Title

Statement on Religious Freedom in Central Asia at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

Hon.
Joseph Pitts
Washington, DC
United States
Thursday, July 06, 2006

Central Asia remains a region with one of the worst record on religious freedom, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the two most repressive regimes in the entire OSCE region. I therefore want to thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Open Society Institute for holding this event to shine a light on these two countries. I also want to say it’s a pleasure to be here today with Kimmo Kiljunen, my colleague from the Finish delegation.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I am a part, has actively engaged all five “Stans,” and especially these two. With Uzbekistan, despite accepting OSCE commitments to the contrary, the Karimov regime continues its policies of prohibiting unregistered religious activities, jailing thousands of Muslims, and prohibiting the ability of individuals to share their beliefs. Since the Andijon killings last May, the regime has clamped down even harder on all freedoms, but especially religious liberties. Reports indicate that twelve churches have since been stripped of registration, thus making any religious activity “illegal” and subject to significant penalties. There is even concern that a pastor in Andijon may be sentenced to up to 10-20 years in jail for his church work, forcing him to flee the country. The suppression of independent Muslim activity continues unabated, with Forum 18 now reporting that authorities are attempting to stop Muslim schoolchildren from attending mosques.

The United States has always recognized that Uzbekistan faces real threats from extremists operating behind the guise of religion and our efforts to urge moderation should never be construed as supporting their ideology or activities. While the tragic events in Andijon were not specifically related to religious freedoms, the spark that ignited the protests was the over zealous prosecution of an Islamic sect. I will therefore continue to urge Uzbekistan to bring its policies into conformity with its OSCE commitments on religious liberties and allow the free practice of religion for all. However, due to the deteriorating conditions for religious freedom, I also believe that sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act, passed by the Congress in 1998, should also be considered by the State Department.

In neighboring Turkmenistan, the Niyazov regime continues to limit the abilities of its citizens to fully enjoy their religious liberties. The recent arrest of local human rights defenders and their relatives on the eve of a European Parliament delegation visit graphically demonstrates the repressive and paranoid nature of the Niyazov regime. Despite some modifications in their laws regulating religious practice, Turkmenistan continues to prohibit unregistered religious activities and to harass both registered and unregistered communities. Independent Muslim and evangelical groups, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church all continue to experience problems in obtaining registration and operating freely. The former grand mufti also remains jailed. I will continue to raise with Turkmen officials the need to end the ban on unregistered religious activity, to register all groups so desiring, and to end the harassment of all communities. Although there have been some modest reforms in the past, if Turkmenistan doesn’t restart the reform process, I also believe that sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act may be warranted.

Although this event focuses on religious freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I do want to comment on a current development in Kazakhstan regarding media freedoms. Kazakhstan does have a better record on religious freedom than these two other countries. However, I was very disappointed that President Nazarbaev signed into law yesterday a very problematic bill that could severely limit freedom of expression. Some of the troubling aspects of the new law include that it reportedly doubles the number of grounds on which authorities may deny a media outlet registration; creates unduly restrictive registration procedures for new media outlets and re-registration procedures for existing media companies; and provides authorities with further opportunities to censor critical media. Considering the criticism the bill received from international and domestic media groups, and considering that Kazakhstan wishes to chair the OSCE in 2009, I am distressed that the President would sign this flawed law into force. I therefore urge the Government of Kazakhstan to revise the new law to ensure that OSCE norms on media freedom are fully respected.

In closing, I want to thank CSW and OSI for convening this event and I look forward to working with you all in the future. By working together, we can hopefully motivate Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to moderate their oppressive policies towards religious freedom.

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    By Ryn Hintz, Paulina Kanburiyan, and Worth Talley, Max Kampelman Fellows, and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On February 7 – 8, 2022, the OSCE’s Polish Chair-in-Office organized a high-level conference in Warsaw on Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region with the support of OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR). During the event, government officials, experts, civil society organizations, and the private sector underscored the ongoing threat that anti-Semitism poses not only to Jewish communities, but to democracy everywhere, and the shared responsibility to fight it. In a series of exchanges with experts over two days, more than 100 participants from over 25 countries unilaterally condemned anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, discriminatory prohibition of religious practices, and other manifestations of prejudice against the Jewish community. They also discussed innovative history education, youth engagement, and legislative responses to foster Jewish life. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, opened the event by underscoring the need for sustained, coordinated action to end the pervasive anti-Semitism plaguing the OSCE region. “Although recalling the Holocaust is painful, it seems as if we have not fully learned our lesson,” he said. Law Enforcement: A Partner in Combating Hate Speech and Scapegoating OSCE Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Rabbi Andrew Baker led a session where panelists highlighted the rise in anti-Semitic hate speech, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories since the onset of the global pandemic. Participating States then shared effective national policies and strategies, including best practices of partnering with law enforcement. Addressing Anti-Semitism Online: A Shared Responsibility OSCE Advisor on Combating Anti-Semitism Mikolaj Wrzecionkowski moderated a discussion on steps the private sector, civil societies and governments can take to combat the spread of anti-Semitism online, including actively challenging anti-Semitic algorithms and hashtags, appointing points of contact to address concerns about anti-Semitic content, and promoting educational initiatives among young people, educators, and companies to increase media literacy. The United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, Rt. Honorable Lord Eric Pickles, again underscored the importance of joint action. “At a time of distortion and contempt for our fellow human beings, we need to be able to see our own faces in the faces of strangers,” he stated. Beyond Combatting Anti-Semitism: The Need to Actively Foster Jewish Life Dr. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, led a discussion on the challenges and successes of states, cities, and societies in fostering vibrant Jewish communities to both resist the spread of anti-Semitism and uplift Jewish history, culture, and tradition. Panelists shared examples of initiatives to restore cemeteries and monuments, open museums, and compile educational and cultural resources online. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, illustrated the interconnectivity between fostering Jewish life and democracy by discussing recent legislative backlash against Jewish religious practices like circumcision and kosher preparation of meals, further stressing that regulations on these practices must not be prohibitive and should be formed in collaboration with Jewish communities. The Centrality of Education to Address Anti-Semitism and Anti-Roma Discrimination A session moderated by Kishan Manocha, ODIHR’s Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, highlighted the importance of new and innovative education initiatives to address root causes of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination. Panelists highlighted the need for cross-cultural exposure to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Roma attitudes and build greater connections between those inside and outside Jewish and Roma communities. Policymakers noted the ability to use interactive and digital tools to address histories of discrimination, related not only to the Holocaust but also to Jewish history and contributions to culture and the world. Despite advancements, participants acknowledged that challenges remain: online courses suffer from low completion rates and some curricula address the subject of anti-Roma discrimination only tangentially.  Panelists agreed that addressing anti-Roma discrimination also requires a holistic, inter-curricular approach that builds upon knowledge both of the genocide of Roma and Sinti, and of their histories and cultures. To close the conference, Plenipotentiary of Poland’s Ministry Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Paweł Kotowski called on participants to continue their important work to defeat anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination.

  • Poland's Leadership of the OSCE in a Time of Crisis

    Poland has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—at a time when it will need to do its utmost to uphold fundamental tenets increasingly under attack. The region is facing serious challenges, ranging from the real possibility of a renewed Russian assault on Ukraine to the repercussions of COVID-19. Other regional challenges include protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, as well as the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric are on the rise, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. Combating human trafficking and countering terrorism and corruption also are high on the OSCE agenda. At this hearing, Polish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Zbigniew Rau discussed Poland’s priorities in the OSCE and how it will address the challenges it will likely face in 2022. Related Information Witness Biography

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: POLAND’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE IN A TIME OF CRISIS Thursday, February 3, 2022 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Poland has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—at a time when it will need to do its utmost to uphold fundamental tenets increasingly under attack. The region is facing serious challenges, ranging from the real possibility of a renewed Russian assault on Ukraine to the repercussions of COVID-19. Other regional challenges include protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, as well as the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric are on the rise, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. Combating human trafficking and countering terrorism and corruption also are high on the OSCE agenda. At this hearing, Polish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Zbigniew Rau will discuss Poland’s priorities in the OSCE and how it will address the challenges it will likely face in 2022.

  • Russia sent troops near Ukraine and to Kazakhstan. The U.S. is watching and waiting

    Transcript   SCOTT SIMON, HOST: The Biden administration is heading into an intense week with Russia. The U.S. has already condemned the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. But the White House seems to be taking a different approach to Russian involvement in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains. MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: First, a word on why Kazakhstan matters to the U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, puts it this way. BEN CARDIN: It does bridge between Russia and China, Asia and Europe. It really is one of the key locations. It is a country that's rich in resources. It's a country that has a critical location from a security point of view, from a counterterrorism point of view. KELEMEN: U.S. companies are heavily invested in Kazakhstan's energy sector, and the U.S. saw the country as a relatively stable, though not a democratic partner. Cardin, who was speaking via Skype, says he was disappointed to see Kazakhstan's president invite in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a group of ex-Soviet states led by Russia. CARDIN: When Russia sends troops, they rarely remove those troops. And it's not what the Kazakhs need. It's not what the people need in that country. KELEMEN: The latest turmoil started with protests over gas prices and corruption. But some major cities also saw mobs taking over government buildings. And experts point to another layer of conflict, an attempt by the country's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to sideline other government elites linked to Kazakhstan's longtime ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev. And in that complex picture, the U.S. has little leverage, according to Emma Ashford of the Atlantic Council. EMMA ASHFORD: Even if we wanted to intervene, even if there was a clear side upon which we thought we could intervene - which I don't think there is - we just don't have that much leverage in Kazakhstan. We have limited ties in the country, and they're almost all commercial in the energy sector. KELEMEN: She thinks the U.S. needs to be cautious and not feed into Russian conspiracies. ASHFORD: We know that Vladimir Putin in particular, you know, the Russian government, has this historical tendency to see American fingers in every pot - you know, American action in every protest in the post-Soviet space. And even though that's not true, I think we should probably avoid giving the impression that we're going to get more involved. KELEMEN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been on the phone with his counterpart in Kazakhstan, calling on authorities to protect the rights of peaceful protesters and raising questions about why the government felt the need to invite in Russian-led troops. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) ANTONY BLINKEN: It would seem to me that the Kazakh authorities and government certainly have the capacity to deal appropriately with protests, to do so in a way that respects the rights of the protesters while maintaining law and order. So it's not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance. So we're trying to learn more about it. KELEMEN: For now, those Russian troops seem to be focused mainly on protecting key infrastructure. And Blinken is reluctant to conflate the situation in Kazakhstan with Ukraine, where Russia has seized territory and is threatening to take more. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) BLINKEN: Having said that, I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave. KELEMEN: Regional experts say if Kazakhstan's president is able to reinforce his political power in the midst of this crisis, he will be indebted to Moscow. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Peaceful Solution in Kazakhstan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the violent clashes between protesters and authorities in Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are deeply concerned about the situation in Kazakhstan and condemn the violence that has accompanied widespread protests across the country. The reported deaths of both protesters and police are extremely disturbing. “We call on President Tokayev and Russian troops not to use disproportionate force against protesters. At the same time, we call on protesters to cease any violent attacks against police, public buildings, or private property. “We urge both sides to find a peaceful way to resolve this crisis. We also urge President Tokayev to ensure respect for human rights, especially freedom of the media and the right to due process for those who have been arrested in connection with the protests.” A wave of protests began on January 2 in the western part of the oil- and gas-rich country in response to a sharp increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The unrest spread quickly to other parts of Kazakhstan and grew increasingly violent. Authorities deployed tear gas and stun grenades against protesters and blocked internet access in an effort to quell the unrest, while demonstrators attacked government offices. There are reports of deaths among both law enforcement and protesters, as well as of widespread looting. Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a nationwide state of emergency on January 5, accepted the resignation of his cabinet, and reduced LPG prices, but protests continued. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance among select former Soviet states including Russia, is sending Russian troops at the request of President Tokayev. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already strained economic and social disparities, and demonstrators are demanding increased political liberalization and accountability for government corruption. OSCE observers concluded that the 2021 parliamentary elections “lacked genuine competition” and underscored the need for political reform.

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