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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Will Decree Spark Battle of Religions?

Whether under the Soviets or the tsars, the position of religious minorities in Russia has always been a tenuous one.

But, in the last five years, those minorities -- from Baptists to Buddhists -- have enjoyed unprecedented freedom, a freedom some believe is threatened by new legislation on religion that may soon be considered by the State Duma.

By Russian and international standards, the proposed law, which sets out to define and preserve the rights of existing religions, is quite progressive. However, legal experts and religious leaders worry that it might open an unwanted and destructive debate in the Duma on religious freedom.

"I think this law may be subject to a great political battle," said Gleb Yakunin, a Duma deputy and Russian Orthodox priest, at a two-day Moscow conference on the draft law.

"By the third reading it may be so saturated with populist sentiments that it would not be recognizable ... There is no guarantee that a faction would not introduce an amendment, which is easy to do, that would grossly violate world human rights standards."

The conference was attended by leaders of minority sects, western experts on religious law, Russian politicians and a delegation of clergy and lawyers from the Russian Orthodox Church. Sponsored by two local groups with Protestant ties, speakers in both Thursday and Friday sessions focused often on the perceived threat posed to small denominations by the Orthodox Church.

"The relationship has deteriorated seriously between the two groups and I think the situation will grow worse because the Russian Orthodox Church sees them as enemies especially with the growth in missionary activity," said Igor Podberezsky, a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences who attended the conference. The driving force behind the new legislation appears to be the Orthodox Church, which supports increased controls on the missionaries and cults.

"Basically, I think there is a serious need to review the present legislation and the new law is more or less satisfactory," said the church's representative to the conference, Father Vsevolod Chaplin. Referring to the foreign missionaries in Russia, he said, "we need at least some regulations on the topic in the country. Now there is a legislative vacuum."