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Yeltsin signs controversial religion bill

Yeltsin September 26, 1997
Web posted at: 10:57 a.m. EDT (1457 GMT)

MOSCOW (CNN) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Friday signed into law a highly controversial religion bill that enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church as the country's preeminent religion and limits the activities of other religious groups.

Yeltsin vetoed the original bill in July in response to sharp criticism at home and abroad, including that from the Vatican and the U.S. Congress.

Russia's Orthodox Church and hard-liners and nationalists in parliament fought hard for the revised bill, arguing that the country was flooded by dangerous alien religious groups following the fall of communism.

But opponents contend the bill violates Russia's post-Soviet constitution and discriminates unfairly against minority religious groups, including Protestant and Roman Catholic groups that have become increasingly active in Russia since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

There was no immediate comment from Yeltsin on the signing, only a brief Kremlin statement that said the president had signed the bill into law.

religious group

The new version includes several changes but keeps the most controversial clauses largely intact. U.S. Vice President Al Gore, during a Moscow visit this week, said he believed the revised version discriminated against many religions.

The bill pledges respect for Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity in general, but many opponents fear that the Orthodox Church wants to prevent Catholic and Protestant groups from operating freely in Russia.

One clause in the bill says religious groups must be present in Russia for 15 years before they can publish or distribute religious literature, or invite missionaries to the former Communist nation.

Such groups would not be able to hold worship services in hospitals, senior citizens' homes, schools, orphanages or prisons. They would not be able to form educational establishments, found newspapers or magazines and their clergy would not be exempt from military service.

Only a few religious groups were allowed to operate during the officially atheist Soviet era, and most do not meet the 15-year requirement.

Parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, voted unanimously to approve the measure on Wednesday, and the lower house approved it overwhelmingly last week.

A commission of representatives from the presidency, parliament and Russia's main religions drew up the revised version.


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