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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

5,000 Decry Church Law At City Park

About 5,000 demonstrators gathered outside Gorky Park on Tuesday to protest Russia's new religion law, saying it could sharply restrict or force the dissolution of thousands of religious groups that have sprung up since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The protest was dominated by Russian Protestants, mostly in their 30s and 40s, carrying signs that read "Our Freedom's on Your Conscience," "Don't make us people of a second class" and "Protestants are Russians, Too."

The new law, backed by the Russian Orthodox Church and signed by President Boris Yeltsin on Sept. 26, gives special status to Russian Orthodoxy. It also recognizes Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity as traditional Russian religions.

But any faiths that cannot demonstrate that they have been officially recognized for at least 15 years must register annually. They are not allowed to distribute literature, proselytize or invite foreign missionaries to Russia.

Orthodox Church leaders deny that the law is oppressive and say it is necessary to protect Russians from dangerous cults and sects that have proliferated since the demise of communist rule in 1991. It was approved overwhelmingly by both houses of parliament.

Tuesday's demonstrators sought to emphasize that they are no less Russian because they are not Orthodox Christians. Between speeches, they sang popular Western Christian songs led by Russian singer Boris Berezhnoi accompanied by a balalaika and mandolin.

Almost all the demonstrators appeared to be Russians, and no foreigners spoke.

"We are sad that the parliament was lied to by the communists, and the deputies were led into confusion when they voted for the law," said Anatoly Pchelintsev, director of the Moscow Institute of Law and Religion, who led the protest.

"We are sad that the president of Russia was lied to when he was given a law to sign that was supposed to have been agreed to by several religious factions. Many major religious groups were not informed about the law. They were lied to."

"We want to live in a free and democratic state," Pchelintsev shouted as the crowd yelled "Amen" in response.

Faiths represented by other speakers included Protestant, Methodist, Catholic, Hare Krishna and Scientology.

Opponents have pledged to try to challenge the law in Russia's Constitutional Court.