fear parliament might override Yeltsin's veto just to show that Russia can stand up to Washington.

Scores of missionary groups have poured in from abroad while already established religious organizations have sought to rebuild both their houses of worship and their congregations. It is not unusual to see Mormons, Hare Krishnas and evangelical missionaries proselytizing on the same street in Moscow.