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In Memoriam: Karen Lord (1967-2001)
Counsel for Religious Freedom at the Helsinki Commission (1995-2001)
Monday, January 29, 2018

By Nathaniel Hurd,
Senior Policy Advisor

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” Gandalf says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Helsinki Commission colleague Karen Lord relished the writings of Tolkien and beautifully lived the time given to her before dying of cancer at the age of 33. She served as Counsel for Religious Freedom at the Helsinki Commission from 1995 to 2001, and defended people of all faith even from her hospital bed.

On the 17th anniversary of her death, the Commission wants to give her family, friends, current and former Commissioners, and former colleagues the opportunity to commemorate her life and work in their words now. If you knew Karen, and want to send us a reflection to add to this tribute, please email info@csce.gov.

Family Life

Karen was born November 10, 1967, in Columbus, Ohio, to Dr. Raymond and Arija Lord, and was the eldest of three sisters; Ellen joined the family in 1968 and Diane in 1970. Devout Christians, the Lords moved to Haiti as missionaries when Karen was four years old, where Dr. Lord practiced medicine. They returned to the United States when she was six and settled in Portage, Michigan.

Karen Lord and her sisters as childrenEllen notes, “We looked a lot alike. I learned to ‘answer’ to my sisters’ names since people often mistook us for one of the other two ‘Lord sisters.’ The three of us were always very close growing up. I remember getting along quite well with both of my sisters, and have always considered them among my very best friends.”

Diane adds, “I was always proud to be known as the ‘Lord sisters.’”

Ellen continues, “Karen was the quintessential ‘big sister’—she seemed to always be able to get her way and talk everyone into the big ideas for lots of fun.

“She was the trailblazer for child-rearing for my parents and I think she made it easy for them, and definitely made it easy for her two younger sisters. She somehow was also able to talk my parents into and out of lots of things that she wanted to do (or not do), a skill which she continued to use throughout her life.”

“Growing up, Karen was a leader,” Diane agrees. “I remember in middle school on the bus she stood up to a boy who was bullying her and others. Unfortunately for him, he tried to hit her and broke his arm on her head!”

Dr. Lord recalls, “Karen was a happy girl and enjoyed school. She was consistent in getting her homework finished, usually ahead of time. In high school Karen was elected to the Student Council for three years. Karen was also on the school volleyball team.”

“When she was elected to be on the Homecoming Court her senior year, she called herself the ‘Queen of the Geeks,’ as she did not run with the popular crowd,” says Diane.

Diane also recalls the strong convictions, sense of wonder, and commitment to reason that would animate Karen’s relationships with her family, friends, and defense of religious freedom.

“Throughout her life, she always surrounded herself with wonderful, interesting, and dynamic people—I thought the world of all of her friends. Early on, she had strong convictions and she always asked questions. She had questions about how the Bible was interpreted and things our church taught. She engaged our youth group, our parents, and Ellen and I in conversations that encouraged us to think more deeply about our faith. She did not settle for ‘status quo’ if things did not seem right to her,” she says.

“I looked up to her as my oldest sister and remember gaining confidence from her example to speak and have my own opinions. Having a conversation with Karen meant you had to know what you were talking about because she always asked questions and probed for your perspective on things from politics to religion to relationships. She pushed me in a good way and made me feel as though what I thought really mattered.”

University Years

Karen entered Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois, in the fall of 1985 and graduated in 1989.

Karen Lord with her sistersEllen says, “I had the privilege of also attending there a year later. Karen made a point to make me feel welcome on campus. Her friends in high school and college were always my friends, too. In fact, we lived together in a house of eight women when I was a junior and she was a senior (ironically, we named it ‘The White House’) and had a wonderful time—we kept this particular group of friendships going even after college and have gotten together every few years to catch up and reminisce.”

“While in college, Karen thought deeply about what she was learning as a political science major. She wanted to do something with her life that made a difference. Karen made friends with many people, some of whom were very different from her. She always challenged her friends with good questions that would spark wonderful conversations. Karen made people think about why they thought what they thought, or why they did what they did. She was not afraid to talk to a friend when their life was inconsistent with their beliefs, and people appreciated that she cared enough to say something,” she adds.

One of these friends at Wheaton, Patrice (Trichian) Maljanian, became her best friend outside of her sisters and was later her housemate in Washington, D.C.

Patrice recollects, “My first memory of Karen was in either Old Testament or New Testament archaeology with Dr. [Alfred] Hoerth. She would share with the class the cookies her mother sent her and I thought that was so generous of her.

“When I served as the DJ for the [Wheaton College] radio station, WETN, she was the newscaster—basically she read the AP wire news during the news breaks. We would visit a little bit in between sessions, but we really connected over a meal early our senior year. As we were eating, we discovered all these, ‘me too’ things we shared in common. Our last and most significant desire was that we wanted to be in a Bible study and prayer group and so we decided to do this together. Once a week she came over to the house where I was living and we studied the names of God and prayed.”

When Karen applied to law schools, Patrice says, “Her biggest prayer request was for law school applications clarity about where God wanted her to attend. When Karen’s acceptance to American University came, she was surrounded by friends. We all jumped up and down in the Memorial Student Center and celebrated. Once the fray had subsided, she looked at me and asked, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ Thus, our adventure began.”

Life in Washington

“Our first little apartment was in McLean Gardens on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., just down the street a bit from American University,” Patrice says. “We lived there for about two years and then moved to Lyon Village in Arlington because I was starting my master’s program at Marymount University.”

Ellen says, “When Karen moved to D.C. for law school and then settled there, it was always a treat to visit her. We always went and did interesting things and met her interesting and influential friends.

“She loved hiking and the outdoors, and loved the fact the D.C. was near to the mountains and the ocean. She loved to travel and enjoyed trips with her friends to other countries to explore different cultures and experiences. She and I took a few trips together before I got married.”

Patrice notes, “We lived together for six years. Our apartment quickly became a central location for dinner parties because we liked to entertain so much. On Sunday evenings we attended a prayer and praise night at Rich Vartain’s house on Capitol Hill. This quiet, yet beautiful time of worship was one of the reasons that Karen learned how to play the guitar. She also picked it up during law school finals because it was a very constructive diversion from the stress of exams.”

Ellen says, “She loved life. She loved Jesus. She loved her work. She saw God’s hand in all things, including His creation, and in art, literature and science. Her bookshelves held law books right next to books by great Christian authors (C.S. Lewis, Andrew Murray), and books such as Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.”

“Sunday afternoons we were either walking on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal or biking near Middleburg with friends,” Patrice remembers. “Karen rode her bike to school often. I bought a bike also so that we could ride together on the weekends. We loved the Rock Creek Parkway in the autumn because the golden leaves would float across our path.

Sunday nights were pretty sacred for us. After praise and prayer in the winter, we would come back to our D.C. apartment, sit by the fire, read, listen to Enya, and munch on popcorn. The popcorn is a Lord family tradition and we have adopted it in our household as well.”

Karen graduated from American University Washington College of Law in 1992 and was admitted to the Maryland state bar. She soon became a staff lawyer for Advocates International, a Christian legal organization founded by Sam Ericsson, JD, in 1991. The stated mission is “encouraging and enabling Advocates to meet locally, organize nationally, cooperate regionally and link globally to promote justice, rule of law, religious freedom, reconciliation and integrity…AI’s global network informally links…lawyers, law professors, jurists, law students and other law professionals and their colleagues in…cities, towns and law schools.”

In a 2001 tribute, Ericsson, who died in 2011, noted, “At the time, Advocates was too small to support even one full-time lawyer, so to make ends meet, Karen and I practiced immigration law.”

The Helsinki Commission

Karen worked at Advocates International for two years before becoming the Counsel for Freedom of Religion at the Helsinki Commission in 1995, where she remained until her death. At the Helsinki Commission, Karen dedicated herself to defending the religious freedom of persecuted people of all faiths. She was resolute in helping participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe keep their commitments to religious freedom and holding them accountable when they violated them.

As part of her studies at Wheaton, Dr. Lord notes, “During summers the political science department offered a study trip to several capitals of Europe, including Russia, where the group studied the different forms of government with interviews with officials in each site. This was a very impressive experience for Karen and a preparation experience the suited her for what she did at the Helsinki Commission.”

Diane recalls, “Karen felt passionate about her work at the Helsinki Commission and really felt a sense of urgency and a desire to be a voice for people whose voices were not heard. Just as she was standing up for kids being bullied in middle school, she was 100 percent invested in her work and felt called to stand up for those being persecuted. Karen often would ask us to pray for people in prison or for situations she was working on.”

Patrice says, “Karen would share prayer requests for these precious people when we met for Covenant Group, and I remember her extensive travels related to the Helsinki Commission. I distinctly remember her advocacy work in Germany for the Mormons. She spent time working with them and was just as vigorous in pursuing their religiously liberty as she would for Christians. Her work to defend freedom was very important to her. It is hard to explain, but sometimes she would actually feel the despair of those who were suffering—these were dark times for her that led her to wrestle with God in prayer.”

Ellen adds, “I remember Karen talking about her work when she was at the Helsinki Commission, and she would keep us informed about the latest things she was doing to advocate for people of faith all around the world.

“Karen was young and beautiful and blonde, and wickedly smart and articulate. “Somehow she was able to sit at the same table as stodgy older gentlemen in foreign countries, and get them to see her points and agree to champion religious liberty. It was similar to how she always seemed to talk us into her good ideas as children and young adults!”

Taken Young

Cancer was with Karen almost as long as she was with the Commission. “Her diagnosis of cancer was a complete shock at age 29,” says Ellen.

Yet despite her diagnosis and new reality, Patrice recalls, “Karen radiated joy in every area of her life—even in this professional side which, for her, was intertwined with her calling to serve Christ and His church. Even when she was sick and had to travel to places like Poland, she exuded a steadfastness and contentment in fulfilling her mission.”

“I picked her up from Dulles once with friends and, to be honest, I was worried about whether or not the trip was a good idea given her condition,” Patrice continues. “When we found her in baggage claim, she was glowing, tired but glowing, because she was doing what she loved. The Lord sustained her in amazing ways so that she could continue doing what He was calling her to do.

After every cycle of chemotherapy Karen would go on a victory tour. She loved celebrating life in any form, big or small. Sometimes it would be a piece of dark chocolate or a trip to Portugal. Sometimes she gave gifts because that was another tangible form of celebration to her. She was quite lavish that way because she lived a grateful life and felt that she had more than enough, so why not share the excess.”

Patrice adds, “Whether it was work or play, Karen pursued the ‘Good, the True and the Beautiful’ in everything. She was an avid reader and musician (beautiful voice, flute and guitar). Karen loved to hike and bike and camp. She and her family had a very deep and abiding love for each other—travelling, visiting in person or on the phone, vacationing together. I was privileged to be included on many of these wonderful experiences.”

Diane remembers, “Even after Karen was diagnosed and going through chemotherapy treatments, she would continue to travel and work with joy, knowing that this was her privilege and calling. I feel grateful that during the last years of her life we were able to travel together to the Netherlands as well as to Nova Scotia.

"One special memory I have is sitting together on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence watching eagles fly on the wind currents and feeling like time had stopped.

"Unfortunately, the cancer did not stop spreading. The following summer Karen was with my husband and me at his family lake place in New Jersey, and Karen, despite her compromised lung capacity due to the cancer, swam across the lake with me. It was quite an achievement for someone in her condition, but she was determined. Now, every year to honor Karen, my girls and I swim across the lake in New Jersey to honor their Aunt Karen.”

“She struggled through the hard questions with God while ill, but kept her faith. Even when she was ill, she still cared about her work, sometimes sending email and advocating for people of faith who were suffering across the world from her hospital bed,” observes Ellen.

Dr. Lord, an oncologist from 1974 until his retirement in 2014, describes how the cancer progressed.

“It was stage III at her first surgery. She had chemotherapy following her first surgery. There were a few months that she was ‘cancer free.’ However, there were clues that some of the blood tests were becoming abnormal. The tumor could be felt and Karen had to face that she would never have children.”

“At the surgery, it became clear she had Stage IV colon cancer,” he explains. “She required radiation and then more chemotherapy.

“At that time there was an immunologic study at Georgetown University. Karen asked me to help her in her decision as her father and as a medical oncologist. I flew to Washington so that I could visit the Georgetown doctor with her. It was learned that the immunological treatment required her to remain in Washington, D.C. She was scheduled to be in a meeting in Europe. So it was a question of staying in Washington for treatment versus attending the meeting in Europe.

“The way Karen was feeling she figured the trip would be her last trip. The immunological study was in an early phase and immunotherapy was not very developed at that point. We had a long talk after the doctor’s visit. We prayed for wisdom (James 1:5). Karen decided not to take the immunotherapy but to make the trip to Europe and go to the meetings.

“She did go and shortly after getting back she was getting short of breath and required oxygen. Karen started hospice and narcotics for the pain. Family members stayed with her in her apartment where she died about six weeks later. She was alert but very weak to the end.”

Ellen recalls, “Karen lived through the treatments believing she might be healed but came to the conclusion that that would not happen. She wrote on January 15, 2001, ‘I am ready to go to heaven and end this struggle, and yet my heart longs to be here to be part of the battle.’”

Diane shares, “I was in the room with her when she died. The night before when I was tucking her in, she said, ‘Goodbye’ to me, and when she woke up the next morning she asked me, ‘We’re still here?’ She voraciously ate a mango and then closed her eyes. I called to my dad to come in the room and minutes later he said to me that ‘this was it.’ We held her hands and sang the hymn ‘How Great Thou Art.’”

Dr. Lord finishes the memory. “On the fourth verse of that hymn, ‘When Christ shall come…and take me home…,’ Karen stopped breathing forever.”

Heartfelt Tributes

On this 17th anniversary of her death, current and former Commissioners and colleagues pay tribute to her.

“In her six years as a staffer on the Commission, Karen was an exemplary and trusted advisor on religious freedom. I relied on her advice and expertise, and she was a tireless and unyielding advocate for anyone persecuted for their beliefs. She performed her duties with grace, serenity, and nobility.

Even while Karen physically weak and suffering from the ravages of cancer, she still fought for the fundamental rights of others, traveling to conferences on religious freedom and international law in Bulgaria and Azerbaijan. Not once did I hear her complain of her condition. We on the Commission still revere her heroic example of service for the vulnerable, and the suffering she bore with stoutheartedness and peace right up until the end. She is greatly missed.”

Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman, Helsinki Commission

“Helsinki Commission staff members are invaluable to our country’s defense of basic human rights and freedoms. Karen dedicated her life to people who were being persecuted for their faith. I am deeply grateful for her dedication and for embodying the best of America. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends on this anniversary of her passing.”   

Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Senator, Helsinki Commission

“Karen Lord, in her short life, had an outsized impact on religious freedom around the world. She was instrumental in making the freedom to worship—one of the Four Freedoms identified by President Franklin Roosevelt as fundamental to democracy—a core component of our foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. As a staffer for the Helsinki Commission, which I chaired, Karen worked tirelessly to ensure that the right of every individual and group to worship freely would be enshrined in American foreign policy doctrine and one of the pillars of global human rights. In this endeavor, she drew heavily on her own deep faith, which called her to a mission of protecting the faithful, no matter their creed. Her loss was a painful one for the Commission, for our country, and for the cause of freedom around the world.”

Representative Steny Hoyer (MD-05), Democratic Whip and Helsinki Commissioner (1985-2002), including as Chairman/Co-Chairman (1985-1994)

“Karen was a thoughtful Christian with a deep faith and a passion for human rights and religious liberty. She cared deeply for the oppressed, a quality I witnessed when I spoke with her in her capacity with the Helsinki Commission. Karen was at Wheaton College with my daughter Virginia and her husband Derrick and they remember her infectious joy which won her many friends.”

Former Representative Frank Wolf (VA-10), Distinguished Senior Fellow of the 21st  Century Wilberforce Initiative, Helsinki Commissioner (1989-2006) and author of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998

“Karen exercised a high professional standard for accuracy in advocacy on behalf of faith communities and individuals who faced retribution for their religious practice. She took the time that is required to develop rapport with those who had experienced great loss and trauma. She went to great lengths (and traveled to remote places) to hear the stories directly from those who were under fire and, like a good journalist, would double-check the details. She faithfully ‘bore witness’ to their stories and investigated the legal and policy context – all for the sake of determining what and how to take the most effective action.

Her authentic and winsome spirit crossed many a cultural and language barrier in gathering the details and understanding the often tragic stories of people's lives. Karen’s critical thinking, combined with her legal prowess, led to sound policy recommendations, actionable responses by diplomats and Members of Congress, legislative provisions, and countless appeals made directly with Foreign Ministry officials, ambassadors, and government officials at the highest levels.

Karen was a patient teacher. When engaging the religious, she helped individuals understand their basic human rights under national laws and international agreements. She trained religious leaders how to record and report the abuses they endured and empowered them with practical tools they could employ to make their cases heard within their own countries and on the international stage.

When engaging Members of Congress and US Government officials, Karen respectfully educated her interlocutors about the rights of individual believers and religious communities. Her tenacity and engagement helped develop a cadre of advocates within our institutions, who in turn had an impact in their own spheres of influence. Throughout the hearings, the staff-level consultations and the extraordinary interactions with private sector advocacy groups that led to the crafting and eventual passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, Karen’s wise counsel and professional expertise had a profound influence on the final tone and provisions in the law.

Karen had an open door policy and invited engagement with the wide range of advocacy organizations and communities of all faiths. Her humility was welcoming even when the points of view being shared were in extreme conflict. She practiced and lived out in her daily life the ideals of ‘religious freedom for all’ and ‘respecting the inherent dignity of every human being.’ I can remember many a meeting with officials from countries with abusive track records when Karen's preparation for the Member or her colleagues meant a consistent and firm yet respectful message was delivered without ambiguity.”

Dorothy Taft, Executive Director of the Market Project and Chief of Staff/Deputy Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission (1995-2007)

“Karen Lord was a sweet, wonderful young person of deep faith, wholly committed to the idea and practice of human rights. Helping those suffering persecution for their religious beliefs was not just her profession, it was her mission. She combined the utmost seriousness of purpose with a lightness of manner, and an innate kindness.

Karen’s steadfast good cheer despite a grim diagnosis and poor prospects for recovery always amazed me. Only rarely did she even mention her illness; she carried on as if all was normal.

She used to wear red colored pants that I enjoyed teasing her about. And so convincing was she that when her health finally failed, it came as an awful surprise.

Her funeral service, with hundreds of mourners, demonstrated the love she earned among family, friends and colleagues. I remember her fondly, with sadness about her premature death. After so many years, it still seems hard to believe.”

Michael Ochs, Staff Advisor at the Helsinki Commission (1987-2012)

“Karen served as a stellar advocate on behalf of those persecuted and marginalized because of their religious beliefs. Informed by her own deeply held Christian faith, Karen was ever mindful of the inherent dignity of each person without distinction. She brought energy, passion and determination to her work at the Helsinki Commission to the end, striving for justice for those denied the fundamental right to profess and practice their religion.”

Ron McNamara, Coordinator of Student Leadership Development at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and Director of International Policy at the Helsinki Commission (1986-2011)

“Karen Lord is the reason I became involved in international religious freedom advocacy almost 20 years ago. As far as I’m aware, she was the first civil servant to work full time on international religious freedom issues for a U.S. government agency. She was a forerunner to all the various offices and positions that exist today, both within the US government and within the OSCE. While in law school, I was connected to her through mutual friends who knew I was attending the same D.C. law school she attended some years before. She encouraged me to apply for an internship at the Helsinki Commission to work with her, which was my first exposure to these issues. Almost 20 years later, I've committed my career to this work that she pioneered.”

Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia (State Department) and intern and then Counsel at the Helsinki Commission (2001-2007)

“Karen was one of the most appealing coworkers in my long experience. It was neigh impossible not to be optimistic about the future when Karen would be part of it. Her memorial service — a standing-room event in a large church — was the most emotional outpouring of affection for a person I have ever participated in. Just typing these words, I weep in her memory.”

Wayne Merry, Senior Fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council, and Senior State Department Advisor to the Helsinki Commission (1997-1998)

“I first encountered Karen during 1996 in small, informal planning meetings with a few of us advocates who were trying to develop a better strategy to counter religious persecution abroad. Her commitment to the cause of protecting all people of faith made her a force of nature. Though she was one of the youngest in the room, she helped shape what would two years later become the International Religious Freedom Act.”

Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom (Hudson Institute), former Commissioner of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (1999-2012) and former Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House (1996-2006)

“Karen had a clarity of vision that was unusual for her young age and was wise beyond her years. I remember watching her, thinking how true these two things were: That she was incredibly bold yet incredibly poised, and even while taking on large governments and power structures, she was unfazed.

In a town which rewards equivocation, she was straight, kind, but very straight talking. And she had a passion which made you want to lean in and do something even if you already had too many things to do already. She was wildly convincing.

I remember the time she came back from Tajikistan, giving me a rock from a decimated church. Because of that rock and Karen’s vivid stories of how that church had been bulldozed in front of the congregation, I was haunted for years afterward and still keep that rock on my shelf to this day.

She was a consummate advocate, perfectly fashioned to do that early hard work when hardly anyone cared. I loved her for it and so did many others, too. I’m grateful to have called her both my friend and my dear, dear comrade.”

Sharon Payt, Executive Director of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and Legislative Assistant (1997-2002) for Senator Sam Brownback (KS), former Helsinki Commissioner (1999-2010; Chairman 2005-2006) and current U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom

“Karen had a great impact on me personally but also on lives and situations in the Central Asia region. She was well liked; her personal care and winning personality led to lasting relationships. She was well respected because of her professionalism and passion for people and human rights. It led to her becoming well connected to make a difference.”

Mats Tunehag, Editorial Board of Business as Mission and Chairman of the Central Asia Consultation in the 1990s

“Karen Lord was an exceptional voice for religious liberty and, for how she battled cancer and continued working to the end, I regard her as a saint. Some believe that the work I and other academics started doing with international institutions for religious liberty was some sort of conspiracy. The real story is different.

One very cold day I and Gordon Melton, then a Research Specialist in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, were walking in Washington DC and realized we were passing by the offices of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. We didn’t have an appointment but decided to enter and introduce ourselves (the fact that it was bloody cold outside was also a factor). We were received by young and shiny Karen Lord, who explained to us the many useful things academics can do to advocate for religious liberty at the OSCE, UN and other international institutions. Our cooperation was too short. 

I am very glad that in a government page there is such a fitting tribute to her.”

Massimo Introvigne, Former Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also Focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions (2011)

“Karen and worked together at Advocates International prior to her days at the CSCE and fondly remember her never say never attitude when it came to getting things done on behalf of those persecuted for their religious beliefs. She was a bright young lawyer and advocate and Advocates International is honored to consider her one of our own. She was taken too soon, but her impact is a lasting legacy. She is now with the great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on.”

Brent McBurney, President and CEO, Advocates International

“The first thing I think of when I think of Karen Lord is a song called ‘Testify to Love.’ ‘For as long as I shall live, I will testify to Love. I’ll be a witness in the silences when words are not enough. With every breath I take, I will give thanks to God above. For as long as I shall live, I will testify to Love.’ That was Karen.

I met her in the late 90s when a number of us from different organizations were working on religious freedom issues such as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and the International Religious Freedom Act. Karen was an invaluable part of this , both because of her wisdom, but even more because of her indomitable spirit.

I thank God for Karen, her love for people and for freedom. I still mourn her death – getting weepy reading the Helsinki Commission’s beautiful tribute – but I know that she was welcomed by a great cloud of witnesses, martyrs and other faithful, and with them she now cheers us on.”

Faith McDonnell, Director, Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, The Institute on Religion and Democracy

Her friend Patrice concludes, “Karen lived and loved large. She loved Jesus. She loved people. She loved worship and prayer. She loved C.S. Lewis and Narnia, Frederick Buechner and J.R.R. Tolkien. She loved dark chocolate and salads and good conversation. We would spend hours talking at night on our beds. Sometimes she would play her guitar and we would sing in harmony. We could finish each other’s sentences, sit together in silence, blast our music and dance—we were having the time of our lives.”

“Karen was God’s gift to me in so many ways. She taught me how to love God’s creation and camp, hike and breathe in His beauty. Instead of staying in the cabins during our Front Royal church retreats, we would stay in a tent in the meadow and brag to everyone about how well we slept! She loved to spend time alone with God.”

“One of my favorite memories of her is seeing her sit in the blue papasan chair in our ‘spare room’ in our Arlington apartment looking out at the hill of ivy. I still have that chair and that cushion. It is Auntie Karen’s chair, I tell my kids, so take care of it.

“I talk about Auntie Karen to my kids all the time because they need to know how she, as God’s instrument, shaped me. There is a void in this life because she is not here with us, but Heaven is richer for it.”

In her final reflection, Ellen says “Karen loved being an aunt to my children, although she passed away when my oldest was two and my middle child was nine months old. I miss her every day. I have multiple items around my house that she had brought home on her travels to other countries which I look at daily and think of the privilege I had being her sister.”

Diane closes, “Karen’s life, although short, was an inspiration to me – and continues to be – and I feel very grateful that she was my sister.”

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    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “This report shows that some of the worst government violators of religious freedom in the world continue to be in Eurasia, including Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. I am concerned that these OSCE participating States have not made any progress in implementing their commitments to ensure freedom of religion. “One exception where the situation has improved is Uzbekistan. I hope the final version of the country’s new religion law will demonstrate the commitment of President Mirziyoyev and his government to advancing religious freedom reforms. I would not want a situation in which the new law retains the most problematic elements of current law. That would put Uzbekistan at risk of remaining on the Special Watch List or even once again being designated as a Country of Particular Concern. “The Government of Uzbekistan must also keep its promise to formally work with international experts, including the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, to ensure its religion law complies with Uzbekistan’s international commitments.” In October 2018, Co-Chairman Wicker urged the Government of Uzbekistan to formally request that the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights conduct a legal review of Uzbekistan’s draft religion law. He repeated the call during a December 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing with Ambassador Brownback. Following last year’s International Religious Freedom Report, Secretary of State Pompeo designated OSCE participating States Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016. Pompeo further designated Uzbekistan and Russia for the Special Watch List, for continuing religious freedom violations. For Uzbekistan, the designation upgrades the country’s ranking in recognition of progress made under the regime of President Mirzoyoyev. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017. Russia was designated for the Special Watch List for the first time. As OSCE participating States, these countries repeatedly have committed themselves to respecting religious freedom. The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. Following the release of the annual report, the Secretary of State has 90 days to submit updated designations for the Countries of Particular Concern and the Special Watch List.

  • Chairman Hastings on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Helsinki Commission welcomes the release of the annual International Religious Freedom Report. Robust reporting on the full range of human rights—including respect for religious liberties—is critical to the preservation of democratic institutions. “The report details a number of continuing concerns in countries including Hungary and Turkey. In Hungary, government officials have engaged in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric and publicly venerated World War II-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies. Amendments to Hungary's controversial 2011 religion law came into effect in April, but it is not yet clear if the new and more complicated law will end discrimination against the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and other faiths. In Turkey, long-standing concerns persist about respect for the rights of Alevis and non-Muslim minorities to freely manage their religious activities and internal affairs. “These violations of religious freedom are extremely troubling, especially since Hungary and Turkey—like all participating States of the OSCE—have committed to protecting freedom of religion or belief and preventing intolerance and discrimination based on religious grounds.” The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

  • Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Commitments Regarding Freedom of Religion or Belief

    The 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have repeatedly committed to recognizing and respecting freedom of religion or belief. The 35 participating States of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe–the forerunner of the OSCE–signed the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which included: “The participating States 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 OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has staff dedicated to freedom of religion or belief, led by a senior advisor. ODIHR legal reviews to help participating States comply with their OSCE commitments have included existing law and draft legislation on freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR only conducts such reviews after receiving a formal invitation from a participating State. A panel of OSCE/ODIHR experts on freedom of religion or belief assists OSCE/ODIHR, and the ODIHR director appoints the panel’s 14 members every three years. This compilation, developed by Helsinki Commission staff, covers CSCE/OSCE commitments on freedom of religion or belief in 16 documents from the Final Act to the OSCE Ministerial Council in 2015. It includes the document title, excerpted text, and links to the original document. Participating States have also made commitments relating to discrimination or hate crimes base on religion or belief. Some examples are in “OSCE Human Dimension Commitments: Thematic Compilation.” This Helsinki Commission compilation only includes commitments on freedom of religion or belief. The Commission will update the compilation when new commitments on freedom of religion or belief are made.

  • Helsinki Commission Debuts Monthly Podcast Series, “Helsinki on the Hill”

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the launch of “Helsinki on the Hill,” a new podcast series that tells the human stories behind the commission’s work to promote human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in North America, Europe, and Central Asia. “Too often, the tragedies and triumphs of individuals get lost in the day-to-day business of policymaking,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). “Through ‘Helsinki on the Hill,’ we aim to share the stories that inspire us every day as we fight for truly comprehensive security for the citizens of all OSCE participating States.” Upcoming “Helsinki on the Hill” episodes include: Episode 1: In the Beginning. In the inaugural episode of "Helsinki on the Hill," the Helsinki Commission's first staff director, Spencer Oliver, shares how the Helsinki Commission evolved from its beginnings in the 1970s to become an organization that reflects the overarching commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe, and that has played a vital role in introducing and promoting the concept of human rights as an element in U.S. foreign policy decision-making. Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia. Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Episode 3: Civilians in the Crossfire. Alexander Hug, former principal deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, describes the toll taken on civilians in Eastern Ukraine’s war zone, the dangers faced by the unarmed civilian mission, and the urgent need to generate the political will to end the unnecessary conflict. To listen to the podcast, visit www.csce.gov/helsinki-hill. “Helsinki on the Hill” is also available on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Participates in D-Day Commemorations

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative On June 6, 1944, universally known as “D-Day,” history was forever altered by the largest multi-national amphibious landing and operational military airdrop in history. On that day, approximately 160,000 Allied troops, supported by more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft, braved the withering fire of Nazi Germany's fortifications on the beaches of Normandy to gain a foothold in continental Europe, commencing in earnest the liberation of Europe and the end of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.  The program for the June 6 Ceremony for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, Normandy American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.​ Members and staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission traveled to Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that momentous day and to honor the bravery and sacrifice of more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers who were killed or wounded in the assault.  The presence of members of Helsinki Commission leadership, including Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, attested to the continued strength of the transatlantic bond cemented by this seminal event.Their presence underlined once again the continued U.S. commitment to European security, and to promoting freedom, justice, and peace in the OSCE region and beyond. Army flight formation as part of the D-Day commemoration. The 2019 anniversary took on special resonance, as it is likely to be the last major opportunity for D-Day veterans—now in their mid-90s and older—to participate. Commission representatives began the morning of June 6, 2019 with a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. The hallowed ground, which sits on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, contains the graves of more than 9,380 of American soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. Left, General Dunford, Chairman of Joint Chiefs speaks to Representative Michael Waltz (FL-06). At the ceremony, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman U.S. Senator Roger F. Wicker recalled being moved by President Trump’s remarks. As Senator Wicker recently relayed at a hearing in Gdansk, "Under no circumstance can we be divided from our friends and allies, here or anywhere else.  I was reminded of this key principle when I participated in the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy.  I am certain all of my colleagues are unanimous in their agreement with the sentiment President Trump expressed on that occasion: “To all of our friends and partners: Our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace.  Our bond is unbreakable.”  A particularly poignant moment of the ceremony saw French President Macron turning to face several dozen veterans of that fateful day 75 years ago to tell them in their native tongue, "We know what we owe to you, veterans: our freedom. And on behalf of my nation I just want to say thank you." Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau speaks at the Juno Beach ceremony. Later on June 6, Commission representatives took part in a second ceremony, this one at Juno Beach (Courseulles-sur-Mer), where some 21,000 men (14,000 Canadian and 7,000 British) had landed 75 years before. The ceremony, presided over by French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe (in the presence of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among other dignitaries), featured solemn remarks from senior officials. However, perhaps most moving were a series of personal reflections from school-age children on the meaning of war, peace, and memory. Their innocent sincerity offered possibly the greatest tribute to what the heroes of D-Day fought and died for. 

  • Russia's Counterproductive Counterterrorism

    Russia’s counterterrorism approach, which is problematic in both conception and execution, makes Moscow an ill-suited partner with the United States in this field, experts told the U.S. Helsinki Commission at a hearing on June 12, 2019.  The hearing closely examined the development, history, and repercussions of the Kremlin’s approach to counterterrorism under Vladimir Putin, including Moscow’s attempts to present itself as a regional and global leader on this issue.  Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Center Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College of the National Defense University.  In his opening statement, Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chaired the hearing, noted concerns expressed by many, including the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, about Russia’s attempts to assume the mantle of leadership in the counterterrorism sphere, through efforts that include placing Russian nationals in senior counterterrorism positions in international organizations.  Rep. Hudson further expressed concern regarding overly broad use of “terrorism” and “extremism” labels by the Kremlin and authoritarian regimes across Central Asia, in contravention of their commitments to human rights Rep. Hudson was joined by other Helsinki Commissioners. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) underscored the inherently destabilizing nature of Russia’s counterterrorism policies and practices and recalled legislation he has introduced that would require the Department of State to formally determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised questions regarding Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and whether such an action amounts to state-sponsored terrorism, as well as the impact of Russia’s counterterrorism policies on its Muslim population.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) drew upon his experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to highlight the challenges of sharing investigative techniques and best practices for fighting terrorism with Russia, as opposed to other countries in the region.  Dr. Omelicheva discussed how the Kremlin has increasingly prioritized fighting terrorism, both as a policy and as a political theme. She described how punitive measures, rather than a focus on socioeconomic improvement to address root causes of radicalization, have long been a preferred method of Russia’s military and security services for addressing terrorism.  She also noted that some Central Asian states have copied the Kremlin’s heavy-handed methods.    Ms. Denber noted the broad criminal code Russian authorities inappropriately apply—under the guise of fighting terrorism—to persecute people “inconvenient” to the Kremlin.  She discussed in detail other domestic applications of Russia’s counterterrorism criminal laws, including monitoring and storing of Russian citizens’ internet metadata, as well as labeling groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist organizations.  Russia’s counterterrorism policies may well have alienated segments of Russia’s Muslim population and led individuals to join extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ms. Denber stated.       Dr. Carpenter asserted that active U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation runs counter to U.S. interests and values—highlighting Russia’s penchant for claiming to be fighting extremism while actually punishing dissidents, notably individuals in Crimea critical of the ongoing occupation of the peninsula.  “A single mother was recently imprisoned on extremism charges because she had posted comments critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on her social media feed,” he said.    Dr. Carpenter’s experience in government led him to conclude, “Russia approaches counterterrorism from the position of counterintelligence;” when Russia cooperates, it is with the aim of eliciting information rather than pursuing common solutions. Using Syria as an example, he emphasized how Russian leadership does not think in win-win terms when it comes to counterterrorism, even when the U.S. does.  “Moscow will be happy, of course, to host dozens of international conferences, and will periodically suggest that a solution is within reach.  But at the end of the day, its interests are best served when Iran, Hezbollah and Assad are in power to make mischief in the region, because that’s when Russia’s influence with the Europeans, with Israel, and the Gulf States is at its peak,” he said.  Dr. Omelicheva added to these comments with an overview of lessons the Russian government has learned in past failed counterterrorism operations, including the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of 2002 and Beslan school siege of 2004.     “The key lesson that the government learned was that they have to have sufficient force to secure the perimeter of the counterterrorism operation, that they need to be able to constrain the freedom of movement, the freedom of mass media, and other types of freedom.” 

  • STANDARD FOR JUSTICE: JUNE 10, 2010

    By Annie Lentz, Kampelman Fellow On June 10, 2010, seven senior Bosnian Serb officials were convicted of war crimes by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This was the largest trial to date held before the ICTY, which uncovered an organized and strategic attack against civilians and UN-protected safe areas in 1995 during the conflict in the Balkans. Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladic were later convicted of orchestrating the criminal plan. The trial began on August 21, 2006 and continued for 425 days until concluding on September 15, 2009. The inquiry featured testimony from 315 witnesses, with 5,383 exhibits of evidence totaling 87,392 pages. U.S. Helsinki Commission leaders expressed their support for the convictions handed down by the Tribunal, serving justice to those involved in the genocide of about 8,000 ethnic Bosniak men and boys residing in Srebrenica, an enclave  in Bosnia and Herzegovina which fell despite U.N. protection. Then-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin said, “The ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia was orchestrated by individuals who are now finally facing justice for their crimes. Others awaiting trial or who believe they may have escaped prosecution should take this as a sign that they too will answer for their crimes against humanity.” “The wheels of justice may not always turn as fast as victims’ families would like, but the convictions of Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara show the strength of the International War Crimes Tribunal to hold people to account,” said then-Co-Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. Following calls from Helsinki Commission leadership and other human rights advocates, the ICTY was established in reaction to the atrocities committed during the decade of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. It was the first international attempt to hold political leaders accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide since the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials following World War II, and it established that the massacre committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 constituted genocide. Other crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo included mass ethnic cleansing campaigns in which millions were displaced, thousands of women and girls were raped, and many others were detained and tortured.  The death toll in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone is believed to have exceeded 100,000 individuals.  The ICTY concluded its work in 2017, having indicted 161 individuals in connection to crimes during the conflicts in the Balkans while setting global precedents regarding cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Ninety offenders were sentenced to serve prison time in 14 European states. The Tribunal also set the standard for how such atrocities should be handled to achieve international justice. In December 2017, the Helsinki Commission organized a public briefing to assess the accomplishments of the tribunal and ongoing efforts to pursue justice for atrocities in the Western Balkans.    

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to Counterterrorism

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE COUNTERTERRORISM Wednesday, June 12, 2019 10:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses will offer expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia; former National Security Council Director for Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College, National Defense University; author, “Russia’s Regional and Global Counterterrorism Strategies” and “Russia’s Counterterrorism Policy: Variations on an Imperial Theme”

  • Chairman Hastings Commemorates Eid al-Fitr

    WASHINGTON—In commemoration of Eid al-Fitr, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “Today, I join Muslim communities across the OSCE region and around the world to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. As Muslims have spent the last month observing Ramadan, they have devoted time in peaceful reflection and prayer, built stronger ties with other communities—religious and non-religious—to ponder our common values, and served those who are suffering from starvation, sickness, and conflict. “Sadly, during these cherished celebrations, we also must mourn recent horrific attacks around the world on places of worship, which targeted believers of nearly every religion. In the aftermath of such tragedies, faith communities joined hands to fend off those who try to exploit differences in the service of evil. In Pittsburgh, the Jewish community sought donations for the Christchurch mosque victims in New Zealand. An American Muslim crowdfunding campaign raised money for the Tree of Life synagogue victims in Pittsburgh. Local churches and synagogues in Connecticut stepped forward to help rebuild the New Haven mosque that arsonists destroyed. These examples are precisely what the spirit of Eid inspires: to spread harmony and build coalitions that promote change.  “On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish those celebrating a blessed and festive celebration. Eid Mubarak.”

  • Chairman Hastings on Upcoming Meeting Between President Trump and Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Monday’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Thirty years after Central European nations threw off the mantle of communism and oppression, I recall the unwavering support of the United States for the democratic aspirations of their citizens, and the warm welcome Hungary received when it joined the ranks of self-governing, free nations. I echo Secretary’s Pompeo’s message, delivered in Central Europe in February: Upholding democracy in each and every country is vital to human freedom. “President Trump must urge Prime Minister Orban to end Hungary’s anti-Ukraine policy at NATO, resolve concerns about the relocation of the Russian International Investment Bank to Budapest, ensure that Hungary’s ‘golden visas’ are not used to evade U.S. sanctions, and address document security problems to ensure the integrity of the visa waiver program. In addition, the president must prioritize meaningful democratic change in Hungary and encourage the Hungarian Government to repeal the 2017 and 2018 laws curtailing freedom of speech, assembly, and association.” U.S. authorities have identified at least 85 criminals who fraudulently obtained Hungarian passports to enter or attempt to enter the United States. At an April 2019 Helsinki Commission briefing, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the chairman of the International Investment Bank has long-standing ties to Russian intelligence agencies, raising concerns that the relocation of the bank from Moscow to Budapest could provide a platform for intelligence-gathering operations against U.S. allies. In April, U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker visited Budapest and urged Hungary to end its anti-Ukraine policy in NATO. In February, during a visit to Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.”

  • First Person: A Divided Island’s Long Road to Peace

    By Mark Toner, Senior State Department Advisor There are two images seared into my brain from my visit to Cyprus during a recent congressional delegation led by Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The first was a darkened, underground garage filled with the rusting hulks of mid-1970s Toyotas.  They were once the sparkling-new inventory of a car dealership situated in the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital. Following the 1974 incursion by Turkish forces in the wake of a failed coup attempt, the dealership became part of a buffer zone that runs like a scar across the length of Cyprus, separating the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The dealership’s owner fled when the fighting erupted and never returned. The cars sit frozen in time, waiting for customers who will never come. Abandoned vehicle in Nicosia, Cyprus. The second was both jarring and moving: at the Committee on Missing Persons, we entered a clean, cavernous room full of long tables on which an array of partially-reconstructed skeletons were arranged—the remains of some of the more than 2,000 people who disappeared during the outbreak of violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1963-64, as well as during the later 1974 conflict. Located in a compound in the United Nations Protected Area near the old Nicosia airport, the Committee is an organization established by both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities that recovers, identifies, and ultimately returns these remains to their still-grieving families and loved ones, using state-of-the-art DNA technology and an exhaustive scientific process. These were just two of the places we visited during our two-day stay on the island as part of a bipartisan, bicameral delegation on its way to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. As part of our jam-packed schedule, the delegation met with the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-Cypriot leadership, and toured the UN buffer zone with the hardworking and good-natured UN peacekeepers who police the 112-mile ceasefire line. Cyprus is among the world’s oldest and most intractable frozen conflicts, and the social, political, and economic tensions the conflict created still feel fresh today. Since the island was effectively split in two in 1974, there have been repeated UN-led attempts to broker a settlement and reunify the island, but all have ended in failure. It is also a tale of two realities. While Greek Cypriots enjoy the benefits of EU and Eurozone membership and seek to exploit the potential of untapped hydrocarbon reserves located in an Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the island, those who live in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remain politically and economically isolated from the rest of Europe and rely heavily on their big brother to the north, Turkey, for security and economic assistance. Our visit to Cyprus was a stark reminder of the difficulty of moving past an unresolved conflict, in a place where grievances are often passed from generation to generation, and the ghosts of the past remain as tangible as the neglected shell of a crumbling 15th-century church in the UN buffer zone or the rusting hulks of airplanes still sitting on the runway of the abandoned Nicosia International Airport. Our brief visit to the Committee on Mission Persons, however, was a poignant reminder of the vital importance of civil society in restoring a sense of normalcy once the fighting ends.  It is a calming place, where dedicated people from both sides of the conflict work together to bring a sense of closure to those who lost loved ones in the fighting; it speaks to the fierce resiliency of the people of Cyprus and the enduring hope that old wrongs can yet be overcome.       

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Defends Human Rights, Regional Security at OSCE PA Winter Meeting in Vienna

    Led by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), 12 members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Winter Meeting in Vienna in late February to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to security, human rights, and the rule of law in the 57-nation OSCE region. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Sen. Bob Casey (PA), Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), Sen. Mike Lee (UT), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). The bipartisan, bicameral delegation was one of the largest U.S. delegations to a Winter Meeting in OSCE PA history. During the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security, Sen. Wicker criticized the Russian Federation for its interference in U.S. elections, as well as in elections held by other OSCE countries. “It is indisputable that the Russian Government seeks to attack and even undermine the integrity of our elections and of our democratic processes,” he said. “We must all be more aware of—and proactive in countering—Russia’s efforts to undermine the democratic process throughout the OSCE region.” In the same session, Rep. Hudson lamented Russian non-compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, underlining that “an INF Treaty with which all parties comply contributes to global stability; an arms control treaty that one side violates is no longer effective at keeping the world safer.”  Rep. Hudson further stressed that “in light of our six-months’ notice of withdrawal, the Russian Government has one last chance to save the INF Treaty by returning to full and verifiable compliance. We hope and pray Russia will take that step.” In the meeting of the Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, Rep. Hudson also noted the danger that the Nord Stream II pipeline poses to Europe. “Simply put, we cannot allow Russia to dramatically increase its stranglehold on European energy,” he said. “We must look for alternatives and make sure our democratic institutions cannot be held hostage over energy supply as Nord Stream II would promote.” Later in the same session, Rep. Moore advocated for the adoption of beneficial ownership transparency to combat globalized corruption. “Anonymous shell companies are the means through which much modern money laundering occurs,” she said. “We in Congress are working hard to plug the loopholes in the U.S. financial system that have enabled anonymous shell companies to proliferate.” In a debate on restrictions on human rights during states of emergency during the meeting of the Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Rep. Jackson Lee argued, “A state of emergency is not a free pass to dismantle a free press,” nor to threaten academic freedom or freedom of religion. She called on Turkey to release local U.S. Consulate employees Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, as well as American physicist Serkan Golge. At the closing session, participants reviewed reports submitted by Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Rep. Moore encouraged other delegations to share with Sen. Cardin their efforts to implement their commitments to address violence and discrimination, while Rep. Zeldin called for legislative action and enforcement to make “every community in the OSCE region trafficking-free.” While in Vienna, Rep. Jackson Lee also attended a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, of which she is a member, while Rep. Hudson took part in a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, where he serves as a vice chair. Prior to attending the Winter Meeting, most members of the delegation also attended the Munich Security Conference, the world’s leading forum for debating international security policy. On the margins of the conference, the group met with leaders including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, INTERPOL Secretary General Jurgen Stock, and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. The delegation was briefed by NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Curtis Scapparotti and Commander, U.S. Army Europe Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli. Members also visited Cyprus, where they met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss opportunities to advance U.S.-Cyprus relations, resume reunification negotiations on the island, and counter the threat of money laundering to Cyprus’ banking sector. Major General Cheryl Pearce of Australia, Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, briefed the delegation on UNFICYP’s mission and the status of conflict resolution efforts. Following her briefing, the delegation toured the UN Buffer Zone to examine the work of the UN’s peacekeeping force and the physical separation that afflicts the island.

  • Chairman Hastings Appoints Alex T. Johnson Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Alex T. Johnson as Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff. Johnson will be the commission’s first African-American chief of staff since it was established in 1976. “I am pleased to welcome Alex Johnson back to the Helsinki Commission,” said Chairman Hastings. “His broad range of experience—including several years at the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna—and deep understanding of issues related to fundamental freedoms and human security in North America, Europe, and Central Asia will keep the commission at the vanguard of regional policymaking.” “I have learned from Chairman Hastings over the years that transatlantic security is contingent on advancing human rights and human dignity, including for the most marginalized populations in the OSCE region,” said Johnson. “I am honored to once again empower our commissioners' legacy as the moral compass for transatlantic cooperation.” Johnson, a former policy advisor at the Helsinki Commission, returns to the organization after serving as the senior policy advisor for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, where he led U.S.-focused advocacy for 12 national foundations and regional programs ranging from Central Asia to Western Europe. An expert on European human rights and transatlantic security, he served as an Obama Administration official at the Pentagon, where he focused on furthering security cooperation with Eurasia and the Western Balkans. Johnson is also known for his research and leadership of advocacy coalitions of diverse foreign policy professionals and is recognized as a leader in advancing inclusion for the U.S. national security workforce. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. Johnson’s first day as chief of staff of the Helsinki Commission will be February 14, 2019.

  • Representative Alcee L. Hastings to Helm Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has appointed Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) to chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 116th Congress. “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia,” said Chairman Hastings. “While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished. Rogue actors are challenging the integrity of elections at home and abroad; Russia’s internal repression threatens its citizens while its external aggression imperils its neighbors; and members of vulnerable communities are targets of bigotry, discrimination, and violence. All of these challenges undermine comprehensive security in the region and place our societies at risk. “I’m honored to once again chair the Helsinki Commission, and look forward to continuing the bipartisan, bicameral cooperation that is vital to promoting human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in the 57 countries of the OSCE.” Chairman Hastings has served on the Helsinki Commission since 2001, and in 2007, he became the first African American to chair the commission. Hastings is also the only American to have ever served as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and is the former Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs of the PA.

  • Unorthodox?

    By Thea Dunlevie, Max Kampelman Fellow “The Russian Federation is a secular state,” according to Chapter 1, Article 14 of the Russian constitution. Adopted two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which systematically repressed religious activity, Article 14 created a framework for a religious resurgence in Russia, namely the Russian Orthodox Church’s optimistic emergence from the Soviet era. However, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a battlefield of choice for the Russian government as it seeks status as the religious and regional hegemon. President Vladimir Putin’s vision for a “Russian world” has in many ways negated the country’s constitutional commitment to a religiously neutral government, particularly in relation to former Soviet Bloc countries. Vladimir Putin has coupled violent encroachments such as the 2014 invasion and illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and its 2008 invasion and illegal occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia with subtler maneuvers to establish strongholds in foreign countries, including through religious interventions. The latter activities rest under the umbrella term “soft power,” which Putin identified as a foreign policy strategy in his 2017 Foreign Policy Concept. According to political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term, “Soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.” Rooted in Russian History and Culture The Russian Orthodox Church, which has deep roots in Russian identity, history, and culture, was revived under President Boris Yeltsin and has since been increasingly employed as a tool of soft power. The RAND Institute reports that the Russian Orthodox Church has been rated “the most-trusted institution in [Russia]”—surpassing the president and parliament. Consequentially, the Kremlin’s interconnectivity with the Russian Orthodox Church lends the state legitimacy by proxy. Capitalizing on this perceived legitimacy, the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy lists “preserving and developing culture and traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” as one of six “National Interests and National Strategic Priorities.” Religion has been instrumentalized by Russian diplomatic missions with goals beyond proselytizing or constructing churches. Putin sent Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia as a Kremlin emissary to solidify international ties under the auspices of religious, humanitarian outreach. For example, Putin has characterized Russia as the defender of persecuted Christians in the Middle East by supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government. Patriarch Kirill and Putin also vowed to rebuild churches in the region, positioning Russia as the great defender, reconstructor, and regional power. However, not all these efforts have been successful. Patriarch Kirill’s 2013 visit to the politically volatile region of Transnistria, Moldova—where 1,400 Russian troops are stationed—was met by local protests suggesting an unwelcome link between the Russian Orthodox Church’s presence and the Kremlin’s. The Russian Orthodox Church has also helped the Government of Russia maintain regional influence in former Soviet Bloc countries and the Balkans and expand its influence in Asia. The Russian government commemorated 50 years of cooperation with Singapore by building an Orthodox church there, and Patriarch Kirill’s delegation visited North Korea to establish an Orthodox church in Pyongyang alongside North Korean government officials. However, current debates primarily focus on Ukraine because it contains an estimated one-third of the Moscow Patriarchate’s churches. Russia has approached the OSCE with concerns about “Ukrainization,” alleging that 50 Russian Orthodox churches had been illegally seized by the government since 2014. Ukraine Fights Back The Russian Orthodox Church’s Kremlin-driven influence has been of particular concern to Ukraine, which struggles to maintain its political sovereignty as Russia encroaches militarily. To counter this influence, in 2018 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sought autocephaly (independence) under the auspices of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the governing body of the Orthodox Church. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko justified the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s pursuit of autocephaly before the United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council as “a matter of national security and [Ukraine’s] defense in a hybrid war, because the Kremlin views the Russian Orthodox Church as key instruments of influence on Ukraine.”  However, the Russian Orthodox Church condemned Ukraine’s autocephaly efforts for blasphemously entangling religion and politics. Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, characterized the Ukrainian church’s move as a “pre-election political project.” The Russian Orthodox Church severed tied with the Ecumenical Patriarch in mid-October. In December, Metropolitan Epifaniy was elected head of the nascent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Prior to his election, the U.S. State Department said the United States “respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs.” Immediately after his election, the State Department issued a congratulatory statement and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with him by phone.   After the January 6th announcement of autocephaly for an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Secretary described the outcome as an “historic achievement.” All of these U.S. statements explicitly referenced U.S. support for religious freedom as the context. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine now sidesteps Russian religious authority and submits to the Ecumenical Patriarch and Holy Synod alone.  The Russian government, however, maintains that Ukraine is “territory of the Russian church” and vows to “defend the interests of the Orthodox.” Ongoing Power Struggles Russia’s religious intervention has also instigated ecclesiastical divisions within the other Orthodox churches and between churches and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian meddling has created opposing teams: Ukraine and its allies, like the Ecumenical Patriarch and U.S. Government, versus the Russian Government and regional churches which pledged loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the wake of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod decision on the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Putin awarded the Metropolitan of Moldova “Russia’s Order of Friendship,” perhaps  to encourage Moldovan sympathy to the Russian Orthodox Church’s cause amid the “schismatic” behavior of Ukraine. In November of 2018, St. Andrew’s Church in Ukraine was attacked with Molotov cocktails, following  the transfer of its ownership to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This attack has been interpreted by some Ukrainians as a symbolic attack on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukraine’s religious makeup is exceptionally diverse. However, the Kremlin’s political meddling into the inter-orthodox religious conflict raises larger concerns about how government can support or suppress certain beliefs for primarily political purposes. This phenomenon threatens the religious liberty of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and potentially the freedom of the country’s minority religious groups like Greek Catholics. All 57 participating States of the OSCE have committed to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which includes the statement that  “the participating States will respect (...) the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion… participating States 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 participating States have repeatedly recommitted themselves in subsequent agreements. The Ukrainian government and leadership of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine must be vigilant for infringements on the religious rights of Moscow Patriarchate adherents in Ukraine after the Holy Synod’s decision. As priests, imams, and pastors did during Euromaidan in 2013, so should the Ukrainian Government, the Russian Government, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church condemn violence, protect freedom of religion and belief, and promote inter-faith peace.

  • The Holy See and Religious Freedom

    Because of its unique status as the universal government of a specific religion, rather than a territorial state, the Holy See is probably the least understood of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. However, it has a rich diplomatic history and has contributed significantly to the development of today’s OSCE, particularly in the area of religious freedom. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Mosque and State in Central Asia

    From 2016 to early 2018, the U.S. government designated three of Central Asia’s five nations—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as countries of particular concern (CPC) for engaging in or tolerating “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” like torture, abduction, and clandestine or prolonged detention without charges. In these countries, people of all faiths, or no faith at all, have endured onerous government-mandated harassment, fines, and imprisonment for even minor breaches of state regulations of religious belief and practice. To ensure regime stability and counter violent extremism, the governments of some Central Asian Muslim-majority countries impose strict and invasive violations of religious liberty on adherents of the Islamic faith. Islamic religious institutions and leaders are fully incorporated into the state bureaucracy. Exploring the faith outside the bounds of “official Islam” is forbidden and illegal. The Helsinki Commission convened an expert panel of regional and Islamic scholars to explain the different approaches to state regulation of Islam in Central Asia and the consequences of these policies for religious freedom, radicalization, and long-term political stability and social development.

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