Yeltsin curbs religious freedoms in triumph for Orthodoxy

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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin has signed a bill which enshrines religious intolerance in law. Phil Reeves in Moscow says one of the freedoms which Russia gained after the collapse of the Soviet Union has now been crushed underfoot.

President Yeltsin's decision to sign the controversial law yesterday will cause an international outcry, particularly from minority religions in Russia, human rights groups, and the United States, which made a last minute effort to persuade him to change his mind. The Vatican immediately objected, saying that the law was "far from the spirit and letter" of agreements guaranteeing freedom of conscience in Russia.

The new law means churches must receive documentary proof from the authorities that they had a legal entity in the Soviet Union 15 years ago, under Leonid Brezhnev's repressive regime.

This presents no hurdle to the country's main religions, such as Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, which will be allowed to practice normally. But those faiths that were not in Russia - or cannot persuade officials to supply paperwork showing that they were - could face a raft of restrictions for up to 15 years.

The penalties include being banned from holding services in public places, such as hospitals and crematoria. They will also be unable to publish religious material, run schools, or invite foreign preachers.

Mr Yeltsin's support of the bill further limits the extent to which he can accurately be said to have defended democracy in Russia, a claim already battered by the Chechen war and the bombardment of parliament in 1993.

Moves will now begin by churches and others to refer the legislation to the Russian courts on the grounds that the law violates the 1993 constitution. This states that all faiths are equal before the law. However, court rulings in Russia are often ignored.

Supporters of the bill, passed overwhelmingly through both houses of parliament, say it is an attempt to curb the influence of extremist cults. But the new law is clearly also part of a ruthless campaign by the Russian Orthodox Church to restrict competition from rival faiths. The Patriarch, Alexy II, has admitted as much, warning of an invasion of foreign faiths which sow the seeds of religious enmity.

Though widely expected, Mr Yeltsin's decision to sign runs counter to the position he struck two months ago when he vetoed similar legislation submitted to him by parliament.

Under strong pressure from abroad - which included an appeal from the Pope, he then argued that the bill was a violation of civil rights. The new bill was drafted by the Kremlin as a compromise, although it has kept most of its draconian characteristics.

Exactly why the president changed his mind is a mystery, although there are strong suspicions that he was not aware of its contents. A similar puzzle surrounds the manner in which a number of churches, including the Catholics, were persuaded to sign documents supporting a draft version compromise - before withdrawing their support when the final document turned out differently.

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