* Draft sets jail terms for offending religious feeling
* Critics see it as part of Kremlin clampdown on dissent
* Putin urged deputies not to rush it through
By Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW, Dec 2 Russian lawmakers are reworking a
draft law introducing prison terms for religious offences after
signs that Vladimir Putin is concerned it could undermine the
delicate balance between the country's many religions.
The president's party proposed the law after two members of
the Pussy Riot punk band were jailed for two years over a
protest in a cathedral against Putin's increasingly close ties
with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Putin has trod a thin line between celebrating a secular
state of many religions and promoting the Russian Orthodox
Church since rising to power in 2000, but has leaned more on the
Orthodox Church for support since starting his third term as
president in May following protests against his rule.
Opponents say the draft law is intended as part of broader
Kremlin moves to suppress dissent and bolster public support by
casting Putin, a former KGB spy, as the protector of religious
Critics have also said the definition of offending religious
feelings is so broad and vaguely defined in the draft law that
it risks being ineffective or applied selectively in practice,
hurting relations between Russia's many religions.
"The impression is that in the Kremlin they understood that
somehow they have overdone it," said Alexei Malashenko, a
religion expert at the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank.
"The goal of this law is still to tighten regulations in
general but they understand that a too radical tightening is
dangerous so they will consult now and hold talks, especially as
at the Kremlin itself there is no unanimity on that matter."
Yaroslav Nilov told Reuters that the parliamentary committee
overseeing the legislation, which he heads, was looking again at
the wording after Putin told his advisory council on human
rights that lawmakers should not rush with the bill.
He did not comment on the jail term it now envisages -- up
to three years for offending religious feelings and up to five
years for inflicting damage on religious sites or holy books, in
addition to fines and community work.
"What does offending religious feelings mean? Is the most
important principle for Muslims, that there is no God but Allah,
an offence to the religious feelings of Christians?," said
Alexei Grishin, a member of Russia's Civic Chamber, an advisory
body to the Russian authorities.
"Most likely it is if you approach it very stringently, as
it suggests all other gods are not really gods. So the law
really needs to be worded very precisely, otherwise it would
lead to unpredictable consequences."
RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH RESURGENT
The Russian Orthodox Church has been resurgent since the
collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but atheistic traditions
are also strong after decades of repression of religious faith
during the Soviet Communist era.
About three in four Russians say they are Orthodox
Christians and a vast majority were outraged by the
profanity-laced P u ssy Riot protest in February, although far
fewer supported the tough sentences, opinion polls showed.
The two members of the all-female protest band were
sentenced for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
Nilov, head of parliament's committee on civic and religious
groups, said he hoped the jail terms would stay.
"We are refining the wording. The law will only be passed
next year," he said, adding that one change discussed was aimed
at avoiding legal discrimination of atheists.
"For example, we will move away from talking of safeguarding
the feelings of believers towards creating a punishment for
offending people because of their views on religion. Such a
phrase will also include non-believers."
Rights activists have said the legislation, in its current
form, could blur the line between religion and the state in
Russia, which by constitution is a secular country.
"I think our legislation already has enough instruments to
protect against attacks on citizens whose right to easily
exercise their freedom of conscience, both in religious and
other terms, is hindered," Russia's human rights ombudsman,
Vladimir Lukin, said.