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Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship
TIME Magazine
Elizabeth Dias
Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Russian Supreme Court could declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization in a Wednesday hearing, a move that would lead to the seizure of the church's headquarters near St. Petersburg and the outlawing of the group’s organized worship.

In advance of the hearing, international concern has grown. “If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the authorities, it will be the first such ruling by a court declaring a registered centralized religious organization to be ‘extremist,’” the UN human rights’ high commissioner's office said in a statement on Tuesday.

The ruling would also cap off years of increased restrictions by the Russian Federation against minority religions. Last summer, Russia introduced an anti-terrorism law that also restricted evangelism, and a regional court ordered the deportation of six missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2015, a court banned the Church of Scientology’s Moscow branch.

Under a Russian law passed in 1997, there is freedom of religion, but four faiths are designated to be traditional—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—and other religious organizations must register with the government. Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are registered, still face bureaucratic and legal hurdles. Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate that there are 175,000 Russian-based adherents to the faith, which was founded in the United States the 1870s. Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God but do not believe in the Trinity.

“They would basically be prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses as criminals,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says of the pending court declaration. “Anyone who would actually would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a counter claim asking the court to rule the Justice Ministry’s actions as political repression. A ruling in favor of the ministry would make it a crime for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in the Russian Federation and dissolve the faith’s legal means to own or rent Kingdom Halls, their places of worship. In 2015, the Russian Federation banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website JW.org, and customs officials stopped shipments of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, citing the possibility they were extremist literature. Last year, Russia threatened to close the group’s national headquarters.

Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, says that Russian authorities have been targeting minority religions as “extremists” in an effort to demonstrate support for the Russian Orthodox Church and to marginalize organizations with suspected pro-western sympathies. "The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian Government,” Semonian says. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists, and their religious beliefs require them to abstain from political activity. They declare allegiance only to God, not to a state or political entity. They do not vote, lobby, protest, or join military. This lack of participation can be seen as a threat if a state demands nationalist and patriotic activity.

“The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much tied to the resurgence of a new view of nationalism, where everything within the state is fine, but anything outside of the state has to be crushed,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, says. “A pacifist group that tells its members that their allegiance is to something outside of the government is immediately a group that will be perceived as dangerous to the regime.”

Other minority Christian groups in Russia, like evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. Lunkin says it is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, and they also have their own magazine and educational materials. Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says. “It’s [about] a protection of traditional religions, and the Orthodox identity of Russian people,” Lunkin says. “But in fact it is about protecting personal power, because the main fear is changing of regimes in Russia.”

Jehovah’s Witness church leadership has reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.”

Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs.

The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State.

Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: MOSQUE AND STATE IN CENTRAL ASIA Can Religious Freedom Coexist with Government Regulation of Islam? Monday, December 17, 2018 3:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission 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 will convene 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. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor, Political Science, and Russian and Eurasian Studies, University of Minnesota Edward Lemon, DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security Emil Nasrutdinov, Associate Professor of Anthropology, American University of Central Asia Peter Mandaville, Professor of International Affairs, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University On December 11, 2018, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo re-designated Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as CPCs. He upgraded Uzbekistan to the Special Watch List—it had been previously designated as a CPC—based on recent progress. In June 2018, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) urged Secretary of State Pompeo to consider inviting Uzbekistan to the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom because of significant steps taken by President Mirziyoyev to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom. Later that month, he introduced the bipartisan Senate Resolution 539 calling on President Trump to combat religious freedom violations in Eurasia with a mix of CPC and Special Watch List designations, individual and broader sanctions, and development of a strategy specifically for the region. In early July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed Chairman Wicker’s amendments recognizing the ongoing reforms of the government of Uzbekistan. A few weeks later Chairman Wicker met with Uzbekistan’s delegation to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom—the only CPC invited—and highlighted the opportunity for Uzbekistan to be a model to other countries if the government follows through with essential reforms

  • Religious Freedom in Eurasia

      In his first Congressional hearing since his confirmation, Ambassador Brownback testified on religious freedom in participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation. OSCE commitments on human rights and freedoms are the strongest, most comprehensive of any security organization in the world. Yet some of its participating States chronically have been among the worst violators of religious freedom–often in the name of countering terrorism or extremism–and designated by the United States as Countries of Particular Concern. The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, Public Law 114-281, requires the President to release Country of Particular Concern designations–required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998–no later than 90 days after releasing the annual International Religious Freedom Report. The State Department issued the latest report on the day of the hearing. The Helsinki Commission explored the designations, as well as religious freedom in Western Europe, including potentially restrictive amendments to the religion law in Bulgaria; restrictions on religious animal slaughter; restrictions on construction of houses of worship; and conscience rights. Questions for the Record Submitted to Ambassador Samuel D. Brownback by Chairman Roger Wicker  

  • December 1, 1991

    By Alexa Zouboukos, Intern On December 1, 1991, 84 percent of eligible voters in Ukraine exercised their democratic rights in a referendum on independence and the election of their president, peacefully transferring power after the long struggle of the Cold War. If the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled a symbolic end to the war, then Ukraine partaking in the democratic process was a concrete outcome. Three U.S. Helsinki Commission staffers sent to monitor the elections—Orest Deychakiwsky, Michael Ochs, and Heather Hurlburt—reported on the implementation of regulations that we recognize in today’s U.S. elections. Some of these regulations included the collection of a certain number of signatures for a candidate to be placed on the ballot, campaign finance laws, and the methodology for marking and counting ballots. Despite many accounts of a free and fair election, however, there were also indicators of information suppression. Helsinki Commission staff noted that there were reports of pro-independence literature being withheld from Crimea and Mykolaiv. Limits to the free flow of information were not the only threat Ukrainians faced, but also “dark warnings by Mikhail Gorbachev, by the central Soviet media and, to some extent, Russian media about the difficulties and dangers Ukrainian independence would pose to Ukrainians themselves, to their neighbors and to international stability.” These threats to the will of Ukrainian people did not dampen their spirits; in fact, according to the report, “many Ukrainians later told Helsinki Commission staff that such attempts to intimidate them only made them more determined to see their cause through to the end.” Ukrainian citizens demonstrated this determination through a landslide referendum. Three-quarters of participants voted in favor of independence. Helsinki Commission staff also observed a distinct feeling of festivity at polling stations, reinforced by the testimonies of Ukrainians previously imprisoned in Siberia who said that this day was the realization of a long-held dream of independence from the Soviet Union. Ukrainians were aware that there would be greater struggles ahead, but also recognized that these could be opportunities to exercise their new sovereignty. December 1, 1991 did not mark the end of Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia, but it did finally allow Ukrainians to exercise rights that were long suppressed under the Soviet yoke.

  • First Person: Faces of Ukraine

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor In the ongoing war in Donbas, now entering its fifth year, most of the people on the front lines—in some cases, literally—of Ukraine’s struggle for democracy and sovereignty go unnoticed. Minorities like Roma also often have special challenges that must be comprehensively addressed in Ukraine as well as Europe more broadly.  To meet some of these Ukrainians and hear their stories firsthand, I, along with my colleagues Mark Toner and Alex Tiersky and Dr. Cory Welt of the Congressional Research Service, traveled to Ukraine to gain a more nuanced understanding of war, politics, and everyday life in Ukraine. We were up before dawn for our first working day in Ukraine to make our way from the Kiev train station to Kramatorsk, a small industrial city in Donetsk Oblast that was briefly occupied by Russian-led forces in the early days of Russia’s war against Ukraine.  Kramatorsk and its surrounding regions are home to many internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced out of their homes by frequent shelling along the contact line separating Ukrainian government-controlled areas and Russian-occupied territories.  Our first meeting that day vividly illustrated the destruction this senseless war has unleashed on the lives of average Ukrainians.  Together with representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which receives generous support from the U.S. Government, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, we heard stories of struggle, tragedy, and resilience from some recipients of this aid. One man told us that the cash-based assistance he received helped him make vital repairs to his car and house and buy clothing and food for his six children.  Two sisters expressed their gratitude for the small business grant they received, which allowed them to start anew when they realized they could not return to their home in Horlivka.  A tearful single mother recounted her struggle to subsist after her house was destroyed.  Another woman described the terrible nights spent in her basement seeking shelter from shelling.  All of them talked about the difficulties they faced—from long lines in harsh weather conditions to landmines and shelling—when trying to visit their families and homes on the other side of the contact line.  Despite these traumatic and life-altering circumstances, the support of the United States and international and local religious programs have enabled these IDPs to start a new life in another part of Ukraine. Our meeting with IDPs in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, along with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch We learned more about the conditions of IDPs in Kramatorsk from city representatives.  The group expressed their concerns about the high rent and limited housing opportunities in Kramatorsk that make it hard for IDPs to live there permanently.  Of the 70,000 IDPs registered in Kramatorsk (a city of originally 120,000), only 50 percent live in the city. The other half are registered for benefits but continue to live in their homes along the line of contact or in the occupied zones. Those who live on the Russian-controlled side of the contact line must endure the arduous task of monthly travel to the other side to collect their benefits, including pensions. Crossing the line has become so dangerous and stressful that some of the IDPs we met earlier said that, although they had friends and family on the other side of the contact line, they have stopped trying to cross it. We were as impressed by the resiliency of these displaced people and the NGOs that have sprung up to help them with their legal and humanitarian needs as we were struck by the bleak outlook so many of them have for a peaceful, prosperous future. I also visited a small town about two hours from Kyiv with a sizeable Romani population to hear from the people themselves what it is like to live as a minority group in rural Ukraine.  The brisk weather and overcast sky mirrored the gloominess and poverty of the town compared to Kyiv.  Since we arrived early, a Romani woman invited us into the small house where she lived with her partner and nine children.  She explained that she was having difficulty securing government benefits for her children, who were already living in poverty.  She watched over the house and children, and her partner had a chronic disease which rendered him unable to work, so they survived thanks to the charity of several religious organizations and the government payments they received.  I heard similar stories about troubled relations with the regional and national governments from other members of the Roma community.  We met in the town library, a small, worn-down Soviet relic with no indoor plumbing that also serves as a local government office.  A portrait of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian trident adorned the wall behind the desk in the room.  A group of local Roma, some with small children, came in and sat down, speaking among themselves in Russian and Ukrainian.  A colleague from the U.S. Embassy and I introduced ourselves and began to ask questions about life for Roma in the town.  Everyone in the room insisted that they had no problems with their non-Romani neighbors, but noted that unemployment was a persistent problem; most adults in the group were illiterate or had only an elementary-level education.  Women generally tended to the children and the home, and the men foraged for mushrooms and berries or picked through trash for scrap metal and empty bottles.  They said that all their school-age children, in spite of their difficult circumstances, were enrolled in the local school.  Some mothers complained of discriminatory treatment toward Roma children in schools but emphasized that this meant slightly preferential treatment for non-Roma children rather than outright abuse.  They vehemently denied experiencing any incidents of nationalist violence in their isolated village, like those that have occurred in and around larger cities like Lviv and Kyiv. One of the Romani women that we met with invited us into her home, which she shares with her partner and nine children The group became visibly agitated when discussing their relationship with the government and their attempts to receive social services.  To receive these services, they need to file a declaration of income; since their incomes are typically irregular, government officials will write in a higher income than exists in reality, affecting their social payments.  Those who are illiterate are easily taken advantage of by regional officials (“they laugh at us,” one woman said), and often must sign documents they don’t understand.  Demands of some government officials for bribes also impede equitable access to social services for those who cannot afford to pay, one person mentioned.  There were mixed responses about healthcare access.  One man said that he had been denied hospitalization three times, but most others claimed they had no problems, and all the women who were mothers had given birth in the nearest hospital.  The village library where we met with members of the Romani community This group of Roma has a great advocate in the form of Valentyna Zolotarenko, who accompanied us on our visit.  She lives in Kyiv and serves as a liaison between Roma communities and the national government, representing their interests with care, understanding, and firmness.  Local government has also done a good job of ensuring that members of the Romani community have citizenship papers and proper documentation.  A local official who is particularly invested in the community told us upon departing of her personal concern for Roma in her town.  “I imagine how it would be if I were the one being treated this way,” she told us in Russian.  “I cannot simply do nothing—these people are people just like you and me.” Throughout our trip, we met numerous such people who are invested in the fight for Ukraine’s future, whether through civic activism, politics, or business.  We saw victims of a cruel and unnecessary conflict instigated and perpetuated by Russia, but we also saw courage, resilience, and a sense among civil society that there could be no turning back on human rights and other reforms.  It was an honor to witness the good work that Ukrainian NGOs, many supported with U.S. assistance, are doing to make a clear difference in the lives of others.

  • Belarus Reality Check

    On October 22, 2018, over 50 international analysts, practitioners, diplomats and policymakers gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the eighth Belarus Reality Check, a full-day review of the Belarusian economy, political and human rights developments, and changes in the regional security situation in and around Belarus. Former Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland joined representatives of the IMF, the World Bank, Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, the EU Ambassador to Belarus, and dozens of analysts from Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, and other European nations for the event. Political Developments in Belarus During the first panel, presenters noted that sovereignty and stability remain top priorities for the Government of Belarus. Despite a great deal of work by the OSCE’s Office of Democracy Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in recent years, its recommendations to improve Belarusian elections have still not been implemented, and panelists were skeptical that any action would be taken before parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2020.  Although the Belarusian political opposition remains divided and marginalized, several panelists believed that support for the opposition is growing.  Unfortunately, there was consensus that Russian malign influence in Belarus is also growing, primarily via Russian exploitation of social media platforms in Belarus. The Belarusian Economy The second panel featured four presentations that examined challenges facing the Belarusian economy and analyzed the country’s agonizing choice between beginning long-overdue reforms or remaining dependent on Russian subsidies for oil and gas to shore up failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs).  Panelists pointed out that— due largely to those subsidies—the Belarusian economy has fared better than many of its neighbors for years, and that Belarusians enjoy a better standard of living than a number of their Eastern European counterparts.  Polling by the IPM Research Center has shown that a top priority for Belarusians, and thus for the Government of Belarus, is low inflation.  According to the same study, most Belarusians are satisfied with the current state of affairs. Should the subsidies end, Belarus could face a true crisis.  Belarusian Foreign Policy The final panel discussed Belarusian relations with its neighbors—strangely including China, but omitting the U.S.  Positive trend lines were noted for Belarusian relations with all major countries except Russia, and international organizations have demonstrated increased interest in Belarus. In particular, OSCE Secretary General Greminger visited Belarus for a third time in 2018.  Anaïs Marin of France, recently appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, remarked that progress had been made by Belarus on its 2016 National Action Plan on Human Rights, but described continuing Belarusian support of the death penalty as something that required continued scrutiny by the international community.  One analyst took EU policy to task for “aiming at progress, not results.”  Russian policy in Belarus, he claimed, is intended to produce results—namely, to keep Belarus under control and on a short leash.  Another panelist described the conundrum of trying to contain Russian influence in Belarus: “We can’t get rid of Russian influence (money) in Latvia or London; how can we expect to get them out of Belarus?” In a concluding question and answer session, Rauland—who served as charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk from June 2014 through July 2016—asked the panel to comment on the diverging EU and U.S. strategies on Belarus, noting that the EU had decided to lift sanctions on Belarus completely in 2016, while the U.S. had merely suspended them while awaiting further improvements in human rights.  The panelist who responded to that question described EU policy as a mistake, noting that political prisoners had been released (the event which triggered sanctions relief by the EU), but that their civil rights had not been restored, something he felt should have been a condition for the EU completely lifting sanctions. Answers to a question earlier in the day, asking whether panelists were optimistic about the future for Belarus, may have captured the range of views of the participants best of all.  “Yes,” replied the first to answer.  “I’m ‘realistic’ about progress,” replied the next panelist.  “And I’m an optimistic realist,” concluded the third. The event was organized by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre with the support of USAID, Pact and Forum Syd, together with programmatic contributions from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  • Who's Afraid of Civil Society?

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law “How will you mark the anniversary?” That’s what Timothy Garton Ash asked dissident playwright Vaclav Havel 30 years ago, prior to the 70th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state. The answer? A symposium on the incidence of the number “eight” in Czechoslovak history: 1918 (the creation of the modern Czechoslovak state), 1938 (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czech lands), 1948 (the Communist takeover), 1968 (the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring) . . . and 1988. As a junior Helsinki Commission staffer, I attended that symposium. It was my first solo trip for the Commission. At the time, the 35 signatories of the Helsinki Final Act were meeting in Vienna to review the implementation of the Final Act, negotiate new commitments, and schedule future meetings. Czechoslovakia—the Czechoslovak Socialist Federal Republic, to be more precise—had proposed holding a future meeting in Prague as part of the Helsinki process work on economic cooperation. And why not? Budapest, the capital of another one-party communist state, had managed to become the host for a cultural forum in 1985. In Vienna, the Soviet delegation had boldly proposed holding a follow-up meeting on human rights in Moscow. However, Czechoslovakia—unlike Hungary, Poland or even the Soviet Union under Gorbachev—remained a firmly hardline communist regime through the 1980s, with significant restrictions on civil society.  According to the U.S. Department of State at the time, freedom of assembly was severely restricted. Efforts to hold independently organized meetings or demonstrations systematically resulted in arrests, criminal prosecutions, assaults on persons attempting to hold such events, sometimes using water cannon, dogs, tear gas and truncheons.  Nevertheless, as the Prague symposium approached, the United States had still not taken a position in Vienna on the Czechoslovak proposal. Earlier in the year, authorities in Czechoslovakia disrupted efforts by independent peace activists to hold a meeting in Prague by refusing to allow foreigners to enter the country to participate. If Czechoslovakia was unwilling to allow openness and access at such meetings, was it fit to serve as the host of a Helsinki process follow-up meeting? The November meeting would be kind of a test. My handler from the U.S. Embassy welcomed to my visit. The United States had recently declared a Czechoslovak diplomat in Washington persona non grata for actions inconsistent with his diplomatic status, a euphemism for spying. The U.S. Embassy, then led by Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, assumed it was only a matter of time before the Czechoslovak regime would kick an American out of Prague in retaliation. The embassy thought it might avoid that outcome if it cut off ties with dissidents. My visit gave the embassy’s political officer an opportunity to resume those ties.  Still, he warned me, I might be the convenient target of retaliation. Czechoslovakian authorities allowed foreign participants to attend the symposium, but by the time my plane landed, the principal organizers of the event, including Vaclav Havel, had been arrested. I was deposited at the Hotel Jalta, along with  others who had come from abroad to participate. The small black and white television in my room had a neatly typed card in front of it that said in English, “Do not attempt to change the station.” I spun the dial at every opportunity.  This is where I first met Max van der Stoel, the former Dutch Foreign Minister and man of inestimable integrity who later became the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.  Eventually, Vaclav Havel was released, and I met with him and other dissidents before heading to a “parallel” symposium on “8s” organized by exiles in Vienna. In Vienna, I also reported to the head of the U.S. delegation to the Vienna Follow-up Meeting, Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, about the events in Prague. On November 15, 1988, Ambassador Zimmerman announced the U.S. position on the Czechoslovak bid to host a follow-up meeting, noting that the lack of openness and access made U.S. endorsement impossible: . . . [T]he pattern of repression in Czechoslovakia, together with the persistent efforts of the Czechoslovak delegation to secure approval for Prague as host of an economic follow-up, lead me to state for the record the U.S. position on the candidacy of Czechoslovakia . . .  [A] prospective host should reflect commitment to openness and access, for its visitors and for its own citizens, that has been so well exemplified by the government of Austria at the Vienna meeting. By this simple and reasonable standard, the government of Czechoslovakia fails – and fails abysmally. For that reason, the United States will not join any proposal that any post-Vienna meeting be held in Czechoslovakia. That decision is irrevocable; it will not be subject to review or change during the life of the Vienna meeting. In June 1989, an American diplomat – my control officer for the November symposium – was declared persona non grata by the Czechoslovak authorities, in retaliation for the U.S. expulsion of another Czechoslovak diplomat from Washington, and expelled one-month short of the end of his three-year tour. In November 1989, the communist police violently broke up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration and brutally beat many student participants. They also planted a false story in the opposition that a student demonstrator had been beaten to death. The secret police thought they would be able to reveal that the opposition report of a fatality was false and thereby discredit the growing dissident movement. Their plan backfired. Instead, as journalist Mary Battiata wrote, “a half-baked secret police plan to discredit a couple of dissidents apparently boomeranged and turned a sputtering student protest into a national rebellion.” The United States continues to advocate for openness and access for civil society at meetings organized in the Helsinki process.  Hopefully, it will continue to do so with the same firmness and determination it did 30 years ago.

  • Beyond Tolerance

    George Washington penned a letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, underscoring that “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington envisioned an America where religious pluralism was not just present but actively protected. This briefing examined the role of faith in the public square as a good in and of itself and as a public good. Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religions Discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, noted a duality in the spirit of the American Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the 1777 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: neither should someone be forced to support a certain faith nor should he be made to suffer on account of his faith. Treene reemphasized that natural law solidifies our inalienable right to pursue religion and that the founding fathers believed that pluralism must not exclude certain religions. Treene said the Department of Justice strives to defend sincere and “deeply held” religious beliefs while permitting faith to flourish as much as possible without government intervention. Beyond the external ability to worship, Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom and Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, underscored faith’s meaningful ability to address metaphysical and existential questions which have been answered by a myriad of faith traditions. Pluralism means that differing ethical and moral views are to be protected insofar as they are non-violent. Fundamentally, pluralism demands freedom of religion, and Father Deacon Bennett argued that a pluralistic society best promotes human flourishing. Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator in the Dutch Parliament and Professor of Religion, Law and Society at Radboud University, noted that respect and tolerance, which are often invoked in the context of pluralism, are not clearly defined. To achieve these coexistent ends, she borrowed terms from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to argue that government authorities may employ “programmatic secularism,” which deters religious activity, or “procedural secularism,” which welcomes religious activity. A contextual understanding of the word “secular” matters especially to current debates over the intersection between values and controversial political subjects like immigration, integration, foreign influencing, and radicalization, etc. Democratic governments struggle to define secularism, and they are further beset by broader definitions from international bodies like the European Court of Human Rights which seeks to protect religious liberties individually yet universally.   Equal treatment among varying cases has been a challenge, as Dr. van Bijsterveld noted that “equal treatment applies in equal circumstances [but] equal treatment…is not necessarily identical treatment.” While the legal uncertainty resulting from diverse religious practice does pose a challenge to legal institutions, overreliance on secularism in the name of fairness could also threaten equal treatment of religious activities. Ideally, secularism is a neutral ideology, but in Canada, Father Deacon Bennett expressed concern over a “prescribed diversity” and understanding of secularism which might fetter religious freedom. Under “prescribed diversity,” official support for any one ideology risks belittling or demonizing other forms of religious expression under what Father Deacon Bennett termed “illiberal totalitarianism in the public square.” A balance must be maintained so that faith is not reduced to an entirely private affair, compelling faith to vacate the public square. Treene commented on this difficult tension through the example of French laïcité, government-enforced secularism in the public square. The French government has not been a neutral referee in the fight between secularism and religious expression, and controversial decisions like the French headscarf ban have endeavored to solidify a secular foundation in the public square, arguably at the expense of religious expression. The degrees to which religion should counteract secularism or vice versa will continue to be debated, but the panelists all concurred that it is the role of society to respect inherent human dignity and to respect others’ rights to freedom of conscience, expression and association. As Dr. van Bijsterveld noted, this also includes mutual understanding between public authorities and religious communities. The implication of such cooperation is especially significant in a politically polarized society because greater amounts of religious freedom correlates with decreased levels of social conflict, according to recent scholarship at the Religious Freedom Research Project. Following George Washington’s encouragement of diverse religious practice in 1790’s America, we too should respect faith’s essential place in the public square in 2018, panelists argued.

  • Faith in the Public Square to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: BEYOND TOLERANCE Faith in the Public Square Monday, October 29, 2018 2:30 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 188 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and laws of the United States, Canada, and many western European countries. As participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they have repeatedly affirmed that religious freedom is a fundamental freedom and committed to respecting it. But over the past few decades, there have been shifts to language and attitudes of “tolerance” regarding faith in the public square. This briefing will examine faith in the public square as a good in and of itself, a social good, and essential for modern democracy. Panelists will discuss the interplay between public expressions of faith and law, policy, culture, society, and human flourishing in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They will also discuss philosophy underpinning original and shifting understandings of faith in the public square. The following panelists will offer brief remarks, followed by questions: Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016); current Director, Cardus Religious Freedom Institute Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator, Dutch Parliament, and Professor of Religion, Law and Society, Radboud University

  • First Person: Encountering Auschwitz

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor During the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, I joined 21 other members of the U.S. delegation on my first visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, the site of the former concentration and death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The mass murder of Jews, Poles, Romani people, Soviet political prisoners, and other groups by the Nazi state is almost too monstrous for comprehension, especially from a distance. Fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain, and though many of their memories have been preserved, soon there will be no witnesses to speak to the horrors of the past. What remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau, perhaps the most notorious death camp, is a testament to the millions of people slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Auschwitz I, though significantly smaller than Birkenau, is largely intact, and houses powerful exhibitions giving a deeply personal glimpse into a tragedy that often seems too large to grasp. For me, the faceless masses of black-and-white history book photos were brought into sharp relief through collections of objects found after Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.  Enormous piles of eyeglasses, human hair shaved from the bodies of women dragged from the gas chambers, and children’s shoes were on display as a reminder of the simple trappings of humanity denied to the victims. We laid a wreath at the Wall of Death, an execution site, and finished the tour with a silent walkthrough of a gas chamber, illuminated by the holes in the ceiling from which Zyklon-B pellets rained down on the trapped prisoners. At Birkenau, we walked along the original train tracks where wagonloads of people were selected to either die in the gas chambers or labor in terrible conditions in which disease, starvation, and exposure meant that the average prisoner perished mere months after arrival.  The remains of the killing factory, hastily destroyed upon the approach of the Soviets, are a haunting illustration of the scale of Nazi atrocities. The final death toll of Auschwitz is estimated at 1.3 million, with Jews accounting for about 90 percent of the murdered.  One in six Jews killed during the Holocaust were killed at Auschwitz.  The evils of anti-Semitism, racism, and persecution of minority groups still exist today. At the Birkenau memorial to the victims, Ambassador Brownback reminded us that the United States must continue to defend human rights around the world. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Kyle Parker (left) and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (right) lay a wreath at Auschwitz at the Death Wall where those who attempted to escape were shot. As we prepared to depart, the clouds lifted over Birkenau, revealing a sunny sky, in stark contrast with the heavy grief of the morning.  Each of us processed the visit differently, but all experienced a renewed sense of the importance of our mission upon returning to the HDIM.

  • The Human Dimension is a Parliamentary Priority

    Each September, the OSCE focuses considerable attention on its body of commitments in the human dimension, ranging from human rights and fundamental freedoms, to democratic norms and the rule of law, to tolerance in society and other humanitarian concerns. For two weeks, the participating States and interested non-governmental organizations gather in Warsaw, Poland, to review implementation of OSCE commitments in each of these areas.  This Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) is organized under the auspices of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Other OSCE institutions, like the High Commissioner for National Minorities and the Representative on the Freedom of the Media, also participate in the exchange of views. Traditionally, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) is also represented at the meeting, and its presence this year was particularly strong. About the OSCE PA The OSCE PA is one of the original institutions of the OSCE and consists of 323 parliamentarians who gather three times a year, including at an annual session each summer where resolutions are adopted. Today’s high-profile OSCE work on human trafficking, anti-Semitism, and media freedom began years ago with initiatives undertaken by the assembly and transferred at the urging of parliamentarians to national governments for concrete follow-up activity. Decision-making in the OSCE PA is usually based on a majority vote, which contrasts with the consensus needed among government representatives in OSCE diplomacy. This allows the Assembly to address issues, particularly in the human dimension, in a way that reflects the overwhelming opinion of the participating States but would be unlikely to succeed in other OSCE bodies, where representatives of offending countries can block action.  For example, in the past five annual sessions the OSCE PA has adopted resolutions condemning Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles in it aggression against Ukraine, including violations in the human dimension.  At the 2018 annual session in Berlin last July, Russian parliamentarians unsuccessfully opposed consideration and adoption of a text on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea, and on the human rights situation in Russia itself. The OSCE PA also criticizes other countries’ record in the human dimension records—including actions of the United States—but the assembly’s criticism is generally commensurate with the severity of perceived violations. The OSCE PA defends ODIHR in its work facilitating implementation of commitments where needed, and civil society in its advocacy of human rights. At the 2018 annual session, parliamentarians condemned the ongoing efforts of Turkey and some other countries to restrict non-governmental voices at the HDIM and other human dimension events, or to dilute them with non-governmental organizations formed at the behest of some of the more repressive regimes in the OSCE region.  In Berlin, the OSCE PA called “on all OSCE participating States to welcome NGO participation in OSCE events, and to reject all efforts to restrict participation in OSCE human dimension events so long as these groups do not resort to or condone violence or terrorism, to ensure the broadest possible contribution from NGOs to the OSCE’s work and a full and unrestricted exchange of information and opinions.” OSCE PA Participation in HDIM 2018 OSCE PA President George Tsereteli addresses the 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. In 2018, five OSCE PA officers—all elected members of national parliaments—spoke at the HDIM.  OSCE PA President George Tsereteli of Georgia addressed the gathering’s opening session, observing that while the human dimension is also known as the “third dimension” of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security, it “should always be our first priority.” “When we put our OSCE hats on, our primary goal is to better the lives of the more than one billion people in the OSCE area,” said President Tsereteli. “Our duty is to respond to their desire to live in a free society, where democratic debate is encouraged and not stifled, where journalists are respected and not jailed or killed, where a simple citizen can trust that his or her voice counts and is not discarded.” Two of the OSCE’s nine Vice Presidents—Isabel Santos of Portugal and Kari Henriksen of Norway—also attended. Santos focused on the human rights of migrants, and Henriksen on promoting opportunities for women and children that will protect them from human trafficking. Two of the three officers of the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions were also in Warsaw. Committee chair Margareta Kiener Nellen of Switzerland addressed hate crimes and hate speech, including ways to combat them, while committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni of Cyprus focused on challenges to freedom of the media, ranging from rhetorical attacks to violence and incarceration of journalists. OSCE PA human rights committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni delivers remarks at the freedom of the media session at the 2018 HDIM in Warsaw. Other Human Dimension Activities Throughout the year, the OSCE PA deploys short-term election observation missions and represents the OSCE as a whole in reporting the preliminary conclusions immediately after elections take place. The assembly also has an active Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, chaired by Belgian parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri, which encourages humane treatment of refugees and migrants alike, including respect for their rights, in accordance with international norms.  Various Special Representatives of the OSCE PA President also have human dimension portfolios, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (Human Trafficking Issues) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance).

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