Russian and Armenian Presidents Reject Bills Restricting Religious Groups
Two Eastern European presidents declined to sign bills in July that would have restricted religious organizations in their countries.
Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan refused on July 7 to sign a bill restricting religious organizations other than the Armenian Apostolic Church, Keston News Service reported. Most Armenians belong to this Oriental Orthodox church. The bill would have amended the 1991 "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" by making it more difficult for foreign-based religious bodies to operate in Armenia. The presidential veto means that the bill must now be reconsidered by Armenia's governing body, the National Assembly.
Far more publicity was given to a similar bill which passed the Russian parliament on July 4. The first portion of the bill is intended to protect citizens' freedom of conscience. The remainder of the bill allows full legal rights only to faiths which have existed in Russia for over fifty years: Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Russian Orthodoxy, as well as other, unnamed faiths. All other religious bodies would have to prove either that they have a centralized structure or that they have existed in Russia for at least fifteen years. Religious organizations that did not pass these tests would be prohibited from a range of activities, including owning real estate and publishing.
Supporters of the bill argued that new laws were needed in order to stem the influx of destructive, foreign cults. Critics, though, said that the bill was intended to make the Russian Orthodox Church the national church, a position it held before the Russian Revolution. The bill was protested by many foreigners, including the United States Senate and Pope John Paul II.
"If [President Boris Yeltsin] signs, it will be the first time since the Soviet era that Russia replaces a federal law which adequately protects the rights and freedoms of citizens with a highly restrictive one," said Human Rights Watch, according to The Washington Post.
President Yeltsin apparently agreed. On July 22, he declined to sign the bill into law, instead sending it back to the Russian parliament for revision.
"Undoubtedly, Russia needs a law on the freedom of conscience and religious associations, for it must protect the moral and spiritual health of the nation and raise reliable barriers to radical sects which inflict great damage on the physical and mental health of our citizens," President Yeltsin commented, according to Keston News Service. "However, many provisions of this law infringe upon the citizens' constitutional and human rights, legalise inequality between different confessions and are at variance with Russia's international commitments."
According to The Washington Post, President Yeltsin concluded, "There can be no democratic society where the interests of any minorities among our citizens are not protected."
On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations (English translation; 1997)
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson