by David Sisler

This is the story of what might have been. And what might be again. That's the tragedy of it.

On June 17, by a vote of 337 to 5, the Duma, the lower legislative house of the Russian Federation, approved a new bill, "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations." Six days later, they gave the measure final passage, by a vote of 300 to 8 and sent it to the upper chamber where it passed by an equally overwhelming margin. For the next two weeks it sat on President Boris Yeltsin's desk, awaiting his signature, veto, or veto with recommendations. On the last day for presidential action, July 22, Mr. Yeltsin vetoed the measure "reluctantly."

"On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations" was initially passed by Duma in less than 30 minutes and without debate. Drafted behind closed doors, and rejecting input from many religious leaders in Russia, the bill would have set up two unequal categories of religion.

"Religious organizations" would have received all rights to being a legal entity. "Religious groups" of at least ten members would have been allowed to operate if they registered the names and address of all of their adherents with local authorities. Additionally, all religious groups would have been required to go through a process of re-registration in order to continue to operate. To be recognized as a "religious group" meant a church had to have been registered with the Soviet government fifteen years ago. "Religious organization" status required similar registration, but to qualify, such groups must have been registered fifty years ago during the last days of Stalin's dictatorship.

During the Soviet era, religious life in Russia was controlled by the "Council for Religious Affairs." It monitored churches and blocked any activity deemed counter-productive to State interests. It reported directly to the Committee for State Security, the KGB. In 1990 Russia adopted a law on freedom of conscience which formally abolished the Council, but throughout the country, it has been showing its ugly head again. Many provincial governments have new offices specializing in church-state relations, and these offices frequently employ the same people who used to work for the Council for Religious Affairs. Veterans of the old Council played key roles in drafting the just-passed legislation.

Lawrence Uzzell of Keston News Service likens the arrangement to "former Gestapo officers working as specialist in [German] ethnic relations." Dissatisfied with being tossed out of their jobs, the Council for Religious Affairs attempted to engineer their comeback, walking over the back of religious freedom.

The legislation, "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations," was filled with particularly noxious and potentially damaging provisions. "All-Russian status" a concept which is vitally important in that nation was denied to congregations unless their movement exists in at least half of Russia's provinces or have at least 100,000 members and have been in existence for 50 years. Only Russian citizens were given the right to form religious associations, including prayer groups. Twenty-six million persons would have been left without the right to gather to worship or establish their own religious organizations. Of greater potential damage was the section which would have permitted courts to suppress religious groups which were considered to have promoted "religious dissension," or if they were deemed to be harming the "morality" or "health" of the people. And guess who would determine those "deviations?" Right. The Council for Religious Affairs.

All of this struck directly at those very Russian religious communities which refused to register during the Soviet era. Uncounted numbers of Russian priests, pastors, and other believers were martyred or imprisoned for their faith during this century. The sacrifice and generosity of countless Western churches and humanitarian groups would have been swept aside, violated by a gross attack on civil liberties. The splinter groups which the measure allegedly sought to restrict are already underground and will never be subject to control.

Before the bill reached President Yeltsin's desk, the Western press was almost completely silent. Gradually, Russian Christians got the word out and the warning began to spread. Senator Richard Lugar wrote a letter to Mr. Yeltsin which was signed by scores of his colleagues. The British House of Lords sent a similar letter. The European Assembly sent a letter of protest. The U.S. Helsinki Committee sent a letter of concern, as did Pope John Paul II.

One Russian Christian said, "We became careless. We had prayed for seventy years for religious freedom and when it came to us, we forgot to pray. This crisis reminded us that our prayers must be daily."

All of the letters, all of the concern, all of the prayers were answered. The Russian President vetoed a bill which would have severely limited, if not actually eliminated, religious freedom in his nation. Ironically, just a few days before that historic occasion, the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law whose sole purpose was the protection of religious freedom in our nation. I am not sure which frightens me most the action of their Duma, or of our Supreme Court.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 8/2/97

Copyright 1997 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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