That Old-Time Religion

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MOSCOW: Sitting on Boris Yeltsin's desk today is a bill that would drive any man to drink. The communist-controlled Duma has handed Yeltsin a draft law that would put a tourniquet on religious freedom in Russia. The four "traditional" faiths: Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, would remain comfortably entrenched. The less-established religions, however, face a ban on owning property, hosting foreign missionaries, and public worship, all privileges of official status. It all adds up as a cultural Great Wall, with the U.S. in the role of the barbarian. "The West is using religion as a means to influence the minds of the Russian people," said senior communist Viktor Ilyukhin, chair of the Duma security committee, "in fact as a means to control the people." The law has human rights activists squealing, not to mention Pope John Paul II, who called personally on Yeltsin earlier this week to reject a law that is aimed squarely at his upstart Russian flock. Even Congress has gotten serious, passing legislation Thursday that would withhold $200 million in U.S. aid if the bill is signed into law. But that $200 million carrot may have precisely the opposite effect. Yeltsin endures constant carping that he is too often the marionette of cash-rich Western governments; if he rejects the bill now, even citing constitutional concerns, it will appear to Yeltsin's critics simply that he has taken a bribe. Faced with that quandary, Yeltsin gave Moscow a wide berth Friday and headed off instead to an elite holiday resort on the Volga, some 500 miles southeast of the capital.