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On June 24, 1997, the Vatican made a mistake in political judgment. Pope John Paul II sent a letter to Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia, that was intended to help block passage of new legislation restricting the rights of religious minorities but that, in the long run, helped insure that legislation’s success. The letter signaled to the Russian authorities that they could split the Roman Catholics off from the various Protestant minorities that also opposed the legislation. It also showed the Russians just how to do this by making mostly symbolic concessions, yielding as little of substance as possible. Partly as a result of this mistake, Russia has now enacted its most serious legislative rollback in human rights since the end of the Soviet Union.

When the Pope sent his letter, the original bill on the matter had already passed the lower house of the Russian parliament and was about to be rubber-stamped by the upper house. The last barrier to its passage was a presidential veto, which at that point seemed highly unlikely. Though Yeltsin himself had yet to take a public stand on it, some of the bill’s most active supporters were officials in his executive branch. The domestic pressures for it, especially from a new alliance of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow and the Communist leaders of parliament, were far greater than those against it. Without the firm stance of Russia’s major Western Christian minorities against the bill, backed by pressure from the Pope and from other foreign sources such as the U.S. government and the European Union, Yeltsin would almost certainly not have issued the veto he did in late July.

The president soon came under heavier than expected pressure to reverse course. The Moscow Patriarchate, normally docile toward the Kremlin, proved ferocious in lobbying for the power to suppress its competitors. Yeltsin promised to produce a compromise, and his staff invited representatives of the country’s major religious confessions to negotiate one. The key Kremlin staffer assigned to this task, however, turned out to be Andrei Loginov, who had actively lobbied for the original bill.

By September it was clear that the negotiations were a smokescreen, that neither Patriarch Aleksi II nor Loginov had any intention of accepting major changes in their earlier handiwork. The only hope of defeating the bill was to derail the so-called compromise and provoke a parliamentary vote to override the president’s veto of the original bill. Yeltsin might then have been pushed to keep his July promise to call on the Constitutional Court to invalidate the measure. Both the vetoed bill and the September “compromise” blatantly contradict Russia’s 1993 constitution, and a truly independent court would not hesitate to invalidate either. But Russia’s top courts are largely in Yeltsin’s pocket, and far less likely to strike down a law supported by the president than one enacted by parliament over his veto.

The only way to maintain the pressure on Yeltsin was for the coalition opposing the bill, both within Russia and abroad, to hold firm. It did not. Of the minority faiths taking part in the Kremlin negotiations, the first to cave in, at the end of August, was the one with the strongest bargaining position and the most power to mobilize worldwide pressure, the Catholics. They were soon followed by the Baptists, and then the Pentecostals and Adventists. All eventually reversed themselves, but by then the bill’s momentum was unstoppable.

The first sign of weakness in the Catholics’ position had appeared in June with the Pope’s letter. Instead of emphasizing the bill’s threat to the rights of all religious minorities, John Paul focused almost exclusively on the Catholics”and especially on one particular element of the threat, far from the most important.

Contrary to some of the earlier, more superficial media coverage of the legislation, the bill’s key provisions do not distinguish between religions-such as Catholicism and Orthodoxy-but between “religious associations” such as individual parishes and dioceses. These provisions discriminate in favor of those religious associations that were legally registered under the Soviet state fifteen years ago and against those that were founded more recently or that existed only illegally or semi-legally during the Soviet years. Thus, for example, the favored category includes many Baptist congregations-those which were willing during the pre-glasnost years to make the compromises needed to get official registration. Many Orthodox congregations, by contrast, are not in that category-including nearly all those not affiliated with the mainstream Moscow Patriarchate. Groups not in the favored category are denied rights to engage in such basic ministries as education and publishing. In effect the legislation retroactively legitimizes, and partly restores, the church-state relations of the Brezhnev era.

The Catholics have only two parishes in all of the Russian Federation that were legally registered and functioning fifteen years ago. With the passage of the new law, every other Catholic institution in the country-including about one hundred parishes in European Russia, another sixty beyond the Urals, and the diocesan administrations based in Moscow and Novosibirsk-has now been reduced to second-class status. For example, they now have no guaranteed legal right even to distribute free tracts or booklets inside their own churches. The seminary in St. Petersburg, all Catholic publishing and broadcasting activities, and the Russian branches of orders such as the Jesuits can now simply be shut down unless the Russian state decides not to carry out its own law.

No one expects the new law to be fully enforced, but the mere threat of being able to do so gives the Russian authorities all the power they need to harass and intimidate. Existing Catholic institutions will probably be allowed to continue their activities, but it will almost certainly become harder to open parishes in towns that do not now have them. Local authorities were already creating artificial barriers to such parish growth before the new law was passed-even in towns with large communities of ethnic Poles or Germans, and even when such towns still have nineteenth-century Catholic church buildings, or the ruins of them, seized by the Bolsheviks and still not returned.

Thus the slow, painful work of rebuilding pre-1917 Catholic parish life in Russia will now become even slower. The position of Protestants will probably be worse-especially those Protestants whose ecclesiological doctrines make it difficult for them to join “centralized religious organizations” of the type favored by the new law.

Faced with these threats to religious freedom, the Pope’s advisers drafted the June letter, which focused not on the proposed law’s substantive provisions but on its preamble. In its June version, the preamble specifically listed four world religions as “traditionally existing” in Russia and as “respected” by the Russian state: Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. The Catholics wanted to be added to that list, and their negotiators in Moscow spent a disproportionate amount of their energy pursuing that goal. They failed. All they achieved was the addition of “Christianity,” in a bizarre formulation that makes Orthodoxy look like something separate from Christianity.

Though the preamble has no direct legal force, it was worth fighting over. Local officials will often be reluctant to read beyond the preamble, so the symbolic issue is more important than it would be if Russia were truly a law-governed state. But it is far from the law’s most important part, and certainly not so important as to justify the Catholics’ comparative neglect of such other issues as its refusal to acknowledge religious organizations registered less than fifteen years ago.

At least one major Catholic participant understood this. Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the diocesan administration for European Russia based in Moscow, wanted to resist all the provisions of the legislation that would deny his parishes their basic rights to preach and teach publicly, rights supposedly guaranteed by Russia’s constitution. But his sister was involved in a tragic accident and that took him away during the most critical period, August 28 to September 6.

During those nine days the archbishop’s young diocesan chancellor reached oral agreement with the Kremlin over a “compromise” bill whose final text had yet to be written. The papal nuncio and the Catholic bishop of Novosibirsk, both in Moscow during this period, endorsed the agreement. The Baptist Union threw its support to the still-unwritten bill on September 1. (Unlike the Catholics, the old-line Baptist leaders actually stand to gain in some ways from the new system since it will pressure independent Protestant congregations to join “centralized religious organizations” more than fifteen years old, such as the Baptist Union.)

The increasingly isolated Pentecostals and Adventists took a more ambiguous position: On September 2, bowing to the Kremlin’s pressure, they agreed to sign a mysterious document that called on the parliament not to override the president’s veto of the original bill. They were not allowed to keep copies of this document; it became clear why when the Kremlin and the state-controlled media immediately proclaimed that the minority faiths had now expressed their support of the new compromise bill, even though that bill still did not exist in its final form. On September 4 the Kremlin finally produced a written text of the new bill and sent it to the parliament as Yeltsin’s official proposal.

On September 8, the first working day after his return to Moscow, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz wrote a letter to Yeltsin opposing the new bill. After the Pentecostals and Adventists finally saw the exact text of the compromise, they issued a joint statement with the Catholics opposing it, a statement the Baptists later joined. But the minority confessions were slow to act: Their statement was released only on September 11, nearly two weeks after the first Kremlin-planted news stories proclaiming a consensus for the compromise.

The Vatican was also slow, doing little to counter the Kremlin’s disinformation. When the bill reached the floor of the parliament on September 19, many in both Russia and the West were still under the impression that it had Catholic and Protestant support. The European Union, which had lobbied quietly but firmly against the bill in July, was nearly passive in September. With Western opposition muted, Yeltsin signed the bill into law on September 26.

Should Catholics defend only their own rights, not those of other Christian minorities in Russia? Should they decline to defend vigorously even their own rights in the hope that appeasing the most anti-Western and neo-Bolshevik elements in today’s Russian Orthodox Church will bring closer the day of Christian unity? Only if the answer to both questions is “Yes” can the Moscow Catholic negotiators’ behavior in the summer of 1997 be justified.

Lawrence A. Uzzell is Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, an independent research center based in Oxford, England, which studies religious life in Eastern Europe.