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Russia’s new law on religions is hot topic at BYU

SHARE Russia’s new law on religions is hot topic at BYU

People all over the world are waiting to see what the effect of Russia's new law regulating religions will be, but in few places is the anticipation as great as at Brigham Young University.

Several current BYU professors are former mission presidents for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia. As many as several hundred BYU students were LDS missionaries there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.The interest in Russia's "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" is reflected in informal conversations among students and faculty, as well as classes and speeches based on the topic. Earlier this month, two speakers focused on the law, the real impact of which will not be known until rules of implementation are put in place by Russia's Ministry of Justice in upcoming weeks.

Ludmilla Selezneva, professor at the Russian State University for Humanities, told BYU students that she and other Russians of her generation were reared to be atheists.

Selezneva said her parents were made to fear religion, and they passed that on to her. However, things are changing.

"We've got real religious freedom," she said. "This is very important."

Selezneva said she began to notice a shift in the attitude toward religion in her homeland about 1988, during a 1,000th anniversary celebration of Christianity in Russia. It was then that President Mikhail Gorbachev began to push for reform, she said.

"As a result, just now 50 percent of people in Russia call themselves religious people," Selezneva said. "I think the number is actually higher.

"I think it is a great achievement because at the end of the Soviet era, 3 percent called themselves religious."

BYU law professor Cole Durham probably has followed this year's developments in Russia as closely as anyone in the United States. He has made numerous trips to Eastern Europe and participated in several conferences on church-state issues in countries of the former Soviet Union.

Last month, Durham brought several Russian government, education and religious officials to BYU to participate in a conference. The most talked-about issue was what the new religious law, passed by the Russian parliament and signed by President Boris Yeltsin, really means. Durham said it probably won't become clear until the end of the year.

"Every indication is that (the rules) will be written in a way not to discriminate against smaller religious groups," Durham said. "I continue to be guardedly optimistic about how things will play out for (the LDS Church)."

U.S. Sen. Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, told BYU students earlier this month that he was promised by top-level Russian officials during a visit in September that the new law would not discriminate against religions. Bennett suggested the law originated from a desire of the Russian Orthodox Church to assert itself in the face of competition from Western religious groups which are gaining many Russian converts.

Durham said there are several reasons that issues raised by the law are generating widespread interest. At BYU, the connection is obviously the students and professors who spent significant periods of time in Russia. But people everywhere concerned about freedom of worship are also paying close attention.

"I think one of the reasons people are so worried about the Russian law is that they think it might send a signal to be followed in other areas," Durham said.

He noted that Armenia passed a law similar to Russia's in the past several months. Armenians who supported the measure cited Russia as an example and justification for their own law. Also, Durham said, there is pressure for similar measures regarding religious groups in Georgia and Romania.

For Selezneva, newfound religious freedom has been both a difficulty and a joy. Her long-standing fear of religion, impressed upon her during years in the Communist Party, is hard to change.

But she has started to read the Bible along with her children, and she even met with LDS missionaries to discuss religion. She hopes the new law doesn't represent a backlash of authoritarianism as a result of post-Soviet freedoms.

"My hope is that this religious legislation will not work efficiently, as is often the case (with Russian laws)," she said. "My other hope has to do with the character of our transition. We make reforms and we make mistakes - but we correct those."