Russian president Boris Yeltsin has refused to sign into law the controversial bill "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations," although it had been overwhelmingly approved by both houses of the Russian parliament.
The bill would divide religions into two categories: into the first class would go a small group of religions described as "traditionally existing in Russia" (Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism). Into the second would go all the rest, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Baptists, both of which have been active in Russia for centuries. Religions in the second class would lose their existing rights to publish, conduct missionary activity, own churches, and maintain schools.
Yeltsin has sent the bill back to parliament for further debate, arguing that parts of it are unconstitutional and do not conform to Russia’s international obligations regarding civil and human rights. The constitution, he pointed out, guarantees freedom of worship and describes all religions as equal. Yeltsin said it had been a "difficult decision" because the bill had been overwhelmingly supported by both houses of parliament and enthusiastically endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Some leading Orthodox priests dissented, however, arguing that the church was trying to hold onto privileges first granted to it by Stalin and that, in the long run, the Orthodox Church would itself suffer if it accepted the kind of state patronage the bill was offering.
Parliament is likely to override Yeltsin’s veto, just as it did last month when Yeltsin vetoed another controversial bill on World War II art treasures. If so, the issue will have to go to the Constitutional Court for resolution. But Yeltsin held out an olive branch to parliament yesterday and urged it to consult with the presidential administration in working out new legislation. Russia needs a good law on religion, he said, to "protect the spiritual health of the Russian people" against doomsday sects and crackpot cults. This will be achieved not by separating religions into classes and giving some privileges at the expense of others, but by guaranteeing the equality of all confessions. "There can be no democratic society," Yeltsin concluded, "where the constitution is violated and the interests of minorities are not protected." (Russian and western news agencies, July 22)
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