New religious freedom bill goes to Russian parliament

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

MOSCOW — The lower house of the Russian parliament was set this week to act on a new version of a controversial bill on freedom of religion.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who vetoed the original bill, has described the amended version as a compromise among the country's major religious organizations.

But opinion is divided as to whether there is any substance to that compromise.

The bill, known as the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association, was overwhelmingly approved by the parliament earlier this summer and had received support from the Orthodox Church.

Critics of the bill said it would have imposed serious restrictions on freedom of religion in Russia.

The bill's supporters — including Russian Chief Rabbi Adolph Shayevich — said it would protect Russia against foreign cults such as Japan's doomsday sect Aum Shinri Kyo, which had a substantial following in Russia and in March 1995 launched a Sarin nerve gas attack on a crowded Tokyo subway, killing 11 people and injuring more than 5,000.

After the U.S. Senate and the pope came out strongly against the bill, Yeltsin vetoed it in July.

The Duma, as the lower house is known, can either adopt the amended version or attempt to override Yeltsin's veto with a two-thirds majority.

In both its original and amended forms, the proposed legislation allotted to four established faiths — the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism — the status of "traditional" Russian religions.

All other religions would be required to prove that they officially existed in Russia for at least 15 years to receive full rights, even though under the Communist regime many religions had to operate clandestinely.

The original bill could have imposed serious limitations on religious denominations such as the Lubavitch movement and Reform Judaism that could not meet the 15-year requirement.

Shayevich, who represented Jews on the council, said that since Judaism is recognized in the draft as a "traditional" Russian faith, the amended bill would not discriminate against any segments of the Jewish community.

He added that while the amended version was "not perfect," it was probably the best compromise possible.

But Diederik Lohman, the Moscow office director of Human Rights/Helsinki, referring to the fact that the draft also contains a 15-year probationary period, said, "There are some changes, but most of them are really cosmetic. The law continues to be discriminatory."

But under the compromise, groups that could not meet the 15-year probationary period requirement would receive limited rights if they submit to a re-registration procedure every year.

Such groups would not have access to public schools and could not set up their own schools or distribute literature.

But they would retain their property, and could teach religion to their own followers and engage in charitable activities.

The bill's compromise wording also grants religious rights to foreign citizens who "permanently reside" in Russia.

Most of the rabbis who work in Russia are foreign nationals. Many of them are Israelis.