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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tough Call for Yeltsin On Strict Religion Bill

President Boris Yeltsin faced a tough choice Friday over whether to sign a controversial bill restricting religious minorities that has sparked protests from Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Senate.

The bill "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association" was passed by parliament on July 4 and the constitution gives Yeltsin 14 days to sign or veto it.

But as the deadline neared and foreign pressure mounted, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday saying he would sign it only if legal experts ruled that it tallied with the constitution and human rights rules.

It was not clear when that would be, nor what would happen if he missed the deadline. Interfax said Yeltsin had until Monday to sign the bill.

Yeltsin must weigh up strong pressure at home to sign the bill, especially from the Russian Orthodox Church, whose support he uses to political advantage, and opposition to the bill from Washington, the Vatican and human rights groups.

A Foreign Ministry statement said U.S. Senate pressure on Yeltsin to reject the bill was counterproductive.

The U.S. Senate voted earlier this week to cut off aid to Russia if Yeltsin signed the bill, which would give a few major confessions, such as Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and mainstream Buddhism, strong advantages over minority religions.

The threatened curb on new assistance was approved as an amendment to the $13.2 billion foreign aid bill which is now moving through the Senate. The bill contains about $200 million in funds for Russia.

"The reaction by the American senators to the law, which has not come into force yet, causes nothing but surprise," the ministry said. "It should have been clear that all types of conditions are counterproductive."

The deputy head of the government's administration, Andrei Sebentsov, blasted the Senate's position as "shameful and profoundly insulting," Itar-Tass said.

Neither the ministry nor Sebentsov commented on a letter from Pope John Paul II released by the Vatican on Thursday in which the pontiff told Yeltsin that the bill threatened the survival of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia.

The Foreign Ministry said similar protectionism was practiced by some other states and argued that Russia had to counter "totalitarian sects and pseudo-religious groups." The law is hotly defended by the Orthodox Church and the communist opposition, who say it will help halt the division of Russians along religious lines. They argue it will counter cults, including Japan's doomsday sect Aum Shinri Kyo, which had many followers in Russia.

The Orthodox Church has been alarmed by the post-Soviet explosion of religious sects, which have fed on Russians' poverty, spiritual hunger or desire for the new and exotic.

Parliament approved the bill earlier this month and Yeltsin can either sign it now or veto it, but his veto could be overruled by a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

Under the new legislation, only religions which have operated in Russia for more than 15 years have the chance to be registered.