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Tide of evangelism may swamp religious freedoms.

MOSCOW -- Concern is growing among religious people here over proposed amendments to the religious freedom law. After decades of repression of religion, the October 1990 legislation allowing for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion had been warmly welcomed in Russia.

However, its passage, along with other freedoms that emerged in the wake of perestroika and glasnost, has also helped to turn what some have called Russia's "spiritual desert" into a religious bazaar where ancient creeds compete for souls alongside New Age sects.

Here in the capital, as well as in St. Petersburg and other large Russian cities, it is difficult to miss the parade of preachers, proselytizers, parachurchmen and visiting gurus streaming in from the United States, Western Europe, Korea and India. Their messages wallpaper subway stations, line mailboxes, pepper the airwaves and draw the curious to campus crusades.

It is hardly surprising that many Russians feel exposed and unprepared for the foreign "god-bearers." Some would like to curb the religious flood, if not to dam it up totally. Recently the Russian parliament unveiled two amendments to the religious freedom act that echo these sentiments.

The first, an amendment to Article 11, would create -- or re-create -- a government commission to control church activity. The second, an amendment to Article 18, would change the process of registration, making it difficult for religions whose centers are not in Russia to be registered. Such a measure could, it is feared, severely limit all religious groups, save Russian Orthodoxy.

Certainly the Russian Orthodox Church has been the harshest critic of the tide of evangelism from abroad. It claims some 70 million Russians -- about half of the nation's citizens -- and wants an opportunity to form and catechize its members and to convert the unbaptized to Orthodoxy.

Proudly, it points to a 1,005-year-old tradition of faith, liturgy, music, saints and iconology. While that does not necessarily make it a state church, many within Orthodoxy see themselves as the state religion. They argue that Russia can only be Orthodox and that historically it has been a state church. They point to the model of the former Ministry of Religious Affairs under communism and to the Holy Synod created by Peter the Great and used by succeeding czars.

But Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran and some other European Protestant churches have also been in Russia for centuries and have experienced a resurgence since perestroika.

While it is not possible to import an ecumenical model to Russia the way that the United States and Europe have sent food and antibiotics, a kind of ecumenism has arisen in the form of opposition to the new expert and consultative council on religion, which is already in place, but to which the churches are observers rather than full members. Twice within recent months representatives from Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as from Islam and Judaism, have met to air their dissatisfaction with the new body.

"We may be separated by our dogma, but we are united in danger," when it comes to state surveillance of religion, said Father Victor Petliuchenko, vice chairman of external church relations of the Moscow Orthodox patriarchate. "The structure of the new council reminds us of our past."

All the church leaders who've met together are agreed on one point at least, he said: "The future of church life in our country must remain in the hands of believers."

There is fear among Christians and non-Christians alike over why a nation that professes freedom of conscience should form a state structure composed of people not in the church. If Russia is to have such an institution, then Petliuchenko wants it to be one that will "help religion, not control it."

Already Patriarch Alexsei has refused to accept observer status on the new body, arguing that the church has been a second- and third-class citizen for 70 years, but won't be any longer. But some critics of the other amendment, the one to Article 18, lay the blame for it clearly on Alexsei.

On December 8, the patriarch wrote a letter to parliament requesting that it ban the activities of non-Orthodox missionaries on Russian soil. The letter sparked the attention of Father Vyacheslav Polosin, a deputy, who chairs the parliamentary committee on churchstate relations. He noted that Russia cannot become another Saudi Arabia, but should instead model itself after Switzerland in the matter of religious tolerance.

In a telephone interview here, Petliuchenko said the Orthodox church "would never dream of controlling other religions. We'd like to live among other churches in a civilized way." However, he added that a method was needed to "regulate" the religious invasion in a spirit of Christian love. He suggested the best way was to work with the World Council of Churches, the European Council of Churches and the Vatican.

Garth Mollier, an American representative of the Inner Varsity Christian Fellowship and the Bible for Everyone Bible society, thinks that when the Orthodox realize the implications of the amendment to Article 18, they will oppose it. Mollier, who has lived in St. Petersburg for three years with his Russian wife, Lyudmila, and their baby daughter, believes that Orthodox nationalists within the Chamber of Deputies are behind both amendments.

He doubts that churches already registered in Russia will be affected should the amendment be approved, but thinks newcomers will find difficulties. Already in the Baltic states measures have been enacted that, while they do not ban religious activity, do prevent new groups from registering until they have been in the country at least three years.

Lutheran Minister John Melin, who heads the American Protestant Chaplaincy in Moscow, said some curbs have to be put on the "ecclesiastical imperialism" of some American and Korean groups, whose efforts he called "exploitative." Many U.S. Christians are "terribly ignorant" of the Orthodox church and "don't recognize Orthodox tradition as a legitimate tradition," he said.
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Title Annotation:Russia
Author:Lefevere, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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