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LEBED’S STATEMENT `WORRISOME’

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The U.S. State Department said Monday that comments by Russia's No. 2 official that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are "scum and mold" are "worrisome."

But it also said Russia has been honoring freedom of religion in its deeds - if not its politicians' rhetoric - so the long-term significance of the comments "remains to be seen."However, the State Department did warn that the U.S. government will be watching closely for any deterioration in Russian treatment of freedom of religion and other human rights.

Last week, Alexander Lebed - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's new national security adviser and unofficial running mate - called members of the LDS Church "mold and scum."

He also lumped them with the Aum Supreme Truth cult - implicated in poison gas attacks on Tokyo subways, saying they pose a "direct threat to Russia's security" because they are bent on "perverting, corrupting and ultimately breaking up our state."

Lebed also refused to include Jews among what he says are the three traditional religions recognized by Russia - orthodox Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

In response to Deseret News inquiries, State Department spokeswoman Ann Johnson issued a statement Monday in response to those comments.

She said, "In December 1990, the Soviet government enacted a law on religious freedom, which prohibits government interference in religion.

"Russia is a signatory to a number of international agreements recognizing rights to freedom to thought, conscience and religion. The Russian government is respecting this right in practice.

"We have found National Security Adviser Lebed's remarks worrisome. Their full significance remains to be seen. We will continue to follow closely developments in the area of human rights, including freedom of religion."

Last week, five U.S. senators - three Mormons and two Jews - denounced Lebed's rhetoric in much tougher language because of attacks he made on their faiths, calling them "outrageous," "malicious," "offensive" and "heinous."

Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.; also wrote Secretary of State Warren Christopher to urge that he review U.S. aid to Russia if such rhetoric continues.

They wrote, "Inasmuch as freedom of religion is a core element of American society and one of the bases of our current assistance program, we ask that you review U.S. assistance to Russia."

Specter - whose Jewish father fled religious persecution in czarist Russia - in a press conference last week also urged the State Department to condemn such language in the strongest terms, which it did not quite do.

Bennett in speeches and a press conference last week also said he worried that Lebed's comments may signal a new crackdown on religious freedom - especially because it copied positions by Yeltsin's Communist opponent for the presidency.

Bennett said, "The first casualty of tolerance for a regime moving in the direction of totalitarianism is always religious tolerance. And then immediately following after that comes an attempt to destroy any political dissension.

"We are seeing a signal here from the man closest to President Yeltsin that the Yeltsin regime - if they listen to this man - will move in the direction of destroying dissent and differing opinions throughout all of Russian society."

Bennett added that he sits on an appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid to Russia and promised a thorough review to ensure it protects freedom of religion before it receives aid in future years.