Russian Religion Law Enforced
The first enforcement of Russia's new religion law has taken place, Keston News Service reports. The The Evangelical Lutheran Mission of Khakassia (ELMK), which has been working in Russia's Republic of Khakassia for the past two years, received word on September 30 that its registration had been cancelled by the Khakassian authorities as a result of the law. "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association" was signed into law by President Boris Yeltsin last week, restricting the activities of religious bodies which have not been registered in Russia for fifteen years. At the time that the Duma (Russia's lower parliamentary house) passed the law, President Yeltsin's representative to the Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, told the deputies that the 15-year rule would not apply to organizations that were registered before the law came into effect.
According to Keston, the ELMK has been registered with the authorities since June 14, 1996, and has a staff of four people. Its work in Khakassia has consisted of conducting educational programs among children and teenagers, organizing adult Bible study groups, and distributing humanitarian aid to the poor. Comments the Rev. Pavel Zayakin, director of ELMK, "The makers of this law, drafted by a joint group of communists and Orthodox Church leaders, said that it was enacted in order to curtail the activity of sects and cults. Since Lutheranism has existed in Russia for more than 420 years, we didn't think that the law would have been directed against our Mission. Obviously, we will have to go to court with Khakassian authorities, although that will certainly be very problematic in a region such as Khakassia."
The revised version of the new religion law was signed by President Yeltsin on September 26. The signing was applauded by the Russian Orthodox Church, which supported the legislation restricting the rights of newer religious bodies. Patriarch Alexis II, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, described the law to ITAR-TASS as a "defense of the rights of believing citizens of Russia." The Orthodox Church has argued that foreign missionaries are causing disorder in Russia.
Vatican representative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed the Catholic Church's disappointment at the outcome. "The regulations . . . clearly complicate dialogue" with the Orthodox Church, he said, according to the Associated Press. "But from our part, we want to continue it." The Catholic Church was one of a number of religious organizations that opposed the legislation. Questions still remain as to how strictly the law will be interpreted by the Russian courts.
Breaking News: Upper House of Russian Parliament Passes Revised Religious Bill (September 24, 1997)
Breaking News: Russian Parliament Passes Revised Religious Bill (September 19, 1997)
World Brief: Russian Parliamentary Committee Approves Revised Religion Bill (September 18, 1997)
World Brief: Future of Russian Religious Law Remains in Question (September 9, 1997)
World News: Russian and Armenian Presidents Reject Bills Restricting Religious Groups (July 31, 1997)
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson