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Faithful in Russia Vow to Defend Rights

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leaders of foreign church groups here said Saturday that they will fight legislation aimed at restricting religious freedom in Russia and will continue their missionary work until they are forced to leave the country.

As the Kremlin threw its weight behind the measure, missionary leaders said they hope Russia will stop short of adopting the proposal, which would prohibit church groups from disseminating their ideas if they have operated in Russia for less than 15 years.

“All those who came here and spent years learning the Russian language and fell in love with the Russian people will stay as long as they can--until they are denied visas,” said George Law, vice president of Russian Ministries, an interdenominational missionary agency.

Foreign and domestic religious groups that became active in Russia during the past 15 years would be denied the right to function as legitimate churches under the legislation passed Friday by the Duma, the lower house of parliament.

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The measure is only slightly different from one President Boris N. Yeltsin vetoed during the summer. But the president has been under tremendous pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church--the main beneficiary of the bill--to reverse himself. The Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, is expected to also pass the measure, and Yeltsin is expected to sign it.

Kremlin advisors, in a rare Saturday briefing, attempted to soften international criticism of the measure. They said it is needed to guard against dangerous sects that prey on the public.

“The state must protect its citizens,” said presidential advisor Vyacheslav A. Nikonov. “A newly emerged organization first has to prove that it is really a religious organization.”

The Kremlin insisted that the measure would not infringe on the right of citizens to practice the religion of their choice and is no more restrictive than the laws of many European countries.

In a nation where religion was strictly limited during the nearly 75 years of Soviet control, the advisors argued, the Russian people are still vulnerable to religious fanatics, and government officials need clear guidelines on what church groups should be accorded special status.

“I do not think that an organization that was established yesterday by two mafiosi in order to pray to Elvis Presley or [Russian singer] Alla Pugacheva should receive formal tax exemptions, which they will use to produce alcohol, and enjoy the same support from the state that is granted to the Orthodox Church or Judaism,” Nikonov said.

The legislation would create two tiers of religious status: religious “organizations” and religious “groups.”

“Organizations” that could prove that they have existed in Russia for 15 years or more--including the Orthodox Church, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam--would be granted full status to practice their faiths, buy property and receive tax breaks.

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A church “group,” one that could not prove 15 years of operation in Russia, would not be considered a legal entity and would not be allowed to own property, conduct religious education, or publish or disseminate literature. Groups also would not be able to invite foreigners into Russia, which would mean that missionaries from other countries would be unable to obtain visas to work here. Among those affected would be Roman Catholics, Baptists, Mormons and Pentecostalists.

“If you take away the right to publish, you really take away the right to express your views openly,” said Law, who has worked in Russia since 1992. “It could be the first step toward curtailing of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

While the measure would make it difficult for foreign missionaries to proselytize in Russia, it would affect independent-minded churchgoers most of all.

Thousands of churches and 2 million to 3 million worshipers across Russia would belong to denominations whose ability to operate would be severely limited, religious leaders estimate.

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The legislation also could shut down thousands of programs organized by international religious organizations to help Russia’s poor and needy, and it could cut off the flow of as much as $40 million in humanitarian aid.

Perhaps in greatest jeopardy are about 120 Orthodox churches that split from the Russian Orthodox Church after the Soviet Union’s breakup. Under the law, the Russian Orthodox Church could reclaim the dissident congregations and take over all of the churches’ property.

Some Americans in Russia hold out hope that a regulatory apparatus adopted before the measure is supposed to take effect on Dec. 31, 1999, would moderate some of its harsher provisions. But others predict that the law will prove so onerous it will trigger a grass-roots campaign to overturn it.

“This is bringing a lot of the groups together,” Law said. “For the first time, they have a common enemy: a law that threatens their existence.”

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