All 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have committed to recognize and respect religious freedom as a fundamental freedom. However, some OSCE countries are among the worst perpetrators of religious freedom violations in the world.
On November 15, 2017 the U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing titled “Religious Freedom Violations in the OSCE Region: Victims and Perpetrators.” The panel included Ambassador Michael Kozak, Senior Advisor for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Dr. Daniel Mark, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota; and Phillip Brumley, General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The briefing was moderated by U.S. Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Nathaniel Hurd.
Ambassador Kozak opened his remarks by emphasizing that freedom of religion is an important issue to the Trump Administration. He named Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan as the most concerning OSCE participating States currently violating their citizens’ right to freedom of religion. While he noted Uzbekistan is making some efforts to remove itself from the “Countries of Particular Concern” list, the country still has a ways to go. He discussed a law in Tajikistan that prevents any child under 18years of age from attending public religious ceremonies, saying this law not only violates citizens’ freedom of religion but also freedom of assembly. He then stressed the importance of keeping an eye on “Tier 2” countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, as all three countries are active in limiting the rights of minority religions.
During the Q & A session, Ambassador Kozak explained that the State Department released the Annual International Religious Freedom Report three months after the legally required May deadline so the Secretary could participate in the rollout. He also acknowledged the State Department’s failure to meet the legally required deadline to issue its designation of Countries of Particular Concern 90 days after releasing the IRF report. The Ambassador himself took responsibility for missing the deadline, explaining that he has not yet provided the paperwork to the Secretary and saying the designations should be issued soon.
Dr. Daniel Mark then spoke about the role of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in the OSCE region. USCIRF monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations in Washington. He recently traveled to Uzbekistan and also acknowledged the efforts of the country to improve its status on the “Countries of Particular Concern” list.
He added that Uzbekistan was the one country that offers hope in the region, although the USCIRF is still waiting for more evidence on much needed reforms. He cited the strict registration of religious groups, tightly controlled possession of religious literature, and the thousands of Uzbek Muslims who continue to serve long-term prison sentences on fabricated charges. He also warned that extremism laws have become a new way to prevent peaceful religious expression in the region. Overall, he said the Commission is not optimistic about religious freedom in the region, which is arguably more restricted than ever before.
During the Q&A session, Dr. Mark reiterated that the biggest constraint on religious freedom in Uzbekistan is the government-required registration on religious organizations. Without registration, a group cannot have property, services, or literature; however, registration is also a way for the government to start its control and surveillance.
Dr. Kathleen Collins concentrated her time on the evolving situation in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. She suggested that governments in the region are looking towards each other and Russia to justify extremism laws that are really just another form of religious persecution. Dr. Collins spoke about a proposed amendment in the Kazak government that limit religious teaching to approved organizations, and the new requirement for 500 signatories for religious registration in Kyrgyzstan. Despite these laws, she noted that some churches have been able to build ties with local governments to provide social services that national and local governments do not prioritize, such as helping orphans and drug rehabilitation.
During the Q&A session, Dr. Collins noted that governments and secular civil society actors in the region have undercut some of the efforts to gain more religious freedom. She said there is not a tradition of civil society working with religious actors as a result of deeply secular civil societies that tend to distrust religious actors. Dr. Collins added that mistrust developed during Communist rule has undermined different Christian communities working together to address issues of religious freedom.
Finally, Phillip Brumley began by listing Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia as the most dangerous countries for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the OSCE region. Brumley explained how Russia’s extremism laws allowed the Russian government to classify Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization. He said Jehovah’s Witnesses residing in Russia can remain true to their faith but must keep it to themselves and refrain from gathering in groups to worship. He believes that Russia is the primary driver of religious freedom violations in the region.
During the Q&A session, Brumley said he believes Russia is taking a long time in their attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses in order to give a veneer of giving Jehovah’s Witnesses due process of law. He noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in Russia since before the Soviet Union and there are fourth and fifth generation Witnesses living in Russia who will continue to practice their faith, even under these new limitations.