Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 123

Human rights and religious organizations have reacted with alarm to the law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" adopted yesterday in the third reading by the Russian Duma. The vote was 300-8 in favor. (Itar-Tass, AP, June 23)

Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch/Helsinki say the bill contradicts internationally recognized human rights and religious freedoms recognized by Russia’s Constitution. They warn that it re-institutionalizes Soviet-era discrimination against all but a small number of established and officially approved Churches (officially identified in the law as Russian Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism). Because of the strictness of the law, moreover, many local branches even of these officially established Churches could find themselves forced to curtail their activities.

The adoption of the law took observers unaware. It was first discussed by the Duma one year ago. Then, without warning, the law received its second reading last week in a new draft prepared by the Duma’s Communist-controlled Committee on Public Associations and Religious Organizations. Yesterday it received its third reading. It now goes to the upper house of the Russian parliament, which is expected to approve it. It will then go to President Yeltsin. In light of the objections of human rights organizations, Yeltsin may refuse to sign it.

Ostensibly, the law aims to outlaw dangerous cults such as those that encourage mass suicide. But it imposes rigid limits on all religious groups without exception, requiring them to register with the state authorities before the end of 1998 and provide extensive information about their aims, teachings, and membership. Religious organizations will have to prove that they have been conducting officially sanctioned activity in Russia for at least 15 years (that is, since the Soviet period) before they can obtain the status of a legal entity and gain the right to own property and buildings and to establish schools. Many nonconformist communities will be unable to do this and will therefore find it impossible to continue to function. The bill will also prevent many foreign missionaries and religious organizations from operating in Russia. They will be allowed to do so only if they are invited by registered Russian religious organizations headed by Russian citizens. Organizations that fail to meet these criteria will be closed down by court order.

The law contains some positive aspects: for example, it guarantees the right of Russian citizens whose religious convictions forbid them to bear arms to opt out of military service and perform alternative civil service instead. But in its attempt to return to Soviet-era state control over religious activity, the law is a disturbing development.

Duma Cowed, Nemtsov Upbeat.