Russia to limit foreign churches

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MOSCOW - Human rights campaigners reacted angrily yesterday to a decision by parliament in Moscow to amend Russia's law on religious freedom so that foreign churches can operate here only if they receive official approval, writes Helen Womack.

The measure appeared to be aimed at evangelists such as Billy Graham who have annoyed the indigenous Orthodox Church by seeking to make converts among a people bereft of certainties.

The amendment, passed on Wednesday, is likely to be approved by President Boris Yeltsin. Russian religious leaders urged Mr Yeltsin in April to control the activities of foreign preachers. 'They come on tourist visas with lots of money and buy up air time and rent huge halls,' Mr Yeltsin's spokesman said.

During the debate, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexei II, complained that foreign religious groups often exerted 'rude pressure' and took advantage of 'the difficult material position of our people' in an attempt to convert Russians to their beliefs. He apparently had in mind US and Finnish evangelicals as well as Moonies and members of the Hare Krishna organisation.

Not all Orthodox churchmen agreed with the Patriarch. The liberal MP Father Gleb Yakunin, a Russian priest who spent years in a labour camp in the days when the Soviet state restricted religious activity, attacked the amendment. Parliament was 'destroying the democratic progress that we have already made, by violating human rights norms', he said.

The head of the Russian Baptist Church, Alexander Ivanovich, warned that if the Orthodox Church were behind the move against foreign groups, this could presage discrimination against Russian Protestants, who are outnumbered by Orthodox believers.