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Ex-East Bloc unlikely to restrict religions

LDS faithful shouldn't worry about Russia's restrictive religious laws influencing former members of the Soviet Union, Sen. Bob Bennett says.

In the former East Bloc countries Bennett visited last week, "they want nothing to do" with what Russia may be about, said Bennett, who himself is the grandson of an LDS Church president.Bennett, R-Utah, went to Romania to attend a convention of the North Atlantic Assembly, which Bennett describes as the political counterpart to NATO. He then visited several other countries.

He met with the president of Romania, the prime minister and the president of Estonia and had an hourlong meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Bennett said he didn't get a chance to bring up the "Mormon question" with Kohl.

"You don't have an interview (with the chancellor)," rather you get to listen to him talk about his world view, Bennett said. Still, with other German officials Bennett and the other Americans traveling with him were promised that no type of restriction of religion would come from the former East Germany or anywhere else in Germany.

Bennett said he and others concerned about Russia's new religion law "will wait and see" if promises made to him, to Vice President Al Gore - "promises made from every level of the Russian government to every level" of the United States government - are kept.

The Russian parliament, several weeks ago, passed - and President Boris Yeltsin signed - a law that allows the state to strictly regulate the activities of "new" religions - those that have become active in Russia only in the past 15 years.

Bennett told the Deseret News editorial board several weeks ago that, for now, he's satisfied with Russian promises that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not be considered a new religion. If not defined as such, then the right to own and operate property, right to freely conduct missionary work - items vital to the LDS Church's activities in Russia - will not be harmed, Bennett was told by Russian officials.

Earlier this year, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution calling for impoundment of U.S. foreign aid to Russia if the new religion law was passed. Bennett said he and other senators have agreed to change the wording of the resolution, saying foreign aid will stop if the new law is "implemented" in a way that harms the operations of traditional religions in Russia.

"Let's give them (the Russians) some room with this" new law, "see how it works" before cutting off aid that actually helps those in Russia who want more Western-style freedoms and economic development, Bennett said.

Bennett said several German officials told him they are concerned about how the Church of Sci-en-tol-ogy operates in their country. "They said they've investigated that church and feel it is masquerading as a business. And so they are going to apply business laws and taxation" to Sci-en-tologists.

Russians also told Bennett they were concerned about Sci-en-tol-o-gists in their country.

Bennett pointed out that the LDS Church does have businesses it owns (the Deseret News being one). But "those business don't operate in Russia. If they did, they should be treated like we treat businesses owned by churches here - they should obey all business laws and pay taxes on their profits."

He added that he's been told that up to 80 percent of the operating income for the Russian Orthodox Church, the main supporter of the new, tougher religious act, comes from "the tax-free business operations of the (Orthodox) Church. So that may be one reason" Russian political leaders are considering cracking down on new religions.

"One Russian official told me they are worried about someone starting a new church, gathering six disciples around them, and declaring that they worship computers. They'd then import 10,000 PCs, worship them, and sell them and refuse to pay business taxes, saying they are a religion practicing a faith.

"And I told them they should change their tax laws, not their religious laws," Bennett said.