The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes religious freedom as a “human right and fundamental freedom.” Participating States of the OSCE “will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”
The Helsinki Commission promotes and defends the religious freedom of people in the OSCE region, particularly prioritizing the cases of individuals and communities whose religious freedom has been violated and laws and policies that conflict with the Helsinki Final Act.
Forum 18 is a news organization dedicated to reporting on violations of religious freedom in several OSCE participating States, including in Central Asia and the South Caucasus; Russia; Belarus; and Turkey. Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Nathaniel Hurd interviewed the editors of Forum 18 by email to learn more about their work and views about religious freedom in the countries they cover.
According to the editors, “The mission of Forum 18 is to provide original, reliable and detailed monitoring and analyses of threats and actions against the freedom of religion and belief of all people, whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism), in an objective, truthful and timely manner.”
Violations of Religious Freedom in the Former Soviet Union
Forum 18 focuses its work on the states of the former Soviet Union, which the organization considers the worst violators of freedom of religion in the region.
“The worst violators of freedom of religion and belief in the territories Forum 18 monitors – governments – target anyone and any religious community they see as actually or potentially outside their control,” the editors noted. “Azerbaijan, for example, claims to be ‘an example of tolerance’ yet has repeatedly closed Sunni Muslim mosques. A 2014 police list of banned books [in Azerbaijan] includes Islamic texts by theologian Said Nursi, Jehovah’s Witness texts, and the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible used by Christians and Jews. Police have long confiscated these texts and others during raids on Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, and Baptist private homes and meetings of people exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. There are many prisoners of conscience, especially human rights defenders and journalists. On July 3, 2017 Shia Imam Sardar Babayev was jailed for three years for leading mosque prayers because he was educated abroad.”
“The reality of freedom of religion and belief violations by governments in these territories and the necessity of documenting them is why we were founded,” noting that they work to protect the freedom of everyone whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism). “Our founders and staff were and are totally convinced as a matter of Christian conviction that everyone with no exceptions – including people who would completely disagree with the Christian faith – must…be able to freely exercise the freedom of religion and belief, and related rights such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly…Our personal experience in the territories we monitor and other states (such as the former East Germany), as well as our own convictions, make us committed to Forum 18’s work of monitoring and analyzing governments’ violations of their international human rights law obligations.”
In addition to its work on Azerbaijan, Forum 18 is also focusing on Uzbekistan’s raids, fines, jailing, and torture of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the increasing number of prisoners of conscience being jailed in Kazakhstan for exercising freedom of religion and belief, including alleged adherents of Muslim missionary movement Tabligh Jamaat, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov, and Seventh-day Adventist Yklas Kabduakasov. Kazakhstan has also banned all mosques outside state control; expressions of non-Sunni Hanafi Islam; and discussion of faith by people without state permission, or not using state-approved texts, or outside state-approved locations. Kazakhstan’s persecution of atheist writer Aleksandr Kharlamov is also of concern.
In Russia, Forum 18 actively monitors the government’s “anti-extremist” nationwide ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as “anti-extremist” prosecutions, fines and jailing of Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, including cases like that of Muslim Yevgeny Kim, who in in June 2017 was sentenced to three years in prison. Forum 18 is also concerned about nationwide religious literature bans, with the possessors of such texts being liable to criminal prosecution.
Accuracy and Objectivity Are Key
“Our overriding editorial objective is to as accurately as possible present the truth of a situation, both implicitly and explicitly,” note the editors of Forum 18. “It is vitally important that we cross-check information with local people, including religious communities and other human rights defender organizations where these exist. It is equally vital that in our published articles we carry the views of local people and human rights organizations – this enables local people to make their views on human rights violations known.”
“Similarly, we always seek the comments of relevant officials, such as public prosecutors, police and secret police officials, within the country being written about,” they continued. “Every article we publish includes information on all the sources used, even if some have to be described as remaining anonymous for fear of state reprisals.”
According to Forum 18, the organization’s efforts have resulted in “significant respect and usage among victims of human rights violations, human rights defenders (including journalists), diplomats, intergovernmental organizations, academics and others.”
“Accuracy is in itself an effective advocacy for human rights by countering with accurate information the false information presented by repressive regimes, who often seek to conceal their human rights violations,” the editors said.
The Worst of the Worst?
When asked which of the countries Forum 18 monitors should be considered the “worst of the worst,” the editors noted that developing such a ranking is difficult.
“Territories where serious…violations take place are places where people have a strong incentive to not discuss the state’s violations, for fear of state reprisals, making any reliable ranking of territories difficult,” they observed.
“Because in all the territories Forum 18 monitors governments violate individuals’, informal groups’, and communities’ freedom of religion and belief apparently as part of a declared or undeclared policies of increasing state control of society – even in states such as Georgia in the south Caucasus – we think it is best for readers to judge for themselves which countries are the worst violators of freedom of religion or belief at any one time,” the editors added.
Similarly, Forum 18 finds it difficult to rank the individual cases monitored by the organization. “In our view, each one of these cases where a government has violated an individual’s or group’s freedom of religion and belief can fairly be described as compelling.
We think this view is reinforced by the individual cases being part of a much broader pattern of intentional, systemic government violations of the human rights of everyone they rule.”
One case Forum 18 has followed close is that of Protestant Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov in Tajikistan, who was jailed for three years for allegedly “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting ‘religious hatred.’” The regime has threatened family members, friends, and church members with reprisals if they reveal any details of the case, trial, or jailing.
Cooperation is Key
Cooperation is vital to the Forum 18 approach. “Cooperation in defense of human rights for all is both right in principle and more effective than competition,” the Forum 18 editors argue. “It is important to cooperate with others – including in our case providing accurate information – to help responses to violations of freedom of religion and belief and interlinked other fundamental freedoms to be as effective as possible. Our work with victims of freedom of religion and belief violations and other human rights defenders convinces us that this approach is the right one to follow.”