Standing firm on the belief that freedom to worship is a fundamental human right, U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett went to Moscow as a representative of Congress for meetings with leaders of Russia's Parliament and President Boris Yelstin's administration.
Sen. Bennett, R-Utah, was in Russia Sept. 6-10 in a wake of concern created over a bill passed in June by Russia's parliament that would place severe restrictions on minority religions in Russia, including the LDS Church, Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant denominations. One of the provisions of the bill would restrict activities of churches new to Russia in the past 15 years. Among the restrictions would be a ban on missionary activity by members of churches from foreign countries unless they obtained permission from established Russian religious organizations, and prohibitions on churches owning property in Russia.President Yelstin issued a Kremlin statement that the bill contradicted Russia's constitutional guarantee of equality for all faiths and vetoed the bill in late July. However, many leaders of churches in Russia and lawmakers in the West fear that a "compromise bill" the Duma (lower parliament) is now working on is worse than the first bill.
Sen. Bennett, a former bishop, told the Church News that he did not go to Russia to look after concerns of just Latter-day Saints. "I was there under the sponsorship of the State Department, although the State Department knew, of course, that I was a Mormon and that I would be concerned about the Church's interest. In this circumstance, they felt that the Church's interest and the country's interest coincided.
"I did not identify myself as speaking on behalf of the Mormon Church in these meetings," Sen. Bennett said. "I was there officially as a representative of the U.S. Congress, specifically the Appropriations Committee. But whenever they wanted examples of how the proposed law would be damaging to a western religion, I gave them examples from my own experiences in the Church. Virtually in every interview the fact that I am a Mormon came up. I was very pleased that the reaction in every instance was very positive. They had a good view of Mormons, had nothing but good things to say about the Mormons. They kept assuring me that Mormons have `nothing to worry about under our legislation.' "
Sen. Bennett said he was heartened by what he heard during the discussions with Russian officials. However, he said, "Until they make that very clear in the law, we need to stay vigilant on this issue. But I was very pleased that the Church had a good image over there."
He attributed that good image to "the way the Church has conducted itself in Russia. None of these people ever indicated they'd ever had a contact with a missionary, but they had had contacts with Church officials and Church representatives discussing the various legal aspects of getting the Church registered and recognized in Russia. One Duma member had had a specific experience with Church representatives who had been in to see him in his official capacity. He spoke very favorably about that and how it had been handled and how professionally they had presented themselves."
While in Moscow, Sen. Bennett attended a roundtable discussion with representatives of other religious groups, including Catholics, Jews and Protestant denominations. "They all made it clear that they were pleased to have me speak on their behalf," he said.
Sen. Bennett said that several U.S. senators were united in the outcry against the Duma's bill. Among them, he pointed out, were Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has been heavily involved in speaking against the bill, and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, who "put together an effort to send a message [in a letter signed by many of the senators] to the Russians."
"Our own State Department raised issue with the Russians," Sen. Bennett said. "President Clinton raised it face to face with President Yelstin when President Yelstin was in the United States. We believe the reaction that was generated both in the Congress and with President Clinton produced Yelstin's veto of that early repressive law."
Sen. Bennett said that the Duma is now faced with the choice of either overriding President Yelstin's veto or adopting a compromise law.
"My visit over there was to underscore America's concern about an override, as well as some of the provisions of the compromise bill," Sen. Bennett said. "In any totalitarian society, the first human right that gets attacked is freedom of religion. And once freedom of religion goes, then they start toward repressive actions on other kinds of expression, repressing freedom of political expression and end up with the kind of totalitarian society that existed in Russia for the 70 years that the Soviet Union was in charge.
"America has a very big stake in seeing to it that political repression does not come back to Russia. So, by America speaking out officially on what appears to be the first sign of religious oppression, we are building a wall against the movement toward political repression that could subsequently follow.
"It is not a Mormon issue, by any means. It's not an American issue, in the sense that we want to protect Americans living in Russia. We are raising this issue as a human rights issue to help Russia stay in the international community. She started into the international community by throwing off the Soviet communists' power. We don't want to see her move back in that direction. . . . We had an opportunity to make our position felt on this law. I was happy to have the assignment to transmit that information to the Russians."
He said that one of the things he found was "there was great misunderstanding of how this [law] would affect Western religions. Much of the impetus for it has sprung out of that misunderstanding. I was able to help some people understand better how western religions would operate in Russia and how the law needed to be administered."
Sen. Bennett added: "I recognize that this problem is an ongoing one. It will not be settled with a single law. We must remain vigilant. I understand that the Russians are concerned about preserving what they consider their national character, and I am sympathetic with that. I reassured the people I talked with that Mormons, under the 12th Article of Faith, uphold and sustain the law wherever they are, and that we were not trying to make Americans out of them, that they could remain loyal citizens of Russia as members of the LDS Church and could retain their support and reverence for Russian culture and the Russian society."