Of all the issues that have threatened U.S.-Russian relations since the fall of the Soviet Union -- from NATO's expansion plans to Russia's lax controls on nuclear materials -- nothing has more potential for mischief than Moscow's assault on religious freedom.
The Russian Duma appears ready to approve legislation that would re-impose Soviet-style repression on all religions in Russia except the official Orthodox Church.
If this happens, Congress will react sharply. Already, the Senate has passed an amendment prohibiting foreign aid to Russia should it enact laws that discriminate against minority faiths. Legislation to impose economic sanctions on Russia, should the new law go forward, has been introduced, and a strongly worded letter of protest is garnering the signatures of more U.S. lawmakers every day.
Meanwhile, the re-energized Christian Coalition has made the fight against religious persecution its No. 1 issue and is lining up behind legislation that would require the United States to impose sanctions against any country violating religious freedom. Unlike the fight earlier this summer over China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status, religious conservatives are likely to have many powerful allies this time around.
What will happen really depends on the Russians themselves. So far, President Boris Yeltsin has been buffeted first one way, then the other: This summer he vetoed the repressive legislation. But this apparently caused such an acrimonious split in his staff that he was cowed into signing a "compromise" that was very close to the original.
Now, hardliners in Russia's lower house, the Duma, have a choice: 1) They can humiliate Yeltsin by overriding his veto, since they have the votes. But if they take this politically satisfying course, they run the risk that Yeltsin might ask the Constitutional Court to declare the bill unconstitutional and thus kill it. The Duma can avoid this possibility if it 2) simply passes Yeltsin's not-very-watered-down compromise version.
This would be a disaster for religious freedom in Russia. Under the new law, which is inspired by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Communist Party, the Russian government will assume authority over the activities of both native Russian and international religious groups, including Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Mormons, and other non-Russian-Orthodox faiths. As currently worded, the bill will allow the government to discriminate against citizens of the Russian Federation solely on the basis of their religion by determining what is and is not "appropriate" as religious activity.
The legislation will allow the government to decide whether a church complies with its own creed and to close it down if "official experts" find that it does not. According to the bill's language, "religious organizations may be liquidated" if they advocate home schooling, oppose compulsory military service, place limitations on the medical treatment their followers can receive, or preach "religious animosity," whatever that means. Churches can also be liquidated if they "represent a threat to the security of the state."
As if to remove all doubt as to what its authors are really after, the main test of religious "legitimacy" the bill will establish is whether or not a particular faith was "officially recognized" by the old Soviet Union! Upon passage of the new law, religious organizations or churches that wish to continue their activities legally will have to be able to show that they legally have been registered at least 15 years.
Of course, the language of these restrictions is very familiar to all who lived under the iron rule of the Soviet Union. And its purpose is clear: to give the secret police carte blanche to do what they like with regard to control and manipulation of religion in Russia.
President Clinton has complained to Yeltsin, U.S. Ambassador-designate to Moscow James Collins has criticized the bill, and Pope John Paul II has written to Yeltsin about the bill's mistreatment of Catholicism. But unless democratic forces make a comeback in the Russian Duma, totalitarian forces will score their biggest victory yet in their attempt to return Russia to its Soviet roots. Duma hardliners will call for a vote in the next few days.
To prevent a defeat for freedom and avert a severe breach in U.S.-Russian relations, President Clinton should use every means at his disposal to make the U.S. position vehemently clear both to Russian lawmakers and President Yeltsin. He should explain through diplomatic and other channels to everyone involved that America will not stand by while its most hallowed principle -- the freedom of individuals and families to worship as their consciences dictate -- is violated. He should also make it clear that the United States is undivided on this question. If anything, the Congress is prepared to up the ante significantly.
Meanwhile, Americans of all faiths should pray that Russia doesn't turn its back on its new-found freedoms.
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Note: Dr. Ariel Cohen is a senior analyst in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute. Additional information about The Heritage Foundation can be found on the World Wide Web (www.heritage.org).