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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church Leaders Vow to Fight Religious Ban

Russian and Western church leaders on Wednesday urged President Boris Yeltsin to veto a law that would ban missionary activity by foreign religious groups, and they vowed to wage an international campaign to see that it does not take effect.

At an emotional press conference, leaders from seven Russian Protestant organizations charged that the law violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and said it was an attempt by the Russian Orthodox Church to gain a "monopoly" of ideology here.

"One does not need to be a prophet to see that very soon the government body which accredits foreign representatives of religious organizations will become a tool of those who want to establish a monopoly of one ideology in Russia", the leaders said in an open letter to Yeltsin.

The law, passed by parliament July 14 and now awaiting Yeltsin's signature, would require all foreign-based religious organizations to accredit themselves with the government, and would prohibit them from attempting to convert Russians or publish religious materials.

It would also require Russian media to provide equal air time, free of charge, to both foreign and Russian religious groups.

The resolution has put Yeltsin in a politically delicate position, with the powerful Russian Orthodox Church and conservative political groups on one side, pressuring for controls on highly visible Western evangelists, and world opinion on the other side, pointing to 70 years of religious repression.

An international letter-writing campaign has been launched to put pressure on him to veto the law, said Norie Roder, coordinator of the Christian Resource Center, an information clearinghouse established here by the U. S. -based organization World Vision. The group's mailing list here includes more than 100 religious organizations in Russia, as well as congregations in the United States.

Several U. S. congressmen have already urged Yeltsin to veto the measure, said the primary author of the law, Orthodox minister Father Vyacheslav Polosin, who also attended the press conference.

U. S. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole and two other senior Republican senators, Jesse Helms and Richard Lugar, as well as Democratic Senator Paul Simon sent a letter last Friday which praised Yeltsin for past advances in religious freedom and gently reminded him that religious groups also bring substantial humanitarian aid. Senator Lugar's office is lobbying fellow congressmen and women to add their voices to the protest.

Polosin criticized the letter.

"It looks like a beggar is asking for a piece of bread and you say 'I will give you this bread only if you follow these beliefs'", Polosin said. "So this is the morality of these American congressmen".

Parliament opposition leader and Orthodox minister Gleb Yakunin predicted that world pressure would force Yeltsin to veto the document, but he said that when the Supreme Soviet returned in September from its recess, Yeltsin's veto would probably be overridden.

"I am afraid this law will be easily adopted, because communists are against Western influences, and the parliament is dominated by old communists", he said. "The president is in a very hard situation because it is very difficult for him not to listen to the patriarchy".

Yeltsin, currently on vacation, has not publicly commented on the regulations. But his spokesman said last Thursday that he was likely to sign it.

"In general, the president agreed that it was necessary to regulate the activity of churches", Anatoly Krasikov said.

The Russian Orthodox Church is rebuilding following the collapse of communism, but with the opening of religious freedom has come competition for new faithful. Large Western religious groups with hard currency can afford broadcast time and sophisticated printed material beyond the means of the Orthodox Church, Polosin said.

American television evangelist Mark Finley addressed Polosin at the conference, warning that the logical extension of the law would be banning of foreign books and jamming of the airwaves, as the Soviet Union did before its collapse.

"The gospel of Christ directs us to restore morality after 70 years of atheism", he said. "If a city is on fire you need more than one bucket of water to throw on that moral fire. We as foreign evangelists see ourselves as throwing buckets of water on moral fires".