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For week ended January 23, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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Summarized by Kent Larsen

Russia's Religion Law May Still Threaten LDS Church
Manchester UK Guardian pg1 22Jan00 N1
By John O'Mahony
Russia's war on God is over. But an alliance between the orthodox church and the state has led to a disturbing campaign of religious intolerance.

With the passing of the millennium, the most stringent conditions of Russia's 1997 religious law were put into place, and fully half the religious congregations in Russia lost their status as legal entities. If the law is enforced, those congregations can't legally worship in public, own property, have bank accounts and engage in missionary or charitable work. While all LDS congregations in Russia are evidently in compliance with the law, they may still be vulnerable to other provisions of that same law, ones that give local governments broad discretion in regulating religions and enforcing the law.

Since the fall of the Soviet government, the Russian government has become 'uncomfortably' close to the Orthodox Church, and the Church has reciprocated with support for the government, such as its endorsement of the current war in Chechnya. The Church used this influence to push through the Russian Duma the 1997 religion law, which some human rights groups claim has triggered a 'secret offensive' by elements in the government against 'non-traditional' religions in Russia.

In fact, the old Soviet government was known to recruit KGB agents from the Orthodox Church, "The communist party built the church in its own image," says dissident orthodox priest Father Georgi Edelshtein, whose outspoken views mean he is ostracised by the Patriarchate. "All the bishops were carefully picked so that they would work with the soviet government. All were KGB agents. It is well known that Patriarch Alexy was recruited by the KGB, under the code-name of Drozdov. Today, they are preserving the same politics that they had 20 or 30 years ago."

Larry Uzzell, of the Keston institute, which runs a religious news service, says that this means that the Church bureaucracy has many former communist bureaucrats, including Victor Kalinin, who is now a legal advisor to the Church and was a major force behind the 1997 law. "It's as if post-war Germany had employed an ex- Nazi to oversee ethnic relations."

The law gave a 'special role' to the four main religions in Russia, Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. But all religions were required to meet stringent conditions and each congregation was required to re-register with the state before December 31, 1999. If they failed to register, they would no longer be recognized legal entities.

The Orthodox Church saw the influx of sects like Rev. Moon's Unification Church and the Aum Shinrikyo cult as a threat to the nation. "It became obvious that the legal situation at the time was quite unconnected to reality," says Father Vsevolod Chaplin, an Orthodox priest who helped draft the 1997 legislation. "Any of these groups could set themselves up as a religious organisation with just 10 signatures. This new law gives the government the right to curtail the activities of destructive organisations. Most older religions have no reason to worry."

But the influx of many other religions, including the LDS Church, has also been seen as a threat to the Church because of the number of people leaving Orthodoxy. And many areas of the law are so badly drafted and contradictory, that local officials can choose how to enforce it, "From a purely legal point of view," says Vladimir Riakhovsky, director of a center that guides churches through the registration process, "This is an extremely badly-made law, riddled with contradictions and imprecision. That's why the bureaucrats can read it in exactly the way they want. One of the conditions for the liquidation of a church institution is the violation of social order. What does this term mean? Since the law offers no definition, it can mean anything."

And local bureaucrats are using the law as they wish. Catholic Jesuits and Baptists have had applications to local authorities turned down for arbitrary technical reasons. The Pentecostal church has been widely obstructed and "liquidated" (i.e., disbanded) in the city of Khazan by a court order. Recently, the Jehovah's Witnesses have faced a lawsuit in Moscow claiming that they "instigated religious enmity" simply because they claimed that they were the only true faith. They also are charged with "causing family breakdown" for expecting believers to put the religion first in their lives. The Church of Scientology has also seen regular raids by police.

Journalist and religious campaigner Yakov Krotov says this is the start of a bad situation, "In Russia, the law and the legal system can be regarded only as a system of signals. What this new religion act has done is send out a signal that it is now right to persecute minority faiths."

But the government's inefficiency will most likely mean that religions will only face problems in some areas of the country. Larry Uzzell of the Keston institute, says that the overall weakness of the Russian government means that the capacity for oppression throughot the country is limited, "What we have found is that implementation of the law fluctuates wildly from one province to another. The law is so vague and the state so unwieldy that it has not only created 'fortresses of oppression' but some 'islands of religious freedom', Kostroma, Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg."

And, the Orthodox Church may suffer as much or more than other religions. The Church has the largest number of unregistered congregations, while new Churches like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the LDS Church have none. Some local governments may take advantage of the situation and 'liquidate' Orthodox parishes, "In Moscow and St Petersburg they are unlikely to liquidate parishes," says Lev Levinson of the Duma committee on religion, "but they might do so in Karachayevo-Cherkessiya or Tatarstan." (Regions where orthodoxy is not the majority faith.)


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