WASHINGTON (September 29, 1997) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's enactment of a law restricting religious practices is "a significant step back from progress made in the past decade on religious freedom," according to one U.S. Archbishop.
In a letter today to Yuli M. Vorontsov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick expressed "profound misgivings" that President Yeltsin had chosen to sign the law Friday. The chairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference International Policy Committee said the "church's fundamental rights [in Russia] could be constrained under this law."
The new Russian law formally designates five "traditional" religions -- Russian Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Individual denominations which were not officially registered with the former Soviet government 15 years ago, even those which would fall under one of the larger "traditional" categories, will face difficult and time consuming bureaucratic procedures to gain legal status.
Archbishop McCarrick cited a number of concerns with the new law, particularly the severe restrictions on the freedom to practice religion which will be imposed on those organizations unable to prove their legal existence 15 years ago. During the last decade of the Soviet era, only two Catholic parishes were registered with civil authorities. He also noted that many religious orders working in Russia are based elsewhere, a fact which is likely to result in severe restrictions on their efforts.
"The law also constructs a process of obtaining legal recognition that is impossibly labyrinthine and onerous, and is open to arbitrariness and abuse in its implementation, especially at the local level."
Archbishop McCarrick reminded Ambassador Vorontsov that "President Yeltsin, himself, cited these and other constitutional concerns in vetoing an earlier version of this bill, yet most of these provisions remain in the new law ...."
A similar bill was passed by the Russian Parliament earlier this summer. Sharp international protest over the bill, including a letter from Pope John Paul II, however, caused President Yeltsin to cite constitutional concerns and international obligations in his decision to veto the legislation.
"The Catholic Church has been an integral part of Russian society for more than two centuries and is committed to serving the spiritual and moral needs of Russia in a way that respects and enriches Russia's rich cultural and spiritual heritage," Archbishop McCarrick said. "Regrettably, ... the church's fundamental rights could be severely constrained under this law."