Despatches: Moscow reopens the door to religious intolerance

Boris Yeltsin is poised to pass a law giving Russia's minority religions fewer rights than they have in any other secular society. Only two months ago, following protests from the Pope, the United States and international civil rights groups, he vetoed similar legislation, casting himself as the defender of the freedom to worship. Phil Reeves in Moscow investigates what went wrong.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The other day Vadim Touneyev had a nasty shock. He and his colleagues had been invited to a jubilee celebration in a small town outside Moscow. They decided to bake a huge cake to give to local officials. Their offering, all 850 sticky kilos of it, was accepted happily enough by the community elders when they arrived at the town, Orekhevo-Zuyevo. Yet they were not. Organisers told them that they could attend the festivities, but - as members of a Hare Krishna society in Moscow - they would not be allowed to speak publicly. Any attempt to preach or proselytise would be against the law, the officials declared.

Legally, the officials were wrong. But for Mr Touneyev, the incident was ominous. "This is what will happen in the future. This is the kind of discrimination we can expect from local authorities when the law goes through."

The law in question is a bill sharply curtailing freedom of worship in Russia. It was overwhelmingly passed by the lower house of parliament in Moscow last week. Every sign suggests in the next few weeks it will breeze through the upper house and on to the desk of the president himself, who will sign it. Thus will religious intolerance, one of the deepest evils of the Soviet state, be restored to Russia reversing one of the triumphs of glasnost.

Supporters of the legislation say it is merely an attempt to protect Russia from the onslaught of extremist religious cults which have thrived in the aftermath of Communism. But it has far more to do with a fierce drive by the Russian Orthodox Church to protect its turf against inroads from rivals, such as Catholics, Protestants and Mormons, who have all been increasingly active in the former Soviet Union.

For opponents of the legislation, this has a grim familiarity. Two months ago, a similar bill landed in Mr Yeltsin's in-tray, prompting an appeal from the Pope and a threat by the US Senate to withhold $200m in aid if it was passed. To cheers from the West, the president vetoed it, issuing a long statement in which he portrayed himself as a champion of civil rights. It was, he said, his duty "to observe the constitution and to protect the legitimate rights and freedoms of the individual". He promised to find a compromise.

The compromise has, however, stunned the opposition camp in Russia and abroad - particularly in Washington. But for a few changes, it is almost as draconian as the first draft, prompting speculation that Mr Yeltsin has either changed his mind dramatically to appease the powerful church and Russian nationalist lobby, or was duped by an aide. Rumours abound that Mr Yeltsin (who, revived from drink and illness, is going through a hyper-active stage in his presidency) allowed the new version to pass across his desk without bothering to read it. But as it came from the Kremlin itself, he has little choice but to sign it; to veto his own law would make him look foolish.

"He has got himself in a very difficult situation," said Diederik Lohman of Helsinki/Human Rights, which has vowed to take the issue to Russia's Constitutional Court, if he signs. "If he vetoes it, he will be accused of not being in control of his own administration. If he signs, there will be another big outcry."

The offending law divides religious bodies into categories, which clearly favour Russia's dominant religions, Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.

Those churches that can provide documentary evidence that they had a legal status in Brezhnev's Soviet Union 15 years ago (when religious persecution thrived) will be recognised legally, and allowed to function normally. Those that cannot must wait until 15 years have elapsed since they were first registered.

During that time, they will be deprived of a tranche of basic rights. They will not be able to publish religious literature, run schools, hold services in public places such as hospitals or crematoria, invite foreign preachers, or receive charitable status. The list of those which may face restrictions is long - from Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists to Jehovah's Witnesses.

The losers "would have fewer rights than minority believers anywhere outside openly theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia", said Lawrence Uzzell of the Oxford-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedoms in the former Soviet Union.

The law blatantly violates Russia's 1993 constitution, under which all faiths are equal before the law. At risk are a large number of congregations which did not register 15 years ago because of Soviet religious repression.

"Even congregations that have existed continuously for decades, especially among the Old Believers founded in the 17th century or the independent Baptists who arrived in Russia in the 19th century, often lacked legal registration until recently because they refused to compromise with a totalitarian atheist state," said Mr Uzzell.

Underlying this, there is a deeper worry. Laws in Russia are rarely observed by the letter. The fear of human rights groups and others is that Mr Yeltsin's "compromise law" will deepen prejudice in a culture which already treats outsiders with suspicion.

In Belgorod, 400 miles south of Moscow, local officials recently told a Catholic parish that it could not register because it was a foreign religious organisation. The priest was reportedly blocked by police from entering the city. Yet his parishioners were all Russians, seeking to reclaim a Catholic Church that was built under the tsars. More such outrages loom on the horizon.

today's believers

In a land where a Communist dictatorship long cracked down on the practice of religion, precise figures for membership of the various faiths are difficult to obtain.

However, experts at the Moscow-based Institute of Religion and Law offer this rough statistical breakdown on Russian religion:

Russian Orthodox: 20 million; Muslim: 12 million; Protestant: 1.5 million; Buddhist: 500,000; Jewish: 150,000; Catholic: 50,000; Hare Krishna: 10,000; Others: 100,000

Sources: Columbia and Random House encyclopaedias