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YELTSIN SIGNS CONTROVERSIAL BILL ON RELIGION

President Boris N. Yeltsin today signed into law a highly controversial religion bill that enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church as the country's pre-eminent religion and limits the activities of other religious groups.

Russia's Orthodox Church and hard-liners and nationalists in parliament have fought hard to pass the law, arguing that the country was flooded by dangerous alien religions seeking to "sow the seeds of religious enmity," as Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II said this week.

"This is a source of danger not only for the church but also for the state," he said.

Critics say the legislation violates the Russian constitution in curbing the rights of many religious organizations, including Protestant and Catholic groups that have become increasingly active in Russia since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, voted unanimously to approve the measure on Wednesday, and the lower house approved it overwhelmingly last week. Yeltsin vetoed the original bill in July in response to sharp criticism at home and abroad, including that from the Vatican and the U.S. Congress.

The new version included several changes but kept the most controversial clauses largely intact.

The bill pledges respect for Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity in general, but many opponents abroad fear that the Orthodox Church wants to prevent Catholic and Protestant groups from operating freely in Russia.

One clause in the bill says religious groups must been present in Russia for 15 years before they can publish or distribute religious literature, or invite foreigners for preaching activities.

Such groups would not be able to hold worship services in hospitals, senior citizens' homes, schools, orphanages or prisons. They would not be able to form educational establishments, found newspapers or magazines and their clergy would not be exempt from military service.

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