A controversial Russian law that some congressmen, as well as U.S. church officials, believe restricts their missionary activities in the former Soviet republic may eventually be held unconstitutional by the Russian courts.
But Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch says a greater likelihood is that mainstream religions, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be formally "registered" by the Russian government - a recognition that will give the churches the latitude to proselyte without impediment.To achieve that end, the U.S. government will "need to stand tough with the leadership there, and we are doing that. I felt more encouraged this time than I did approximately a year ago. The Mormon church missionaries are being registered, they are being accepted and there are basically no problems in Moscow and St. Petersburg," Hatch said.
The problems, Hatch added, are in the "hinterlands" where local leadership is a carry-over from the former communist regime. These leaders often ignore the mandates of their superiors in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Hatch made the comments Wednesday during a Salt Lake press conference that came on the heels of a fact-finding trip to Russia with Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, who like Hatch is a member of the LDS faith.
The trip was initiated after the senators received anecdotal evidence of government-sponsored religious persecution of non-Russian Orthodox faiths. A provision in a U.S. law, an amendment sponsored by Smith, would cut off official U.S. aid to Russia if the government there fails to comply with promises of religious freedoms.
While in Russia, Hatch met with Aleksandr Kudryavtsev, the top Ministry of Justice official responsible for religious laws, who assured the senators that religious freedoms will be recognized.
"He expressed his commitment that the law would be implemented without discrimination and he indicated obliquely but distinctly that the LDS Church in particular would be fully registered throughout the country," Hatch said.
Hatch added that the Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran and Pentacostal faiths are having the same problems becoming registered as is the LDS faith. Hatch met with top officials from most religious groups actively proselyting in Russia.
He also had a cordial meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who expressed his beliefs that "religious freedom will be the norm in Russia," Hatch said.
Kudryavtsev and Andrey Loginov, the top religious adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, both recognized that certain aspects of the law would be held unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, there is widespread opposition among Russian officials to those religions that seek to "purchase souls" and those that are seen as totalitarian sects. None of the officials placed the LDS Church in either category, Hatch said.
The U.S. State Department and the Russian government have maintained that the new law has not hurt foreign-based churches now there. Those assurances have been openly questioned by many different religious groups who say that both entities are simply trying to deter any Senate action that would cut off financial aid to the Russian government.
Hatch used the press conference to express support for the Yeltsin government, saying continued progress toward religious, democratic and economic freedoms is contingent upon continued government reforms.
"I suspect that if people like Yeltsin are allowed to continue they will make a lot more headway over the next five to 10 years," he said, adding there is a sense of optimism throughout Russia despite a dismal economy.