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President Boris N. Yeltsin rejected Tuesday a controversial bill, opposed by the United States and Pope John Paul II, that would have curbed religious freedom in Russia.

Yeltsin said he reluctantly had decided not to sign the draft law because it contradicted Russia's constitutional guarantee of equality for all faiths.

"This was a difficult decision," he said, noting that the Russian Orthodox Church and a majority of legislators in parliament's lower house, the State Duma, had backed the bill.

The bill favored traditional faiths in Russia. Apart from Orthodoxy, these include Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. It also would have imposed new restrictions on foreign missionaries.

Supporters said the measure would help control the big post-Communist explosion in religious sects that have fed on Russians' poverty, spiritual hunger or simple curiosity.

Critics argued the measure marked a step back to Soviet-style control of religion and that it violated the constitution.

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