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Wicker: Celebrate First Amendment Religious Freedoms
Daily Journal
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The First Amendment to our Constitution is a powerful expression of our right to the “free exercise” of religion. Americans can practice their faith without fear of persecution – a freedom that is not found in all parts of the world.

For Christians in the United States, the prevalence of religious persecution worldwide is especially heartbreaking as we approach Easter Sunday. We are reminded of the suicide bomber who targeted Christians on Easter Sunday last year in Pakistan, killing more than 70 and injuring hundreds. Sadly, this violence is not isolated. Pakistan ranks fourth on this year’s World Watch List created by the nonprofit group Open Doors USA. The list names 50 countries that have extreme, very high and high persecution of Christians. North Korea ranked first.

I currently serve as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an agency comprised of members of Congress and federal officials to promote security and human rights in 57 countries in North America, Europe and Eurasia. The persecution of Christians and religious minorities remains a significant concern for the commission. In Syria, the Islamic State has waged a genocide against Christians, forcing thousands from their homes and destroying religious sites. In Russia, the government’s recent attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from practicing their faith is yet another affront to religious freedom in a country known for trampling human rights. Russia’s actions refute the international agreement that the U.S. Helsinki Commission seeks to uphold.

I have consistently supported legislative measures to protect Americans’ constitutional freedoms, including the exercise of religion. Political agendas should not encroach these rights. During the Obama administration, for example, I championed legislation that would allow military chaplains to refrain from performing marriage ceremonies if it would violate their conscience to do so. The religious expression of our military men and women is deserving of respect.

The same respect should be afforded to all Americans by our government agencies. I am encouraged by recent reports that President Trump is considering an executive order that would require federal agencies to protect the freedom of religion in their actions and policies. Earlier this month, I sent a letter with 17 other senators to President Trump expressing our support for this executive action and the need for federal agencies to follow the rule of law.

The letter reminds the President of attempts by the Obama administration to infringe on the rights of faith-based charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Obamacare forced the group either to pay a fine or offer services that they opposed for deeply held religious reasons. A Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the religious liberty of the Little Sisters, just as it did for the owners of Hobby Lobby, who also raised religious objections to the health-care law.

Our founding documents built a foundation for religious liberty that is admired around the world. It is up to us to ensure that this foundation does not crumble.

Roger Wicker is a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Contact him at 330 W. Jefferson St., Tupelo, MS 38803 or call (662) 844-5010.

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  • 40th Anniversary of the Forced Closure of the Theological School of Halki

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Counted among alumni of this preeminent educational institution are numerous prominent Orthodox scholars, theologians, priests, and bishops as well as patriarchs, including Bartholomew I. Many of these scholars and theologians have served as faculty at other institutions serving Orthodox communities around the world.  Past indications by the Turkish authorities of pending action to reopen the seminary have, regrettably, failed to materialize. Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met with the Ecumenical Patriarch in August 2009. In an address to a wider gathering of minority religious leaders that day, Erdogan concluded by stating, ``We should not be of those who gather, talk and disperse. A result should come out of this.'' I could not agree more with the sentiment. But resolution of this longstanding matter requires resolve, not rhetoric.  In a positive development last August, the authorities in Ankara, for the first time since 1922, permitted a liturgical celebration to take place at the historic Sumela Monastery. The Ecumenical Patriarch presided at that service, attended by pilgrims and religious leaders from several countries, including Greece and Russia. Last November, a Turkish court ordered the Buyukada orphanage to be returned to Ecumenical Patriarchate and the transfer of the property has been completed.  As one who has followed issues surrounding the Ecumenical Patriarchate with interest for many years, I welcome these positive developments. My hope is that they will lead to the return of scores of other church properties seized by the government. In 2005, the Helsinki Commission, which I co-chair, convened a briefing, ``The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation.'' The Commission has consistently raised the issue of the Theological School for well over a decade and will continue to closely monitor related developments.  The State Department's 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom is a reminder of the challenges faced by Orthodox and other minority religious communities in Turkey. I urge the Turkish Prime Minister to ensure respect for the rights of individuals from these groups to freely profess and practice their religion or beliefs, in keeping with Turkey's obligations as an OSCE participating State.  The 1989 OSCE Vienna Concluding Document affirmed the right of religious communities to provide ``training of religious personnel in appropriate institutions.'' The Theological School of Halki served that function for over a century until its forced closure four decades ago. The time has come to allow the reopening of this unique institution without further delay.  I urge my colleagues to support this resolution. SENATE RESOLUTION 196--CALLING UPON THE GOVERNMENT OF TURKEY TO FACILITATE THE REOPENING OF THE ECUMENICAL PATRIARCHATE'S THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL OF HALKI WITHOUT CONDITION OF FURTHER DELAY  Mr. CARDIN (for himself, Ms. SNOWE, Mr. REID of Nevada, Mrs. SHAHEEN, Mr. WHITEHOUSE, and Mr. MENENDEZ) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations:  S. Res. 196  Whereas the Ecumenical Patriarchate is an institution with a history spanning 17 centuries, serving as the center of the Orthodox Christian Church throughout the world;  Whereas the Ecumenical Patriarchate sits at the crossroads of East and West, offering a unique perspective on the religions and cultures of the world;  Whereas the title of Ecumenical Patriarch was formally accorded to the Archbishop of Constantinople by a synod convened in Constantinople during the sixth century;  Whereas, since November 1991, His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, has served as Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch;  Whereas Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997, in recognition of his outstanding and enduring contributions toward religious understanding and peace;  Whereas, during the 110th Congress, 75 Senators and the overwhelming majority of members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives wrote to President George W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Turkey to express congressional concern, which continues today, regarding the absence of religious freedom for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in the areas of church-controlled Patriarchal succession, the confiscation of the vast majority of Patriarchal properties, recognition of the international Ecumenicity of the Patriarchate, and the reopening of the Theological School of Halki;  Whereas the Theological School of Halki, founded in 1844 and located outside Istanbul, Turkey, served as the principal seminary for the Ecumenical Patriarchate until its forcible closure by the Turkish authorities in 1971;  Whereas the alumni of this preeminent educational institution include numerous prominent Orthodox scholars, theologians, priests, bishops, and patriarchs, including Bartholomew I;  Whereas the Republic of Turkey has been a participating state of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) since signing the Helsinki Final Act in 1975;  Whereas in 1989, the OSCE participating states adopted the Vienna Concluding Document, committing to respect the right of religious communities to provide ``training of religious personnel in appropriate institutions'';  Whereas the continued closure of the Ecumenical Patriarchate's Theological School of Halki has been an ongoing issue of concern for the American people and the United States Congress and has been repeatedly raised by members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and by United States delegations to the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting;  Whereas, in his address to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey on April 6, 2009, President Barack Obama said, ``Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond.'';  Whereas, in a welcomed development, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met with the Ecumenical Patriarch on August 15, 2009, and, in an address to a wider gathering of minority religious leaders that day, concluded by stating, ``We should not be of those who gather, talk, and disperse. A result should come out of this.'';  Whereas, during his visit to the United States in November 2009, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I raised the issue of the continued closure of the Theological School of Halki with President Obama, congressional leaders, and others;  Whereas, in a welcome development, for the first time since 1922, the Government of Turkey in August 2010 allowed the liturgical celebration by the Ecumenical Patriarch at the historic Sumela Monastery; and  Whereas, following a unanimous decision by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2010, ruling that Turkey return the former Greek Orphanage on Buyukada Island to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, on the eve of the feast day of St. Andrew observed on November 30, the Government of Turkey provided lawyers representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the formal property title for the confiscated building: Now, therefore, be it  Resolved, That the Senate—  (1) welcomes the historic meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I;  (2) welcomes the positive gestures by the Government of Turkey, including allowing the liturgical celebration by the Ecumenical Patriarch at the historic Sumela Monastery and the return of the former Greek Orphanage on Buyukada Island to the Ecumenical Patriarchate;  (3) urges the Government of Turkey to facilitate the reopening of the Ecumenical Patriarchate's Theological School of Halki without condition or further delay; and  (4) urges the Government of Turkey to address other longstanding concerns relating to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

  • Northern Cyprus

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  • Northern Cyprus

    Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I rise today to return to the issue of the legacy of the invasion and ongoing occupation of Northern Cyprus and related human rights violations in the region. The disruption of a Christmas liturgy at the Orthodox Church of Agios Synesios, in Rizokarpaso, by the security services is appalling and should be roundly condemned by people of good will. The town, located in the Karpas region, is an anchor for the remnant of the once thriving Greek Cypriot community, now numbering several hundred mainly aged souls. The faithful had gathered at the church one of only a handful of Orthodox places of worship in the occupied area to have survived intact for a rare service. According to reports, members of the security services entered the church while the liturgy was being celebrated, ordered a halt to the religious service, and forced the worshipers and the priest out of the building before locking the doors. This sad turn of events has become all too familiar in a region under the effective control of the Turkish military. Of the 500 Orthodox Christian churches, monasteries, chapels and other sacred sites in the north, nearly all have sustained heavy damage, with most desecrated and plundered, including cemeteries. A mere handful, including the Church of Agios Synesios, may occasionally be used for religious services depending upon the whims of the local authorities and the military. The disruption of the Christmas Day liturgy is an affront to the dignity of those attending the service and is part of a disturbing pattern of violation of OSCE commitments on the fundamental freedom of religion, including the right of religious communities to maintain freely accessible places of worship. A related concern has been the tendency of State Department reports to downplay the difficulties faced by Orthodox Christians seeking to conduct services in northern Cyprus as well as the extent of the region's rich religious cultural heritage. I raised my concerns over the denial of religious freedom in occupied Cyprus when the Committee on Foreign Relations held a nomination hearing for the position of Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom and will continue to closely monitor the situation in that part of Cyprus . Under my chairmanship of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe we undertook an examination of the destruction of religious cultural heritage in that part of Cyprus . Our findings, along with expert testimony were presented at a Commission briefing, ``Cyprus' Religious Cultural Heritage in Peril'' held on July 21, 2009. I encourage my colleagues and other interested parties to review the materials from that event, available on the Commission's Web site, www.csce.gov. A Law Library of Congress report: ``Cyprus : Destruction of Cultural Property in the Northern Part of Cyprus and Violations of International Law'' was also released at the briefing. In addition to documenting the extensive destruction of such sites, the briefing also touched on infringements of the rights of Orthodox Christians in Northern Cyprus to freely practice their religion. Those responsible for the interruption and abrupt forcible ending of the Christmas service at the Church of Agios Synesios should issue a formal apology for the boorish act of repression and I call upon all authorities in northern Cyprus to remove restrictions on the free exercise of freedom of religion and other basic human rights in this part of the country under their control.

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  • Roundtable Discussion: Minorities in France

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  • Fostering Effective Ethnic Minority Political Participation in the OSCE Region

    By Alex T. Johnson and Mischa Thompson, PhD, Policy Advisors As part of an ongoing initiative to foster ethnic minority political participation in the OSCE region, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Co-Chairman of the United States Helsinki Commission attended the United Nations (UN) Second Session of the Forum on Minority Issues. The Session focused on Minorities and Effective Political Participation, took place on November 12 and 13, 2009 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The purpose of the Forum was to “identify and analyze best practices, challenges, opportunities and initiatives for the further implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.” The Forum consisted of a Preparatory Meeting for NGOs, Workshop for Minority Political Actors, the Forum, and two Side events organized by the Minority Rights Group and United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Recommendations based on the proceedings were produced at the close of the forum. The U.S. delegation to the Forum was led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. In addition to Co-Chairman Hastings, other members of the U.S. delegation included, Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) - Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Delegate Donna Christensen (D-VI). The Forum was Chaired by Congresswoman Lee and convened by United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall. More than five hundred persons participated in the Forum, including more than eighty elected officials and other political actors, forty-five delegates and ninety-five non-government organizations from all over the world. The U.S. Delegation attended the Workshop for Minority Political Actors, which took place prior to the Forum and allowed elected officials and other political figures to discuss their own priorities and strategies for increasing minority political participation. Participants discussed barriers and possible remedies and efforts governments, parliaments, political parties, national human rights institutions, civil society, treaty bodies, United Nations institutions, the media, and other stakeholders could engage in to foster minority political participation. The U.S. delegation focused on the need to educate minority populations on their civil and political rights, including voting, running for office, and advocacy. Additionally, to address the lack of representation of minorities in government, the delegation called for initiatives that would increase employment opportunities for minorities in the political sphere. Specifically, these recommendations included introducing civic education programs led by minorities and developing minority youth professional development programs at government agencies, in parliaments, and in international bodies. Congressman Honda highlighted the importance of including minorities in the development, management, and implementation of government initiatives targeting minorities. “One should see minorities in professional positions upon immediately entering national human rights agencies, especially when the agency has a stated goal of combating racism and discrimination,” he argued. (This and other suggestions from the U.S. Delegation were included in the final Recommendations of the Forum.) As Chairperson, Congresswoman Lee opened the official Forum. In her remarks, she noted that empowering minorities politically is critical to achieving a truly democratic, free and global community. While she cited the election of President Barack Obama as an example of gains made toward fair election processes, she stated that minorities are still underrepresented in the U.S. Congress. For instance, there is currently only one African-American serving in the U.S. Senate.) Additionally, she stated that a continued focus of the Congressional Black Caucus and other minority caucuses was to address disparities between minority and majority populations in all aspects of society including the political arena. Following her remarks, government delegates and members of civil society ranging from Iranian dissidents to South Asian Dalit activists gave remarks. While many of the governments offered descriptions of their various initiatives to foster minority political participation, some governments provided assessments and prescriptions for improvement, including the U.S. government. Of particular relevance to minority political participation in the European context were the comments of OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek. The Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities is a unique institution of the OSCE in that it is situated in a politico-security dimension of the organization and facilitates confidential direct assessments on the status of minorities in the 56 participating States of the OSCE. High Commissioner Vollebaek highlighted how the underrepresentation of minorities in public services exacerbates the challenge of involving minorities in civic life. More specifically, he noted that exclusion and its causes threaten the stability of societies if left unaddressed. Other presentations throughout the forum corroborated the importance of this message. Speaking on the panel “Concrete Steps to Advance Minority Political Participation and to Build Capacity of Minorities to Participate Effectively,” Co-Chairman Hastings highlighted his work with minority European Parliamentarians in convening the 2009 Black European Summit.  He noted findings from the Summit, including that “the majority of our political and legal systems do not accurately reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our societies.” He called for this problem to be addressed via “simple solutions governments, political parties, and non-governmental organizations can employ such as advertising employment opportunities in minority communities, requiring that at least a percentage of persons interviewed for a position are minorities, and providing fellowships and internships for minority youth in Parliament, government agencies, and other organizations.” Minority Roundtable On the margins of the UN Minority Issues Forum, Co-Chairman Hastings convened a roundtable of participants of the April 2009 Black European Summit and other interested parties. The roundtable provided an opportunity to follow up on the Brussels Declaration adopted at the close of the Black European Summit (see Appendix 1), and discuss future initiatives for continuing the transatlantic dialogue. The discussion also informed individuals unable to participate in the Black European Summit about the scope of activities and potential for future collaboration. Participants identified destinations for study tours to view the situation of minorities and existing initiatives to increase minority political participation in the OSCE region. The United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, and Germany were specifically named given that the populations of visible minorities in these countries remains high and that they each offer unique narratives for analyzing methods to overcome barriers to minority political participation. Participants reaffirmed the need for annual meetings to sustain linkages between minority political actors and agreed to identify additional minority leaders to expand the transatlantic dialogue and plan future initiatives. Conclusion The “Recommendations of the second session of the Forum on Minority Issues on minorities and effective political participation” were compiled at the close of the Forum and should serve as a useful guide for governments to foster minority political inclusion. Moreover, in the OSCE region, sustaining a transatlantic dialogue with minority political actors focused on minority political inclusion is not only key to implementation of the recommendations, but also realizing the commitments to democratic societies enshrined in both the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and the Helsinki Final Act. Appendix 1 Brussels Declaration We, as members of the public, private, and voluntary sectors from Europe and the United States of America convening in Brussels, Belgium from the 15 to 16 of April 2009 for the Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion, draw attention to the need for coordinated strategies to address racism and discrimination; We recognize the democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-racial nature of our countries’ diverse societies; We reaffirm the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and recalling that all individuals are born equal in dignity and rights; We remain concerned that the political and legal systems in some of our societies do not reflect the racial and ethnic diversity within our societies, which then contributes to the continuation of racism and discrimination; We recognize that the full access of racial and ethnic minorities to participate in the political sphere and relevant areas of decision making at the levels of national, regional, and locally elected government appropriate to each nation is critical to combating racism and inequality and ensuring our democratic societies; We therefore note the need for concrete strategies to: increase the representation and influence of racial and ethnic minority policymakers; jointly seek solutions to racial and ethnic minorities increased participation in decision-making in the development and implementation of policy initiatives to address discrimination and inequality; and support opportunities to exchange and share perspectives in these areas through the continuance of a transatlantic dialogue to realize these goals. We today resolve that we will endeavor to enact initiatives to eradicate racial and ethnic discrimination through: Continuing a transatlantic dialogue that: includes cultural exchanges between American and European racial and ethnic minority groups, including youth; focuses on the development of opportunities for racial and ethnic minority political leadership and participation in the policymaking process; and fosters the exchange of information on best practices to implement and enforce antidiscrimination measures and achieve racial equality; Joining forces over the coming months to develop common goals and objectives in each of our decision-making bodies to recognize Europe’s Black and racial and ethnic minority populations for their historical and present-day contributions and acknowledge past injustices; Promoting racial and ethnic minority participation at all levels of national, regional, and local government through the education of civil and political rights, including the legislative process and advocacy of legislative issues relevant to racial and ethnic minority communities, development of targeted professional development and hiring strategies, and increased youth and community outreach; Reaffirming our continued cooperation and commitment to work with our governments, international institutions, civil society, private sector, and other partners to improve institutions so that they are fully participatory and reflect the democratic principles of equality, justice, and celebration of the strengths of our countries’ diversity. In 2008, Congressman Hastings Chaired two U.S. Helsinki Commission hearings entitled: “The State of (In)visible Black Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics” and “Racism in the 21st Century: Understanding Global Challenges and Implementing Solutions.” At the hearings, the lack of minority representation in European policymaking, especially at national levels, was identified as a major obstacle to combating racism and discrimination by European witnesses. This prompted a call for a transatlantic dialogue on minority political participation that included best practices from the United States’ Civil Rights Movement. The resulting events have been the 2009 Black European Summit and 2010 Transatlantic Dialogue on Minority Political Leadership.

  • Copenhagen Anniversary Conference

    By Orest Deychakiwsky, Policy Advisor Representatives from a majority of the 56 OSCE participating States and several dozen non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gathered in Copenhagen on June 10-11 to mark the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the 1990 Copenhagen Document and to assess implementation of key provisions of that landmark document. The anniversary conference, titled “20 years of the OSCE Copenhagen Document: Status and Future Perspectives,” was co-organized by the Kazakhstani OSCE Chairmanship and Denmark, and held at the Eigtveds Pakhus, Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Michael Haltzel led the U.S. delegation, which was joined by U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Ian Kelly and representatives from the OSCE Mission in Vienna, the State Department and the Helsinki Commission. Five substantive working sessions, reflecting some of the major themes of the groundbreaking Copenhagen Document, were held: Democratic processes – elections and human rights; Rule of Law; National Minorities; Freedom of Movement; and Measures to improve implementation of the human dimension commitments. Many speakers highlighted the historic importance of the Copenhagen Document, which offered a blueprint for pluralistic democratic development, rooted in the rule of law and protection of human rights, throughout the OSCE region – a revolutionary document at the time and one that remains highly relevant two decades later. The June 1990 Copenhagen Meeting came at a unique time in history when dramatic changes were taking place; the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of one-party regimes in Eastern Europe had taken place only months earlier. And the following year – 1991 -- witnessed the emergence of 15 independent states with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Truly, those were dynamic days during which sweeping new commitments -- which would have been impossible to garner consensus for years or even months prior -- received universal support. Indeed, it is questionable as to whether consensus to the Copenhagen agreement would be found today, given the democratic and human rights backsliding that has occurred in a number of participating States. The Copenhagen Document underlines the centrality of political pluralism, civil society and human rights as fundamental elements of functioning democracies. As Ambassador Max Kampelman, the head of the U.S. delegation to the 1990 conference summed it up, “In effect, the Copenhagen document represents the first formal proclamation, by the States themselves, of a Europe both whole and free.” It identified the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government and acknowledged that democracy is an inherent element of the rule of law. Among the achievements of the Copenhagen Document were the far-reaching commitments on democratic elections which laid the groundwork for the OSCE’s future activities with respect to election observation. Copenhagen also represented a significant step forward with respect to the protection of minorities, and for the first time there was a direct reference to Roma and to anti-Semitism. While participants at the anniversary meeting underscored the significant progress over the last 20 years, many also called for fuller compliance with the Copenhagen commitments, noting, for instance, backsliding in holding democratic elections in some participating States; suppression of civil society, including independent media, NGOs and human rights defenders; the deficit of impartial and independent justice; and the lack of separation of powers – especially the concentration of power in the executive. The last session of the conference discussed measures to improve implementation of human dimension commitments, including the prevention of human rights violations through the use of reporting before the violations occur; enhancement of standards and commitments; strengthened monitoring mechanisms, including a U.S. proposal to dispatch special representatives to investigate reports of egregious human rights violations and make corrective recommendations before the violations become entrenched; and improved cooperation with, and involvement of, civil society actors in advancing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Ultimately, however, compliance with existing standards enshrined in the Copenhagen Document, the Helsinki Final Act and all other OSCE commitments remains the primary responsibility of the participating State.

  • In the Eye of the Storm: Chechnya and the Mounting Violence in the North Caucasus

    A year after the leading Russian human rights defender, Natalya Estemirova, was abducted near her apartment building in the Chechen capital Grozny, transported to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia and brutally killed, human rights abuses and a continuing climate of fear prevailed in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.  Ronald McNamara, International Policy Director at the Commission, led a discussion on the marked increase in extrajudicial killings and politically motivated disappearances in Chechnya as well as in neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan.  Witnesses – Elena Milashina, Raisa Turlueva, and Igor Kalyapin – discussed how strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, the Republic’s Kremlin-backed president, publicly labeled independent journalists and rights activists as “traitors and enemies of the state” and how he reportedly praised the perpetrators of recent paintball gun attacks on the streets of Grozny targeting women for not wearing headscarves.  They emphasized the difficulty of resolving the problem because of Moscow’s backing of Ramzan and of a political model in which “bandits” serve as a prop for the federal powers that be.

  • OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Session in Oslo

    Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I want to report on the activities of a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation I had the privilege to lead last week as chairman of the Helsinki Commission. The purpose of the trip was to represent the United States at the 19th Annual Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, otherwise known as the OSCE PA. The annual session this year was held in Oslo, Norway, and the U.S. delegation participated fully in the assembly's standing committee, the plenary sessions, the three general committees and numerous side events that included discussion of integration in multiethnic societies and addressing gender imbalances in society.  Although some last-minute developments at home compelled him to remain behind, our colleague from the other Chamber, Mr. Alcee Hastings of Florida, was present in spirit as the deputy head of the delegation. Mr. Hastings, who co-chairs the Helsinki Commission, was very active in the preparations for the trip, and his legacy of leadership in the OSCE PA--for over a decade--is tangible in the respect and goodwill afforded the United States during the proceedings.  Our assistant majority leader, Mr. Durbin of Illinois, joined me on the trip, as he did last year. Our colleague from New Mexico who serves as a fellow Helsinki Commissioner, Mr. Udall, also participated. Helsinki Commissioners from the other Chamber who were on the delegation include Mr. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, serving as the ranking member of the delegation, as well as Mrs. Louise McIntosh Slaughter of New York, and Mr. Robert Aderholt of Alabama. Although not a member of the Helsinki Commission, Mr. Lloyd Doggett of Texas has a longstanding interest in OSCE-related issues and also participated on the delegation.  As many of you know, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of over 300 Parliamentarians from virtually every country in Europe, including the Caucasus, as well as from Central Asia, and the United States, and Canada. The annual sessions are held in late June/early July as the chief venue for debating issues of the day and issuing a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development and the rule of law; economic cooperation and environmental protection; and confidence building and security among the participating states and globally.  This active congressional participation helps ensure that matters of interest to the United States are raised and discussed. Robust U.S. engagement has been the hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago.  The theme for this year's annual session was ``Rule of Law: Combating Transnational Crime and Corruption.'' In addition to resolutions for each of the three general committees, delegations introduced a total of 35 additional resolutions for consideration, a record number, including 4 by the United States dealing with:  Nuclear security , which followed up directly on the Nuclear Summit here in Washington in April;  The protection of investigative journalists, a critical human rights issue as those who seek to expose corruption are targeted for harassment or worse;  Mediterranean cooperation, building on the OSCE partnerships to engage important countries in North Africa and the Middle East; and  Combating the demand for human trafficking and electronic forms of exploitation, a longstanding Helsinki Commission issue requiring persistence and targeted action.  U.S. drafts on these relevant, important topics received widespread support and were adopted with few if any amendments.  Beyond these resolutions, the United States delegation also undertook initiatives in the form of packages of amendments to other resolutions. These initiatives addressed:  The needs of the people of Afghanistan in light of the smuggling and other criminal activity which takes place there. The struggle for recovery stability and human rights in Kyrgyzstan, which is an OSCE state in the midst of crisis. And  Manifestations of racism and xenophobia that have become particularly prevalent in contemporary Europe. A critical U.S. amendment allowed us generally to support a French resolution that usefully addressed issues relating to the closure of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. Still other amendments coming from specific members of the U.S. Delegation covered a wide range of political, environmental and social issues relevant to policymakers. My colleagues and I were also active in the successful countering of amendments that would have steered resolutions on the Middle East and on the future of the OSCE multilateral diplomatic process in directions contrary to U.S. policy.  Beyond the consideration of the resolutions which now comprise the Oslo Declaration, the annual session also handled some important affairs for the OSCE PA itself. These, too, had relevance for U.S. policy interests:  the American serving as OSCE PA Secretary General, Spencer Oliver, was reappointed to a new 5-year term; a modest--and for the third fiscal year in a row--frozen OSCE PA budget of about $3 1/2 million was approved that requires continued and unparalleled efficiency in organizing additional conferences, election observation missions, and various other activities that keep the Parliamentary Assembly prominently engaged in European and Central Asian affairs;  in addition to my continued tenure as a vice president in the Parliamentary Assembly, Mr. Aderholt of Alabama was reelected as the vice chair of the general committee dealing with democracy, human rights, and humanitarian questions which ensures strong U.S. representation in OSCE PA decision-making; and a Greek parliamentary leader defeated a prominent Canadian senator in the election of a new OSCE PA president, following a vigorous but friendly campaign that encouraged the assembly to take a fresh look at itself and establish a clearer vision for its future.  While the congressional delegation's work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, we tried to use our presence in Europe to advance U.S. interests and express U.S. concerns more broadly. The meeting took place in Norway, a very close friend and strong, long-time ally of the United States of America. In discussions with Norwegian officials, we expressed our sorrow over the recent deaths of Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan. We also shared our concerns about climate change and particularly the impact global warming has on polar regions  Indeed, on our return we made a well-received stop on the archipelago of Svalbard, well north of the Arctic Circle, to learn more about the impact firsthand, from changing commercial shipping lanes to relocated fisheries to ecological imbalance that make far northern flora and fauna increasingly vulnerable. The delegation also visited the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a facility that preserves more than 525,000 types of seeds from all over the world as a safeguard for future crop diversity, and took the opportunity to donate additional U.S. seeds to the collection.  Norway is located close to a newer, but also very strong, ally with close ties to the United States, Estonia. Since last year's delegation to the OSCE PA Annual Session went to Lithuania and included Latvia as a side trip, I believed it was important to utilize the opportunity of returning to northern Europe to visit this Baltic state as well.  While some remained in Oslo to represent the United States, others traveled to Tallinn, where we had meetings with the President, Prime Minister, and other senior government officials, visited the NATO Cooperative Cyber-Defense Center of Excellence and were briefed on electronic networking systems that make parliament and government more transparent, efficient and accessible to the citizen. Estonia has come a long way since it reestablished its independence from the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago, making the visit quite rewarding for those of us on the Helsinki Commission who tried to keep a spotlight on the Baltic States during the dark days of the Cold War.  During the course of the meeting, the U.S. delegation also had bilateral meetings with the delegation of the Russian Federation and a visiting delegation from Kyrgyzstan to discuss issues of mutual concern and interest.  U.S. engagement in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly sends a clear message to those who are our friends and to those who are not that we will defend U.S. interests and advance the causes of peace and prosperity around the world.

  • Embassy Row: Swiss "Intolerance"

    The leaders of a congressional human rights panel criticized Swiss voters for approving a resolution to ban the further construction of mosque minarets and warned that the prohibition violates European religious freedom standards. "If this ban on religious expression is allowed to stand, Switzerland will clearly be out of step with its OSCE commitments of freedom of religion and belief," Rep. Alcee L. Hastings said this week, referring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The 56-nation OSCE is a major human rights alliance throughout Europe and Eurasia. Mr. Hastings, Florida Democrat, is the co-chairman of the congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "I hope the Swiss courts will overturn this referendum and that the Swiss government will double its efforts to implement anti-discrimination laws and have an open and honest dialogue about religious and ethnic tolerance," Mr. Hastings added. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the commission chairman, expressed worries that the referendum will send the message that Swiss are an intolerant people. "The Swiss vote to ban minarets is worrying for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Swiss people have seen fit to limit the religious practice of one particular group," the Maryland Democrat said. "I trust the Swiss government will work swiftly to be sure that the Swiss are not viewed as an intolerant people." Swiss citizens endorsed the referendum Sunday with 57.5 percent of the vote. The referendum bans the further construction of minarets, the mosque towers used to broadcast daily calls to prayer, but it does not restrict the construction of further mosques. In Switzerland, Ulrich Schuler, the architect of the referendum endorsed by the Swiss People's Party, told reporters that the ban was necessary because minarets are symbols of radical Islamic demands to impose Muslim laws in the majority Christian country.

  • Scars of 1974 Invasion Abound as Leaders Seek to Reunite Cyprus

    By Ronald J. McNamara, Policy Advisor Cyprus’ unique location at the cultural crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean and important trade routes between Europe and the Middle East and beyond has shaped the island nation’s rich history. I recently returned to Cyprus to assess developments as the 35th commemoration of the Turkish invasion approaches and a significant portion of the country remains under occupation. Virtually every conversation during my visit, whether with officials or private citizens, touched on some aspect of the ongoing occupation of the country, the legacy of the 1974 invasion, or the prospects for a resolution of “the Cyprus issue.” In a country with slightly less than a million people covering an area slightly more than half the size of Connecticut, one is hard-pressed to find a Greek Cypriot or Turkish Cypriot family that has not been affected in one way or another by the conflict and its lingering impact. While the Cyprus conflict predated the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, many of the principles found in that historic document have particular applicability to the situation in Cyprus, including: territorial integrity of states; peaceful settlement of disputes; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; and fulfillment in good faith of obligations under international law. Cyprus and Turkey were both original signatories to the Final Act. Traveling to the remote Karpas peninsula, in northeastern Cyprus, I was able to speak with an elderly pensioner in Rizokarpaso, a town where thousands of Greek Cypriots once thrived.Today they number scarcely more than 200, the largest concentration of Greek Cypriots in the Turkish occupied north. A short distance from the main square, featuring a large statue of modern Turkey’s founder Kemal Atatürk on horseback, the gentleman described his existence amid a burgeoning population of newcomers from mainland Turkey. He explained that as elderly Greek Cypriots pass away in the area, their homes are occupied, often by “settlers.” The aged man, deeply rooted in the town, showed a fierce determination to remain despite the hardships, making clear that he would not be complicit with the effective cleansing of Greek Cypriots from the region. Within minutes after we sat down at a nearby cafe, a couple of young men sat conspicuously nearby, within easy listening distance from us, an action that seemed designed to intimidate. The man pointed to a building across the street that serves as the school for the small number of Greek Cypriot children a short distance from the Orthodox Church, mainly used for funerals conducted by the lone cleric permitted to conduct such services in the region. According to the May 15 “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations operation in Cyprus,” humanitarian assistance was provided to 367 Greek Cypriots and 133 Maronites living in the northern part of the island. While numerous mixed towns and villages existed throughout the country prior to 1974, today, the town of Pyla, partly located in the UN-monitored buffer zone, is the sole surviving bi-communal village, with around 500 Turkish Cypriots and 1,500 Greek-Cypriots. While local leaders from the communities described a generally harmonious and cooperative atmosphere, the reality is that interaction between the two remains limited, with separate schools, sports teams, municipal budgets, and police forces, among others. Many of the people I met touched in one way or another on the ongoing talks between Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mehmet Talat. In his February 28, 2008 inauguration, Christofias reiterated the requirements for a negotiated resolution of the Cyprus conflict and reunification of the country as a federal bi-zonal, bi-communal, with a single sovereignty, international personality and citizenship. Christofias and Talat have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to such a formula based on UN Security Council resolutions dating back to the 1970s. The current talks, initiated by Christofias shortly after his 2008 election, focus on six main chapters, or themes, with corresponding working groups: governance and power sharing, European Union matters, security and guarantees, territory, property, and economic matters. Technical committees have also been established to consider crime, economic and commercial matters, cultural heritage, crisis management, humanitarian matters, health, and environmental matters. While formally conducted under the auspices of the UN, the talks are mainly being conducted directly between Christofias and Talat, with teams of experts focused on specific aspects of each topic. A meeting with George Iacovou, President Christofias’ top aide on the current direct talks, helped put the negotiations in context against the backdrop of prior efforts to reunite the country, including the Annan plan, which the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected in a 2004 referendum. Officials, including government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou repeatedly emphasized that negotiations on a resolution of the conflict be by the Cypriots, for the Cypriots. That said, such an outcome depends in large measure on Turkey playing a constructive role as the leaders of the two communities seek to hammer out a comprehensive agreement. Briefings by Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou and other senior officials focused largely on the international dimension of the Cyprus issue. Central to the discussions was Turkey’s longstanding aspiration to join the European Union. Accession talks with Turkey began in October 2005. In July of that year, the EU welcomed the country’s decision to sign a protocol adapting the Ankara Agreement to expand the existing customs union between Turkey and the EU to include all member states, including Cyprus. Simultaneously to the signing, Ankara issued a unilateral declaration, noting that its signature did not amount to recognition of the Republic of Cyprus. In response, the EU issued its own declaration on September 21, 2005 making clear that “this declaration by Turkey is unilateral, does not form part of the Protocol and has no legal effect on Turkey’s obligations under the Protocol.” Despite signing the adapted agreement, Turkish ports remain closed to Cypriot ships and airplanes. Cypriot government officials suggested that the status quo has cost the island nation millions in lost business. EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on December 11, 2006 partially froze membership talks with Turkey over the impasse, suspending eight of the 35 chapters on the agenda of the accession negotiations, a step endorsed by the European Council on December 15. The Turkey 2008 Progress Report issued by the EU Commission reiterated the call for Turkey “to remove all remaining restrictions on the free movement of goods, including restrictions on means of transport regarding Cyprus.” Turkey's accession to the EU would also require Ankara to work toward recognizing the Republic of Cyprus, including establishment of diplomatic relations. The next periodic report on Turkey’s implementation of the Ankara Protocol is expected later this year. While Cyprus supports Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU, the passage of time has brought potential opposition to the surface, notably from France and Germany. Property Property, another chapter heading under active discussion, has enormous implications. According to government officials, the vast majority of properties in the occupied north were owned by Greek Cypriots. Upholding the property rights of the owners as they were prior to the invasion remains a major priority for the government, with restitution the preferred end result. Considerable real estate development in the north and the continued occupancy of their homes by strangers, has led many Greek Cypriot property owners to file cases with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) claiming their property rights were violated. In the case of Loizidou v. Turkey, the court held that “denial of access to property in northern Cyprus was imputable to Turkey” and awarded damages, finding that the applicant had “effectively lost all control over, as well as all possibilities to use and enjoy, her property.” More recently, a judgment issued by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the case of Meletis Apostolides v. David Charles Orams and Linda Elizabeth Orams could have a chilling effect on foreigners purchasing property in the occupied territory. The ECJ affirmed that courts in other EU countries must recognize and enforce Cypriot court judgments. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004. Since the partial lifting, in 2003, of restrictions imposed by authorities in the north on freedom of movement, Greek Cypriots for the first time in large numbers have been able to cross into the northern part of the country – visiting their homes and villages many had not seen since 1974. Increased movement in both directions followed, with over 15 million incident-free crossings. A Greek Cypriot shared his experience of visiting his home for the first time since being forced to flee during the invasion. He discovered that a Turkish Cypriot family was living in the house. To his surprise, the father had meticulously collected and stored all of the owner’s family photos and presented him with the box at that first visit. Similarly, the occupant had placed crosses and other religious articles in the attic for safekeeping. A Turkish Cypriot expressed relief at the fact that some Greek Cypriot friends from his home village were living in his house and maintaining his lands in the southwestern part of the country. Unfortunately, these stories appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Missing Persons Of the many painful consequences of the 1974 invasion, perhaps none is as heartrending as that of missing persons. According to The Committee on Missing Persons, a total of 1493 Greek Cypriots, including five Americans, were officially reported missing in the aftermath of the conflict. Five hundred and two Turkish Cypriots had already been missing, mainly victims of inter-communal violence that erupted in the early 1960s. The remains of one of the Americans, Andrew Kassapis, were eventually recovered and returned. The cases of the other four remain open. The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus, established in 1981, facilitates the exhuming, indentifying and returning of remains of missing persons. The CMP mandate is limited in that it does not extend to Turkey. The Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities each have one member on the committee. A third member is selected by the International Committee of the Red Cross and appointed by the UN Secretary-General. While in Nicosia, I had an opportunity to be briefed separately by Elias Georgiades, the Greek Cypriot representative and Christophe Girod, the UN representative. Operating on the basis of consensus, the committee does not attempt to establish the cause of death or attribute responsibility for the death of missing persons. Since becoming operational in 2006, an anthropological laboratory has analyzed the remains of several hundred individuals. According to the committee, remains of 530 individuals have been exhumed from more than 273 burial sites throughout the country. Of remains examined at the forensic facility, the youngest individual was 10 months old and the oldest 86 years old. Walking though the lab I noted that most of the remains under examination had visible signs of gun wounds to the head. The remains of over 160 individuals have been returned to family members as a result of the bi-communal field teams and forensic work undertaken at the lab. The U.S. contributed funds for a family viewing facility which opened in 2008. Land Mines A briefing at the Mine Action Center in Cyprus provided insight into another legacy of the 1974 conflict, the presence of thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Established in 2004, the center has assisted in planning, coordinating and monitoring of demining operations, including land surveys as well as the actual clearance and disposal of mines. While thousands of landmines have been cleared to date, thousands more remain. The center’s goal is a mine-free buffer zone by the end of 2010. In addition to efforts undertaken within the framework of the UN, Cyprus’ National Guard has worked to clear anti-personnel mines. Of the 101 known or suspected minefields in the country about half are in the UN monitored buffer zone, with most of the remainder nearby. Briefers underscored the continued threat posed by minefields adjacent to the buffer zone, recounting incidents of migrants trying to cross from the northern part of the country to the government-controlled south finding themselves surrounded by mines. Farmers on either side of the buffer zone are also at risk as they seek to cultivate the arable farming lands bordering the area. The experts described the clearing operations involved in the opening of the Ledras Street pedestrian crossing point in the middle of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, in April 2008. The Mine Action Center is assisting in clearing operations paving the way for the opening of additional crossing points. In late June, President Christofias and Mr. Talat reached agreement on the opening of the Limnitis crossing point with access to and from Kokkina in the remote northwest, offering an opportunity for development and integration by Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. The United Nations has maintained an operational force on Cyprus since the establishment of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) in March 1964, following the outbreak of intercommunal violence. The force, one of the longest existing UN peacekeeping missions, consists of 858 troops, 68 police, and 160 civilians. UNFICYP is responsible for maintaining the status quo along the de facto ceasefire lines of the Cyprus National Guard, to the south, and Turkish and Turkish Cypriot forces to the north and a buffer zone between the two. The buffer zone stretches 111 miles from east to west, with 214 square miles of land between the lines, constituting about three percent of the country’s territory. The distance of separation varies from barely more than an arm’s span in some places to about four miles. Numerous villages, including Pyla, mentioned above, are located in partially or entirely in the buffer zone. The once bustling seaside city of Famagusta along the east coast remains deserted, a veritable ghost town, as it has since the mainly Greek Cypriot population was forced to flee during the second phase of the Turkish invasion in August 1974. A center for commerce and tourism, the city and surrounding region was the second largest in the country prior to the evacuation. It is home to nearly half of the people uprooted by the conflict. Standing on the beachhead just north of the city in the Turkish-controlled area the unpopulated city stretched as far down the coast as I could see. Abandoned hotels and high-rise apartment buildings rise from the sandy shore standing as a collection of steel skeletal frames liberated of their contents by plunder and the passage of time since their occupants were forced to flee. Religious Cultural Heritage The ancient Roman city of Salamis, located a short distance from Famagusta on the east coast, was the arrival point for St. Paul on his first missionary journey, accompanied by St. Barnabas, a native son of that city. Paul eventually made his way to Paphos, on the opposite side of the island, where his preaching led to the conversion of the Roman Proconsul, making Cyprus the first country governed by a Christian. A short distance from Salamis is the village of Enkomi, where according to tradition, Barnabas’ remains were buried following his martyrdom. Among minorities throughout the country recognized by the 1960 constitution are: Maronite Christians number approximately 5,000; Armenians 2,500; and Latins (Catholics) 1,000. The overwhelming majority of Cypriots are Orthodox, with Muslims comprising the next largest faith community. His Beatitude Chrysostomos II has served as Archbishop of New Justiniana and All Cyprus since November 2006. During our meeting he underscored the long history of harmony among faith communities in Cyprus. The archbishop voiced particular concern for those displaced by the 1974 invasion and stressed the importance of upholding human rights, including the rights of individuals to return to their homes. He contrasted the efforts taken by the authorities with the support of the Church to preserve mosques in the government-controlled area with the destruction of religious cultural heritage, including churches, monasteries and chapels in the north. Archbishop Chrysostomos II, who was joined by the Bishop of Karpasia, described the challenges faced by clergy seeking to travel to the occupied north, including those seeking to participate in religious services. The rare Orthodox services that are allowed to be conducted in the north are mainly for feast days of several saints, notably St. Mamas and St. Barnabas. Even such exceptional occasions have occasionally been marred by security forces preventing worshipers from crossing into the area. The Archbishop said that the Church would soon file a formal case with the European Court of Human Rights regarding its religious sites and other property in the occupied north. In the aftermath of Turkey’s 1974 military invasion and ongoing occupation of the northern part of Cyprus, a precious piece of the country’s cultural heritage is at risk of collapse – Orthodox churches, chapels and monasteries as well as those of other Christian communities. According to Archbishop Chrysostomos II, over 500 religious sites in the area have been seriously damaged or destroyed. During my travels throughout the region, I visited a score of churches – each in various stages of deterioration, all plundered. In Lapithos, in the Keryneia region, the Agia Anastasia complex is now a tourist resort. I found the Monastery of Ayios Panteleemon, in Myrtou, reduced to little more than a pigeon coup, with bird droppings everywhere – a scene I encountered repeatedly. In each church visited the interiors were stripped of religious objects, including altars, iconostasis, icons, and fonts. In some, it was clear how frescos had been chiseled out of walls and ceilings. It was a surprise to see a single bell still hanging in one of the many bell towers I saw. The main church in Rizokarpaso and a few elsewhere in the Karpas region were noteworthy for the fact that they even had doors; most others I visited did not. One of the countryside churches I visited was being used for storage, with heavy farm equipment in the yard and plastic crates and large tractor ties filling the interior space. In Keryneia, I found that a small chapel in the port was being used by the authorities as a tourist information center and snack bar. According to Church sources, others have been converted into stables, shops, and night clubs. In the village of Kythrea, a small Catholic chapel was reduced to a shell with no roof. Most of the main church had been converted into a mosque, along with a couple of others in the town, but for some reason a quarter of the structure remained in ruins. Another church, Agios Andronikos, located nearby was heavily damaged, with the rubble of the collapsed roof strewn about the interior space, with traces of frescoes still visible on the exposed walls. In the village of Stylloi, in the Famagusta region, the Profitis Ilias Church yard also serves as a cemetery. There I found desecrated ruins of graves with all of the crosses broken off of their bases and smashed. A shed in the corner of the yard was stacked with broken crosses and headstones. Another cemetery a short distance away was similarly in shambles. An adjacent Muslim cemetery was in meticulous condition. The U.S. Agency for International Development has supported a number of restoration projects in the occupied north, including work at the Agios Mamas Church in Morfou, operated mainly as an icon museum. In Keryneia, the prominent belfry of the Archangelos Mikhael Church disguises the fact that the once venerated site has likewise been converted into an icon museum. Such collections reportedly contain a small fraction of the thousands of icons, sacred vessels, vestments, manuscripts, frescos, and mosaics looted from churches, chapels and monasteries in the north. Many stolen icons and other antiquities are placed on the auction block for sale on the international market, some making their way into U.S. collections. The Byzantine Museum, in Nicosia, featured an exhibit: “Hostages in Germany: The Plundered Ecclesiastical Treasures of the Turkish-occupied Cyprus.” In a recent case, two icons from the early 1600s taken from a church in the northern village of Trikomo, were seized in Zurich by Swiss police. In stark contrast to the situation in the occupied area, in Nicosia I visited the Ömerge Mosque housed in the 13th century Church of St. Mary built by the Augustinian religious order. The recently refurbished mosque is a functioning place of worship. A short distance away in the old walled city is Bayraktar Mosque. When I visited the site there were large pallets of stone to be used to renovate the plaza in the mosque complex. Another example is the Mosque of Umm Haram, or Hala Sultan Tekke, a mosque and prominent Muslim shrine, located in Larnaca, southeast of the capital. According to Cyprus government sources, scores of other mosques and other Islamic places of worship are maintained in the south. A visitor to Cyprus need not look far to discover the scars left by the artificial division of the country following the 1974 invasion and ongoing occupation. Since my earlier trip to that island nation eleven years ago, there has been progress on some fronts, most noticeably in terms of freedom of movement since the partial lifting, in 2003, of restrictions imposed by authorities in the north. According to officials, the majority of Turkish Cypriots hold Cyprus-issued EU passports, affording them free movement throughout the EU area, employment opportunities in member countries and other benefits. In addition, thousands of Turkish Cypriots cross into the south daily for work. Other steps have come about as a direct result of the talks between the leaders of the two communities initiated last year. It remains to be seen, however, if the current negotiations will produce a comprehensive and durable resolution to the challenges in Cyprus. Beyond practical steps to ease the day-to-day lives of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, key principles such as sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity as well as respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are also at stake, with implications for conflicts elsewhere. Numerous earlier diplomatic initiatives were launched, but in the end failed. A particular challenge remains the thorny issues of the tens of thousands of Turkish troops and settlers from mainland Turkey still in Cyprus today, outnumbering Turkish Cypriots. Other factors, especially Turkey’s stated desire to join the EU, should not be discounted and could prove decisive to the ultimate success or failure of the current process. Meanwhile, Christofias and Talat and their teams grapple with an array of tough issues as they seek to overcome the legacy of the past 35 years and build a brighter future for all Cypriots.

  • Cyprus’ Religious Cultural Heritage in Peril

    This briefing, moderated by Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was part and parcel of the CSCE’s ongoing efforts to assess implementation of OSCE commitments by participating states. Likewise, member states of the OSCE had acknowledged the important contribution of religious faiths, institutions, and organizations to cultural heritage and committed themselves “to cooperate closely with such groups regarding the preservation of the cultural heritage, paying due attention to monuments and objects of religious origin whose original communities no longer use them or no longer exist in the particular region.” The latter portion of this quote was particularly applicable to the situation in northern Cyprus, whose circumstances vastly differed from southern Cyprus. More specifically, in the latter, scores of mosques and other Islamic places of worship had been maintained by the Cypriot Government. Because the government was lacking in this respect in the northern part of the country, this hindered the north’s preservation of religious cultural heritage. Consequently, attention was focused on the scope of the damage and destruction to Cyprus’ rich religious cultural heritage in the north of the country.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Murder of Russian Human Rights Activist Natalya Estemirova

    Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and Ranking Republican Members Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) issued the following statements today upon learning of the killing of Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. “I am saddened and outraged by the kidnapping and killing of Natalya Estemirova, one of the region’s great defenders of human rights. The reports of her abduction in Chechnya and subsequent shooting in the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia remind us of the urgent need to address human rights concerns throughout Russia. President Medvedev’s condemnation of this murder and his pledge to ‘take all necessary measures’ to solve the crime are welcomed, but his words must translate into a prompt and complete criminal investigation by federal authorities that brings those responsible to justice,” said Chairman Cardin. “I agree with what President Obama recently said in Moscow that history has shown ‘governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve their own power do not.’ Murder and intimidation of activists and journalists is both a serious violation of human rights and an affront to any democracy.” “In 2006, Ms. Estemirova met with the staff of the Helsinki Commission as part of our work to shine a light on the abuses in Chechnya. Lawlessness and violence too often define the lives of journalists and activists who are simply pushing the cause of freedom.” said Co-Chairman Hastings. “Ms. Estemirova led a courageous life of denouncing corruption, calling for a fair judicial system, and standing up for human rights. While her killers may have ended her life, they will never silence the voice she brought to these issues.” “President Medvedev has talked about the legal nihilism rampant in his country and has made positive gestures in the direction of reform, yet these killings continue. It is time to see real action and real reform regarding the rule of law and respect for human rights in Russia. The death of Natalya Estemirova must not be in vain,” said Senator Brownback. “Natalya Estemirova gave her life and now her death in the service to the cause of human suffering and justice,” said Congressman Smith, who authored a resolution that passed the House in 2007 to address the large number of unsolved murders of investigative journalists in Russia. “Being a human rights activist or an independent journalist in Russia has become among the most dangerous professions in the world. The Russian government needs to create an environment in which the flagrant slaughter of human rights activists is unacceptable.” The Helsinki Commission has held many hearings and briefings on Russia’s human rights record, including one recently focusing on the North Caucasus.

  • The Medvedev Thaw: Is It Real? Will It Last?

    This hearing discussed U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, focusing on how to improve relations while taking Russia’s compliance with human rights seriously.   The witnesses and Commissioners discussed the implications of Dmitri Medvedev becoming president and Vladimir Putin retaining power as Prime Minister.

  • Human Rights in Afghanistan

    Janice Helwig, policy advisor at the Commission, examined the current state of human rights in Afghanistan, a Partner for Cooperation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  While some progress has been made, rule of law and protection of human rights remains fragile. Witnesses Sima Samar and Scott Worden highlighted the harassment, intimidation, and violence human rights defenders and civil society leaders face while women and girls continue to be threatened and even attacked as they try to go to work or school.  They discuss the limited, if any, freedom of speech or belief reflected by the killings of journalists and the imposing of the death penalty on those who seek to convert from Islam to Christianity. 

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