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Religion in Russia

A high-ranking Russian bureaucrat defended his country's new law governing religions during a panel discussion at Brigham Young University this week.

Alexander Kudrjavtsev is head of the Unit of Registration of Religious Organizations for the Russian Ministry of Justice in Moscow. He said the new law, which has drawn criticism from religious leaders around the world, will not result in the violation of human liberties.

"I don't think anybody should act as a prophet and say religious liberty is dead in Russia," Kudrjavtsev said through an interpreter. "I can assure you we won't need funerals for religious liberty."

Kudrjavtsev was among a group of scholars, government officials and clergymen who participated in an international, church-state symposium sponsored by BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies.

The conference's keynote speaker, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, said religious liberty in general is on the upswing in nations around the globe. But perhaps the hottest topic of discussion at the symposium was the fear of curbs on religious groups under Russia's "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations," which was signed by President Boris Yeltsin Sept. 26.

Lev Simpkin, a former university professor in Russian who now works with a law firm in Los Angeles, worries that the law might be interpreted more broadly than intended. A small-time bureaucrat in a city far from Moscow might deny a particular congregation the right to worship and incorrectly cite the law as justification.

"It doesn't have the meaing of the letter of the law, but sometimes it could have the effect of the spirit of the law," Simpkin said.

Kudrjavtsev acknowledged that the law's ambiguities could result in misinterpretations.

"As with any compromise action, the new law is not perfect and has contradictions," he said. "But, after all, only God's law is perfect."

Kudrjavtsev participated in discussions just last week about regulations to implement the new law. The Ministry of Justice will publish a commentary this month to clarify some aspects of the law.

Officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been assured the new law will not affect the Church's operation in Russia. An earlier version of the law would have taken property from religious groups which had been operating in the country less than 15 years.

The new law requires religious organizations to have been in Russia for 15 years in order to become registered. But Kudrjavtsev said LDS Church congregations will not be adversely affected by the requirement. The LDS Church has approximately 5,000 members and seven missions in Russia.

Kudrjavtsev explained that the new law was necessary because many non-religious groups were registering as religions in order to get tax breaks and foreign donations. One group which claimed to be a Buddhist religion was training gang members in martial arts skills, he said.

"You can just trust me that the adoption of this new law is not something that came out of the blue," he said. "It was really necessary."

Critics of the law have assailed it for giving special privileges to the Russian Orthodox Church. But Father Vsevold Chaplin, an official from the Orthodox Church's department for external relations, said the new law does not establish a state church. The law's preamble states the Orthodox Church's function in Russian society.

"It's simply true to say that the Russian Orthodox Church has had a great role in the history of that country," said BYU law professor Cole Durham. "In principal, I am not troubled by recognizing the realities so long as that does not mean imposing that religion" on unwilling people.

Although the law has been passed, the debate over religious liberty in Russia is likely to continue.

"People are arguing about what way church-state relations should go in Russia," The Rev. Chaplin said. "Most people think looking for the proper model of church-state relationships is not over yet."