Title

Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Release of Pastor Brunson from Prison

Senator Wicker Calls for Full Acquittal
Wednesday, July 25, 2018

WASHINGTON—Following Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release from prison to house arrest by Turkish authorities today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement:

“I welcome the long overdue decision by a Turkish court today to transfer Pastor Brunson to house arrest. This first step is a humane gesture for a falsely accused man who has endured more than 650 days in a maximum security prison. I will continue to seek full justice for Pastor Brunson, which includes his acquittal and freedom to leave Turkey.”

Pastor Brunson is one of several American citizens, including NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who have been caught up in the sweeping purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Pastor Brunson spent more than year and a half in jail on national security charges. Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with similar terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks. A third consulate employee remains under house arrest on dubious charges. 

Last week, the four senior members of the Helsinki Commission expressed concern about Pastor Brunson’s ongoing imprisonment. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. A month earlier, Helsinki Commission leaders called on President Erdogan to lift the state of emergency imposed in July 2016 after the failed military coup against his government. Turkey ended its two-year-long state of emergency last week, but the Grand National Assembly earlier today approved legislation that effectively enshrines many of President Erdogan’s controversial emergency decrees.

Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders also urged President Trump to seek guarantees that U.S. citizens jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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    The Helsinki Commission held a briefing on Holocaust education tools and law enforcement training programs undertaken by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Co-Chairman Smith cited the vicious murder of Ilan Halimi as a reminder of the need to redouble efforts to combat anti-Semitism and to speak out when manifestations of related hatred occur.  The briefing highlighted specific programs which promote awareness of the Holocaust and provide law enforcement professionals with the tools to investigate and prosecute hate-inspired crimes.   Paul Goldenberg, a Special Advisor to ODIHR who designed the law enforcement training program which assists police to recognize and respond to hate crimes, stressed that law enforcement professionals must be recognized as an integral part of the solution.  Dr. Kathrin Meyer addressed the challenges presented by contemporary forms of anti-Semitism and highlights ways to address the subject in the classroom. Other witnesses – including Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee; Stacy Burdett, Associate Director of Government and National Affairs, Anti-Defamation League; and Liebe Geft, Director, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance also presented testimony at this briefing.

  • Statement in Support of H.Con.Res.190 (McIntyre)

    Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased that the House is considering H.Con.Res. 190 today, that urges the Russian Federation to protect fully the freedoms of all religious communities without distinction, whether registered and unregistered, as stipulated by the Russian Constitution and international standards. As stated in the resolution, the United States throughout its history has sought to protect the fundamental and inalienable human right to seek, know, and serve God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.  I completely agree.  The “first right” of religious freedom must be respected, and so this resolution is of critical importance.  The Russian Federation is an OSCE participating State and has freely committed to protect this right, so that all may freely profess and practice the religion or belief, either alone or in community with others.  Russia has promised to do this through numerous OSCE documents, but also in its own constitution. Article 28 of the Russian constitution declares “everyone shall be guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience, to freedom of religious worship, including the right to profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion.” Unfortunately, this fundamental right is not always observed, especially for groups that are not registered with the government.  For groups denied registration, who have had their registration stripped, or refuse registration on religious grounds, the lack of registration means they experience significant difficulties in enjoying their religious liberties.  Registration is critical for religious groups to enjoy fully their religious freedoms, as many rights and privileges afforded to religious communities are contingent on obtaining registration.  In addition to discrimination by local authorities, in the last two years there have been more than ten arson attacks estimated on unregistered Protestant churches.  At a Helsinki Commission hearing that I attended last year on problems facing unregistered religious groups in Russia, I was troubled to learn of the lack of effective action by law enforcement to bring the criminals to justice. The perpetrators of these hateful acts have gone unpunished, with police and other officials turning a blind eye.  In the worst cases, law enforcement personnel have actually been the persecutors, carrying out violent actions against individuals from unregistered communities who are only wishing to practice peacefully their faith.  In closing, the Russian Federation is urged to do more, to ensure that all may fully enjoy their religious liberties.  I therefore urge my colleagues to support H.Con.Res. 190.   

  • Statement in Support of H.Con.Res.190 (Pitts)

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H. Con. Res. 190, urging the Russian Federation to protect and ensure religious freedom for all people in Russia.   Last year witnesses at a Helsinki Commission hearing on unregistered religious groups in Russia, provided alarming reports about the actions of local authorities towards unregistered or minority religious communities. Recurring reports of police harassment and criminal violence (that is rarely vigorously investigated) against these groups is jeopardizing the status of religious liberties in Russia.   Adding to the concerns are recent reports that the Duma is preparing legislation to regulate the activities of missionaries. Reportedly, the bill would create administrative and criminal penalties for “unlawful missionary work connected with provoking religious extremism.” There was also speculation in the Russian media that the Justice Ministry was looking to tighten the rules for granting visas to foreign missionaries. Furthermore, there are also reports that the Duma is considering an amendment to existing legislation that would require re-registration of registered religious organizations.   Mr. Speaker, these initiatives make evident that some people in the Russian government believe the role of the state is to control religious freedom rather than to facilitate and protect free expression. Officials know that it is very difficult for unregistered religious organizations to function effectively and freely—they know that limiting the actions of missionaries and restricting the distribution of visas would be the best option to control the growth of religious organizations.   The Congress must send a clear signal to President Putin and other Russian officials that religious freedom is a critically important issue and that we expect Russia to uphold its own constitution and its international commitments and protect the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. This resolution specifically urges Russia to fully protect religious freedoms for all religious communities, whether registered or unregistered, and to prevent the harassment of unregistered religious groups by the security apparatus and other government agencies. I strongly urge my colleagues to support H. Con. Res. 190.

  • Statement in Support of H.Con.Res. 190

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H. Con. Res. 190, urging the Russian Federation to protect and ensure religious freedom for all people in Russia. Last year witnesses at a Helsinki Commission hearing on unregistered religious groups in Russia, provided alarming reports about the actions of local authorities towards unregistered or minority religious communities. Recurring reports of police harassment and criminal violence (that is rarely vigorously investigated) against these groups is jeopardizing the status of religious liberties in Russia. Adding to the concerns are recent reports that the Duma is preparing legislation to regulate the activities of missionaries. Reportedly, the bill would create administrative and criminal penalties for “unlawful missionary work connected with provoking religious extremism.” There was also speculation in the Russian media that the Justice Ministry was looking to tighten the rules for granting visas to foreign missionaries. Furthermore, there are also reports that the Duma is considering an amendment to existing legislation that would require re-registration of registered religious organizations. Mr. Speaker, these initiatives make evident that some people in the Russian government believe the role of the state is to control religious freedom rather than to facilitate and protect free expression. Officials know that it is very difficult for unregistered religious organizations to function effectively and freely—they know that limiting the actions of missionaries and restricting the distribution of visas would be the best option to control the growth of religious organizations. The Congress must send a clear signal to President Putin and other Russian officials that religious freedom is a critically important issue and that we expect Russia to uphold its own constitution and its international commitments and protect the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. This resolution specifically urges Russia to fully protect religious freedoms for all religious communities, whether registered or unregistered, and to prevent the harassment of unregistered religious groups by the security apparatus and other government agencies. I strongly urge my colleagues to support H. Con. Res. 190.

  • Statement in Support of H.Con.Res. 190

    Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased that the House is considering H.Con.Res. 190 today, that urges the Russian Federation to protect fully the freedoms of all religious communities without distinction, whether registered and unregistered, as stipulated by the Russian Constitution and international standards. As stated in the resolution, the United States throughout its history has sought to protect the fundamental and inalienable human right to seek, know, and serve God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.  I completely agree.  The “first right” of religious freedom must be respected, and so this resolution is of critical importance.   The Russian Federation is an OSCE participating State and has freely committed to protect this right, so that all may freely profess and practice the religion or belief, either alone or in community with others.  Russia has promised to do this through numerous OSCE documents, but also in its own constitution. Article 28 of the Russian constitution declares “everyone shall be guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience, to freedom of religious worship, including the right to profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion.” Unfortunately, this fundamental right is not always observed, especially for groups that are not registered with the government.  For groups denied registration, who have had their registration stripped, or refuse registration on religious grounds, the lack of registration means they experience significant difficulties in enjoying their religious liberties.  Registration is critical for religious groups to enjoy fully their religious freedoms, as many rights and privileges afforded to religious communities are contingent on obtaining registration.  In addition to discrimination by local authorities, in the last two years there have been more than ten arson attacks estimated on unregistered Protestant churches.  At a Helsinki Commission hearing that I attended last year on problems facing unregistered religious groups in Russia, I was troubled to learn of the lack of effective action by law enforcement to bring the criminals to justice. The perpetrators of these hateful acts have gone unpunished, with police and other officials turning a blind eye.  In the worst cases, law enforcement personnel have actually been the persecutors, carrying out violent actions against individuals from unregistered communities who are only wishing to practice peacefully their faith.   In closing, the Russian Federation is urged to do more, to ensure that all may fully enjoy their religious liberties.  I therefore urge my colleagues to support H.Con.Res. 190. 

  • Floor Statement in Support of H.Con.Res. 190

    H. Con. Res. 190 expresses the sense of the Congress that the Russian Federation should fully protect the right of its people to worship and practice their faith as they see fit. This freedom is the right of all religious communities without distinct, whether registered or unregistered, and that is stipulated by the Russian Constitution and by international standards. Yet I am sorry to report religious freedom for minority religious communities throughout the Russian Federation have been under growing pressure as local officials and government authorities continue to harass and limit the abilities of these groups to practice their faith freely.  As we learned at a recent Helsinki Commission hearing, instances of violence have become alarmingly common. Arson attacks against churches in Russia have occurred in several towns and cities with little or no police response. In its 2005 International Religious Freedom Report, the State Department Office on International Religious Freedom notes: “Some Federal agencies and many local authorities continue to restrict the rights of various religious minorities. Moreover, contradictions between Federal and local laws and varying interpretations of the law provide regional officials with opportunities to restrict the activities of religious minorities. Many observers attribute discriminatory practices at the local level to the greater susceptibility of local governments than the Federal Government to discriminatory attitudes in lobbying by local majority religious groups. The government only occasionally intervenes to prevent or reverse discrimination at the local level.” Mr. Speaker, the internationally recognized expert on religious liberty in Russia, Larry Uzzell, has written: “Russia has now come to use as standard practice methods of religious repression that were applied only occasionally in the 1990s. Secular bureaucrats now typically refuse to authorize land transfers to Baptist churches and also forbid movie theaters or other public halls to sign rental contracts with them.” As a result, as an example: “In Moscow City alone some 10 Baptist congregations have ceased to exist simply because they could not find places within which to worship.” I would just note parenthetically, Mr. Speaker, I want to thank Larry for his extraordinary work in bringing this matter to the attention of the Congress. Larry is a tireless advocate for oppressed believers throughout Russia and Central Asia. He is facing some serious health issues now, and I would like to wish him a very speedy recovery. Mr. Speaker, in response to this growing and very negative trend in Russia, this resolution urges the Russian Federation to “ensure full protections of freedoms for all religious communities without distinction, whether registered or unregistered, and to end the harassment of unregistered religious groups by the security apparatus and other government agencies, as well as to ensure that law enforcement officials rigorously investigate acts of violence against unregistered religious communities, and to make certain that authorities are not complicit in such attacks.” I point out that in March 2004 a district court banned the religious activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. For 2 years now the authorities have used the Moscow decision to harass the Jehovah's Witnesses Administration Center in St. Petersburg, with threats to “liquidate” the administrative center which could threaten local congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses throughout all of Russia. Members of the Russia's Muslim community and respected human rights activists have expressed concern regarding what they contend are large-scale fabrications of terrorism against Russian Muslims. One of Russia's Supreme Muftis has stated that random police checks and arrests are becoming commonplace throughout Russia for Russian Muslims. Let me reiterate that Russia has every right to defend itself against terrorism and to investigate and prosecute terrorists. Of course it does. Here in the United States we face the problem of combating terrorism while safeguarding civil liberties. I would urge the government, however, to strive for the proper balance in defending both its citizens as well as their civil liberties. Mr. Speaker, the religious liberty picture in Russia is not entirely dark, and it would be disingenuous to make that assertion. There are Nations that have worse records. They can be found on the list of “countries of particular concern” that is issued by the U.S. Department of State in its annual report on religious freedom around the world, so-called CPC countries like Vietnam.  However, Russia is a member of the U.N. Security Council, an OSCE-participating State, and will soon chair the Council of Europe. In addition, this year, it is the chair of the G-8 and the host of the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg in July. Considering all of these positions, they should be expected to uphold basic, internationally recognized and accepted standards to protect peaceful religious practice. That is what this resolution is all about.

  • Debate on "Present World Crisis Regarding Freedom of Expression and Respect for Religious Beliefs"

    In the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, the people’s right to freedom of speech, including freedom of the press, and the people’s right to peacefully assemble to protest both, are guaranteed. As political leaders, we have a special responsibility—words have consequences.  When words can lead to anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic or anti-Christian actions—we have a responsibility to speak out against such expression.   The recent political cartoons published in the European press which mock the Prophet Mohammed and equate Islam and practicing Muslims with terrorism are not only offensive but also irresponsible because they foster anti-Muslim sentiment. We should protect the right of the press, but we should condemn such expressions as wrong.   If we do not act, we risk leaving a terrible legacy to our children.    Such a legacy would condone hate speech and racial and religious incitement.  Such a legacy would lead to more tragic and unjustifiable violence, more discrimination against Muslims and more attempts by government to improperly control the media.   We should act effectively and peacefully.    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most profound civil rights leader in the United States in the 20th Century, cautioned all of us that the legacy of hate and violence must not be hate and violence.  The violent response to the cartoons must be condemned, but our response to the cartoons must be decisive.   The OSCE has acted against anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and all forms of religious discrimination.  We have an action plan reinforced by ODIHR and our special representatives.   We need to reinforce our efforts to educate respect and understanding among all religions.  We need to strengthen training on the right and responsibility of a free media.  We need to promote specific and appropriate activities in each of our States to facilitate these goals.    As leaders, let our legacy be for each of our States—freedom of the press and greater understanding and respect for religious diversity.

  • Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

    Hon. Chris Smith, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, highlighted key policies of repression by Uzbekistan such as refusing registration for religious groups seeking legal status and perpetrating acts of aggression against members of these groups, and emphasized the lack of religious freedom for practicing Muslims in the country. Additionally, recent violations of religious freedom in Turkmenistan in spite of attempts at reform were evaluated. Witnesses testifying at the hearing - Witness One, a Baptist from Turkmenistan; Felix Corley, Editor of Forum 19 News Service; John Kinahan, Assistant Editor of Forum 19 News Service; and Joseph K. Grieboski, President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy – presented personal testimonies and illustrated the importance of addressing the commitments of the governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to upholding religious freedom as members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

  • Religious Speech Limitations in Sweden

    Mr. Speaker, freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is a fundamental element of international human rights norms. It is inextricably intertwined with other fundamental rights, including the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Considering this, I am increasingly concerned by European trends to place limitations on religious speech under the guise of preventing offense or limiting hate speech. One such case concerns Ake Green, the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Kalmar, Sweden, who was sentenced to 1 month in prison for “inciting hatred” against homosexuals.   Pastor Green’s troubles began on July 20, 2003, when he expressed his disapproval of homosexuality in a sermon, founded upon his understanding of the Bible. He did not incite nor encourage his congregation on the small southeastern island of Oland to violence. He did, however, express his personal opinion on homosexuality and made a personal moral judgment that the lifestyle was sinful. He later circulated the sermon text to media outlets in an attempt to insert an alternative view into Sweden’s “marketplace of ideas.”   When prosecutors saw the sermon printed, they brought charges against Pastor Green for “inciting hate” toward homosexuals. A district court agreed in June 2004, finding his sermon to be criminal. One particularly alarming quote from the district court’s decision stated, “It is forbidden to use the Bible or similar material to threaten or express disrespect for homosexuals as a group.” Mr. Speaker, should pastors really be sent to jail for sermons that a court deems “disrespectful” or “offensive”? Should the state really dictate how a religious leader interprets the Bible, the Torah, or other religious texts? The district court’s ruling raises the question of whether ministers and priests in Sweden are really free to preach their beliefs.   I recognize that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and not all speech is protected. After 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings, we have all seen how criminals abuse religion to preach violence and lead others in criminal deeds. Authorities are within their rights to take legal action to curtail the speech when it rises to the level of posing an imminent threat of actual criminal action. The international community and the European Court of Human Rights have recognized this high threshold for limiting speech activity. Yet we must be careful to not limit religious liberties and speech rights.   Thankfully, Pastor Green has not spent a night in jail while his case is on appeal. Also encouraging was the February decision by an appellate court to overturn the conviction, saying it is not illegal to preach a personal interpretation of the Bible. However, Sweden’s chief prosecutor, Fredrik Wersaell, appealed to the Supreme Court, contending that Green violated Sweden’s 2003 hate crimes law. The Supreme Court will hear the appeal on November 9th.   Undoubtedly, Swedes enjoy tremendous religious freedoms and generally Sweden is a staunch defender of human rights. However, in this case, the government has sought to limit basic religious teachings. I believe the criminalization of the use of the Bible to express beliefs, if not overturned, will have frighteningly broad ramifications for the free practice of religion in Sweden and beyond.

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