(Washington, DC) — “This is a crucial year in Russia in the post-Yeltsin era, and we must be vigilant in assuring that Russia adheres to its commitments to human rights and freedoms. Today’s testimony indicates that Russia’s commitment to Freedom of Religion is tenuous at best—an illusion at worst,” said Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) at a Commission hearing.
Ranking Member Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) and Rep. Bob Clement (D-TN) also were in attendence. Testifying were: His Excellency Ambassador Robert Seiple, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State; Anatoly Krasikov, Chairman, Russian Chapter, International Religious Liberty Association, Moscow, Russia; Pastor Igor Nikitin, Chairman, Union of Christians, St. Petersburg, Russia; and, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Director of the Washington Office, American Friends of Lubavitch, speaking for Rabbi Berel Lazar of the Marina Roshcha Synagogue, Moscow, Russia.
“While the central government appears committed—on paper—to religious freedom through the country, some local officials have clearly interpreted the 1997 law as a license to harass minority religious groups,” said Smith. “At least one American missionary has been evicted from Russia—on what certainly appear to be very flimsy grounds. Charismatic groups have been accused by authorities of ‘hypnotizing’ congregation members. Churches that formerly rented public buildings are now finding these premises closed to them by local officials. The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchy seems more interested in criticizing so-called ‘non-traditional’ faiths than in actually engaging in the witness of their faith—a right protected by a commitment the freedom of speech. Even in supposedly more liberal Moscow, a court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses for allegedly ‘inciting religious discord’ and ‘destroying families’ has dragged on for more than two years.”
“In some instances, religious communities have been able to secure their legal rights through court decisions at both the national and local level, only to face attempts by local officials to ‘liquidate’ their formal status on flimsy legal grounds. In many cases, local officials claim to be ‘protecting’ citizens from the alleged dangers of ‘sects’ when they act against religious communities. It seems to me that their time might be better spent working on economic and social betterment for all of their constituents,” said Hoyer.
Clement commented, “We’re not trying to dictate Christianity around the world, we want tolerance for all religions around the world.”
Robert Seiple, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said, “In Russia there is the potential for events to bring about a decline of religious freedom. …There is also the potential for us and like-minded advocates of religious freedom to take steps to prevent this from happening.”
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Seiple cited Russia’s Constitutional Court ruling on a challenge to the 1997 “restrictive religion law,” felt by many to have been a step in the right direction. He also cited the Duma’s failure to enact legislation that would have extended the deadline for re-registration of religious groups and organizations, and instances of some local officials using the 1997 law to harass “so-called ‘non-traditional’ religious groups” in his discussion.
In a more positive light, Seiple noted that there have been “some positive steps taken against anti-Semitism.” He also cited examples where U.S. diplomacy had played a constructive role, particularly regarding Roman Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He concluded, “Many observers today believe that the situation with respect to religious freedom in Russia has stabilized. I believe the country remains on the cusp.…I am an optimist by nature. I believe the Russian people and their government will choose to respect religious freedom and democracy, but not without the active support of the international community. We will continue to work with our European partners to promote a climate in Russia which respects diversity in religious practice.”
Rabbi Shemtov commented that “…in recent years the incidents of anti-Semitism in Russia have reached alarming levels…but there was also an undeniable trend towards lawlessness.…It must be noted that since August of 1999, when a savage attack at the Choral Synagogue in Moscow and the attempted bombing of the Bolshaya Boronya Synagogue followed a few days later, the situation has improved dramatically.”
Pastor Nikitin noted the fact that, “Following the visit of American Members of Congress to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in St. Petersburg [in July 1999], city officials were much more amenable to my church’s community services. The visit by the U.S. Congress had a tremendous positive impact.”
Dr. Krasikov recalled James Madison’s warning, “When there is a union of state and church, this has often resulted in using religion to uphold political tyranny” as he discussed efforts by some to merge the Russian Orthodox Church with the Russian Government.
When asked what the U.S. should do to preempt such deterioration, Seiple responded that, whenever an anti-religious act occurs, “the United States, and this Commission, should shout early, loudly and often. We must be vigilant on this issue.”
Media Contact: Chadwick R. Gore