THIS PAST SUMMER on a visit to Russia, I stopped in at several churches and was touched by the piety of the simple Russian people, till lately deprived of religious freedom, who come to church to pray, to humble themselves before the holy icons, and to partake in the venerable rites of the Russian Orthodox tradition.

I was less favorably impressed that is, I was disgusted by the political machinations of the holy leaders of that tradition, craftily at work to push through a bill, now signed into law by President Yeltsin, designed to secure power and privilege for Russian Orthodoxy, cut a deal with a handful of "traditional" Russian religions, and curtail the newly restored religious freedoms of everyone else.

The law "on freedom of conscience and on religious associations" indeed! neatly divides religious groups in Russia into two categories: first-class "religious organizations" and second-class "religious groups."

For a "religious organization," full privileges and protections are guaranteed; for a "religious group," nearly every right is denied.

What makes the difference between a crippled "group" and a privileged "organization"? To be an organization, you have to come up with legal documents proving you've been functioning in Russia for at least fifteen years that is, that you knuckled under and did whatever required to win State approval under the Brezhnev-era Soviet regime.

Here are some of the rights the new law guarantees only to "religious organizations" and not to religious "groups."

• the right to create educational institutions. (Article 5, Section 3)
• the right to found and maintain religious buildings and places of worship. (16.1)
• the right to perform worship services and religious ceremonies without hindrance in religious buildings, residential buildings, cemeteries and crematoria, and other places. (16.2)
• the right to carry out religious rites in health centers, hospitals, prisons, children's homes, old people's homes, and institutions for the handicapped. (16.3)
• the right to produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature; printed, audio, and video material; and other articles of religious significance. (17.1.) (For "groups," this right is further crushed in 27.3.)
• the right to start enterprises to produce liturgical literature and articles for religious services. (17.2) (For emphasis, the law reserves this as an exclusive right of religious "organizations.")
• the right to carry out charitable activities. (18.1)
• the right to create cultural and educational institutions, and organs of mass media. (18.2) (Your right to publish a magazine or run a radio or TV station is assured provided you're a religious "organization.")
• the right to create schools to train priests and clergy (another organizational exclusive 19.1), and for students to be deferred from military service. (19.3)
• the right to establish and maintain international links and contacts, for such purposes as pilgrimages, meetings, and religious education. (20.1)
• the right to invite foreign citizens for preaching or religious activity. (20.2) (Organizational exclusive!)
• the right to own buildings, property, articles of religious significance, and so on. (21.1)

A "religious group" has rights too. It can worship privately and teach religion to its own followers. (7.2) And this it can do on premises to be provided by its own members like their own flats. (7.1) And that's about it.

If space allowed, I could tell you of the opportunities the new law provides for the State to subject "groups" to arbitrary bureaucratic burdens and harassments. And how easy it has become, on flimsy grounds, for a religious "group" to be banned or liquidated (in Russian contexts, a familiar word).

The new law specifically recognizes "the special contribution of Orthodoxy" to Russia's spirituality and culture. And provides the means for the Hare Krsna movement in Russia to be suppressed and persecuted.

The constitutionality of the new law is sure to be challenged (we hope successfully). Meanwhile, now that the Orthodox Church has pushed through this egregiously repressive law Orthodoxy's latest "special contribution to Russia's spirituality and culture"? any standing this Church might once have had as an exponent of freedom of religion and conscience need not be challenged; it no longer exists.

The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author one non-Russian individual. They are not the official views of Back to Godhead, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or any other body.