Two LDS senators question claims by Russia - and the U.S. State Department - that a new law restricting religion is not harming foreign-based churches now operating there.
Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, say anecdotal evidence is emerging that government-condoned religious persecution in Russia is expanding - so they will travel there next week to try to find out for themselves if it is true.It could lead them to push to cut off $200 million in U.S. aid to Russia - which was ordered by an amendment Smith passed last year if the new law passed and such persecution occurred.
Smith also said Friday that the new law restricting religions in Russia may have created an atmosphere that helped lead to the recent kidnapping of two LDS missionaries there, including one from his homestate of Oregon.
"I think the kidnapping of the missionaries was entirely by local criminals and was done for money. But I do believe that when governments pass laws that discriminate against people that it gives tacit license for others to discriminate, even to victimize," Smith said.
"And I think that is a real downside to what they passed in the law," he said - although he thanked Russian officials for strong efforts to retrieve the missionaries and capture their assailants.
Smith, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on European affairs, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Hatch will meet with leaders from many religions and Russian government officials in a six-day trip next week.
Smith said many leaders of churches are reporting problems with the new law requiring them to register, even though Russian leaders have repeatedly said it won't be used to evict churches now there nor to stop their missionary work - although new churches may face such problems.
"Our files are full of anecdotal evidence" to the contrary, he said, including that "Dan Pollard, an Oregonian and Baptist minister, is being thrown out of Russia because of his religious ministry there. Just as we speak today, a Lutheran church in Siberia is being closed because of its attempt to register."
Despite such reports, Smith said the U.S. State Department still agrees with the Russians that the new law is not hurting foreign-based churches now there.
Smith complained that the State Department has an "institutional incentive to maintain equilibrium and paint as rosy a picture as possible" to stop the Senate from cutting off foreign aid in hopes that U.S. money will shore up new democracy there.
But Smith said if Russia is denying religious freedom - which violates its own constitution and the international Helsinki accords - America ought not send its tax dollars in aid.
He said the trip should provide some independent verification to be as tough and stark as the law itself has appeared - but the draft of the rules also appear equally tough.
Hatch and Smith said they are also traveling to meet the new leaders of the recently replaced Russian cabinet; to talk about NATO expansion; to discuss sale of high technology to Iran; and to discuss organized crime and other matters.
Besides meeting with U.S. church leaders in Russia - including some LDS Church mission presidents - the senators are also scheduled to meeting with Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexei II.
Smith said many feel the law has been pushed by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is not used to competing with outside churches for members.
"The Russian Orthodox Church is a great church. But it will be greater still if it competes for the souls with its parishioners not through state oppression and monopolies, but through better outreach to the people it wants to serve," he said.