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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Says Russian Regions Restrict Religious Freedoms

WASHINGTON -- The United States said that despite promises by Russia's government that it would ensure religious freedom, a complex 1997 law was allowing increasing restrictions on religion at the local level.

The first annual report of religious freedom worldwide released Thursday by the U.S. State Department said President Boris Yeltsin and other Russian leaders repeatedly had stated that the law would be applied in a liberal, tolerant way.

And it added: "To date no religious organization has ceased operations as a result of the law."

But the report said that restrictions were applied at a local level in Russia.

"The vagueness of the law and regulations, the contradictions between federal and local law, and varying interpretations furnish regional officials with a pretext to restrict the activities of religious minorities," it said.

The 1997 law was enacted in response to concerns among many Russians, in particular nationalists and some in the Russian Orthodox Church, that a 1990 religious freedom law was too liberal.

That law, which forbade government interference in religion and set up simple registration procedures, was seen by critics to have supported well-financed foreign missionaries and what they called "nontraditional" religious groups.

The State Department report called the 1997 law "restrictive and potentially discriminatory," and said it had "raised questions about the government's commitment to international agreements honoring freedom of religion."

It said the most worrying aspect of the law was its provision limiting the rights of groups existing in Russia for less than 15 years. Although three sets of guidelines were issued in 1998, the report said key points still were unclear.

And it said that since 1994, 30 of 89 regional governments in Russia had "passed restrictive laws and decrees intended to restrict the activities of religious groups."