Continuous Religious Freedom Concerns in Armenia

Continuous Religious Freedom Concerns in Armenia

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
108th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Friday, July 25, 2003

Mr. Speaker, I rise in my capacity as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission to voice concern over Armenia's refusal to register select religious groups and the continuing harassment of certain religious communities, actions which violate Armenia's commitments to religious freedom as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Honoring the commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE documents would ensure Armenia upholds the freedom of the individual to profess and practice religion or belief, alone or in community with others.

 

With respect to registration, Armenian law requires all religious communities and organizations, other than the Armenian Apostolic Church, to register with the government. Obtaining registration is critical if a religious community wants to carry out basic functions, like renting property, publishing newspapers or magazines, broadcasting programs on television or radio, or officially sponsoring the visas of co-religionists or visitors.

 

To acquire registration, a petitioning religious organization must obtain an “expert opinion” from the government, in which four questions from Article 14 of the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations Act must be affirmatively answered: (1) Is the religion based on a historically canonized holy book? (2) Does its faith belong to a system of modern worldwide religious church communities? (3) Is it of a purely spiritual orientation, not created for the pursuit of material goals? (4) Does it have at least 200 believing members, not including minors? A negative finding by the government on any of the four questions will terminate the registration application.

 

This type of approval system is extremely problematic, as it places the government in the role of determining what is or is not a religion, allowing it to make highly subjective decisions. For example, the government refuses to recognize the Jehovah's Witnesses as an official religion, despite having more than 6,000 Armenian members. Other small groups, including approximately 50 Baptist communities, are unable to pass the numerical threshold, so are not qualified to apply for registration. As a result these groups are indiscriminately denied basic rights enjoyed by those which have the government's stamp of approval.

 

Last September, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian reportedly stated that the Armenian Government must curb the activities of minority religious communities, even if these actions violate Council of Europe obligations. Mr. Speaker, considering this type of bias, I urge the Government of Armenia to revamp the registration process to prevent arbitrary or politicized decisions. Abolishing the registration requirement and ensuring any system facilitates, rather than hampers, the free exercise of religious freedom for individuals and communities, by methodically granting legal status to groups which seek registration would help bring Armenian policy into conformity with OSCE commitments.

 

Even more alarming is the Armenian Government's continued imprisonment of conscientious objectors, particularly from the Jehovah's Witnesses faith. According to the State Department's 2002 Anual Report on International Religious Freedom for Armenia, military and civilian security officials subject Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to serve in the military to harsh treatment, because their refusal is seen as a threat to Armenia's survival. One particular example is the case of Araik Bedjanyan, sentenced on July 2nd to 1½ years in a labor camp for refusing military service. Mr. Bedjanyan was sentenced under Article 75 of the criminal code, for “evasion of active military service.” There are currently 24 Jehovah's Witnesses serving sentences for being conscientious objectors on religious grounds. Suren Hakopyan and Artur Torosyan, whom police arrested in Yerevan on July 3, are currently awaiting trial along with six others for their refusal to serve in the military. Seven more Jehovah's Witnesses are reportedly under house arrest for the same “crime.” Despite Article 75 being replaced by Article 327 in the new criminal code, the amendment only reduces the potential sentence from three years to two.

 

One of the conditions for Armenia's admission to the Council of Europe in January 2001 involved the adoption of a law on alternative military service conforming to European standards within three years. However, while drafts continue to circulate, no laws have been passed that provide for alternative civilian service outside the framework of the army. In the meantime, conscientious objectors continue to receive harsh sentences. Should the Armenian Parliament pass such a law, the service length should not be punitive in nature, but rather be comparable to military service requirements.

 

As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I urge the Armenian Government to abide by its OSCE commitments regarding religious freedom. Armenia should overhaul its registration scheme, dropping the registration requirement, and liberalize its system for bestowing legal personality to religious communities and organizations. Furthermore, all Jehovah's Witnesses currently imprisoned for “evasion of military service” should be unconditionally freed, and a law in line with Council of Europe standards for alternative military service should be passed as soon as possible.

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  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law This is a July 16, 2019, update to the article “Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law," originally posted on July 8, 2017 (reprinted below). In 2011, Hungary adopted a new church law that entered into effect in 2012. The law stripped hundreds of faiths of their legal status overnight, deprived them of state resources to which they had previously been entitled, and resulted in other limitations. In December 2018, Hungary amended its religion law (effective as of April 15, 2019). The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of Hungary’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court on Human Rights which held that Hungary’s religion law discriminated against faiths and churches. However, the amended law includes elements that, in practice, will continue discriminatory elements of the 2011 law for several more years and, in some respects, exacerbate the situation for minority faiths. The existing (2011) legal framework already distinguished among churches for the purposes of allocating government resources and benefits. The 2018 amendment added additional tiers to the categories, resulting in a more complex system. The four new tiers or categories are: religious association (with the right to be called a “church”), listed church, registered church and recognized church. Only the most “privileged” tier (recognized church) has the rights previously enjoyed by religious organizations recognized as churches before the passage of the 2011 law. Faiths which enjoyed legal recognition before the 2011 law but were stripped of that recognition under the 2018 law continue to be forced to accept the status of religious association and excluded from all the “privileges” granted to the higher categories. In other words, the 2018 amendment simply carries over the framework of the 2011 law. Additionally, the Hungarian Parliament – a body of elected officials – still decides which religious organizations are in the privileged tier (recognized church), making this an inherently political distinction. The amendment does make two improvements. First, it allows all religious organizations that secure state recognition to determine their own internal organizational structure. (Under the law passed in 2011, this was not the case.) Second, it permits people to donate 1% of their income tax to any religious organization that secures one of the four approved statuses. However, the amendment does not automatically enable organizations previously excluded from this support to receive it. On net, the December 2018 amendment fails to implement fully the court’s rulings or end the discrimination of the 2011 law, leaving some religious groups in limbo. The amendment did not provide a remedy for churches that were stripped of their status under the 2011 law, and faiths categorized in what is now the lowest tier (“religious association”) cannot be upgraded to the status of listed or registered churches without renouncing all future state, European Union, and foreign support or collecting the 1% income tax donation but remaining excluded from the benefits of "recognized" status during a prolonged transitional period. Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law June 8, 2017 On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

  • Responding to Hate

    In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 that examined the role of religious actors in responding to hate domestically in the United States and throughout the OSCE region. The hearing, titled “Responding to Hate: The Role of Religious Actors,” focused on how faith-based institutions can promote safe and inclusive societies and reduce violence, hostility, and discrimination. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) chaired the hearing and was joined by other commissioners including OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Moore opened the hearing by stating, “All of us have something to gain from those who look different, pray differently, and may come from a different place. And we must not wait until tragedy strikes, again and again and again, to learn the value of mutual respect. We must seize every opportunity to denounce hate-motivated violence, and in doing so we protect the value of freedom of expression, the hallmark of democracy.” She also paid homage to six Sikh worshippers killed near her district in Oak Creek, Wisconsin seven years ago. In his opening remarks, Sen. Cardin recounted his side event at the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA earlier in July, titled, “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future,” where he called on parliamentarians to act now to prevent a repeat of the past where bigotry and violence resulted in the deaths of millions under Nazi rule. Witnesses at the hearing described how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all, domestically and throughout the OSCE region. Witnesses also shared strategies to prevent and respond to hate, ignorance, and violence targeting our societies, including places of worship. Father James Martin shared a video testimony about his response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, which at the time was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, taking 49 lives. He noted that the LGBT community received an outpouring of love and support the in the aftermath of the tragedy, with the notable exception of the Catholic church. Father Martin said, “Why am I bringing this up? Because when it comes to the role that religious actors and organizations can play in combatting hate crimes, the most effective thing they can do is to get their own houses of worship in order. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist in many Christian denominations – my own included.” He ended his testimony by underlining that “the most important thing that religious actors and organizations can do to combat hate crimes is not only to fight the hatred on the outside, but on the inside as well.” Imam Gamal Fouda also testified by video and remarked on New Zealand’s response to the tragic shooting that targeted and killed Muslims at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, where he is the imam. “New Zealand set a good example to the whole world for how to look after your people, how to actually support all your people. And we all stand together against hate, hate speech, and hate crimes,” he said. He said the power of New Zealand was demonstrated in the wake of the Christchurch shooting and called for more education on the strength of diverse and inclusive societies. “We have to stand together looking at the diversity in our communities as something that is strengthening our community,” he said. “It is the secret of the power of our community to see different colors and different languages.” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, victim, witness, and survivor of the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA—the worst attack on a synagogue in the history of the United States—stated, “The metaphor of America as a melting pot, is a beautiful image, but sadly, it is not true, [because …we] do not know our neighbors. We live in silos, with no bridges connecting them. Many choose to live in their own private silos, not wanting ‘others’ to enter their silo.” He believes that the key to addressing hate—what he referred to as the “H-word”— is to learn to build bridges. “Some people just don’t know how to build a bridge. This is where religious leaders like me make a difference…I’m a bridge builder. When the Muslim community extended an olive branch to me, I responded by offering an olive tree,” he said. Reverend Aaron Jenkins testified on the power of developing partnerships and relationships across different sectors of society to adequately tackle the issue of hate and hate crimes wherever they occur. He remarked, “Any plan to address hate must engage faith actors within and across their faith traditions in respectful and meaningful ways. We cannot wait until the next hate crime happens.” He stated that partnerships, resources, and relationships were needed to address the problem. Radia Bakkouch spoke about the situation in France and Coexister’s “belief in the concept of ‘faith for good’ and the practice of interfaith cooperation in empowering young people to address violence and exclusion.” She stressed the importance of defending pluralistic societies and highlighted the importance of building coalitions to address the rise in hate-based violence taking place in France and elsewhere in Europe. Usra Ghazi detailed federal hate crimes statistics, highlighting that hate crimes historically and consistently are underreported. This, she said, is partly due to a lack of a standardized reporting processes and “strained relationships between bigotry-impacted communities and law enforcement entities.” Ghazi shared that many members of the Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities affected by anti-Muslim discrimination, hate, and violence in the United States have opted to keep low profiles rather than report these events. She stressed, “Due to the rise of hate crimes and hate speech against Muslim and Sikh Americans, these communities by necessity have had to organize outreach efforts to humanize themselves while raising cultural and religious literacy among their neighbors and governments.” Ghazi also shared positive examples of how discriminated communities are building their civic health, getting more involved in elections, and running for office at record rates. “We now have Muslim and Sikh mayors of American cities, as well as officials from these faiths in a range of governmental positions. These efforts help to ensure that our cities, counties and states are truly representative of the rich diversity of American communities.” Alina Bricman’s video testimony concluded the hearing. She presented an overview of the first-ever report of Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism, released July 4, 2019. Findings included that “44 percent of young Jewish Europeans have faced anti-Semitic harassment, that’s almost 1 in 2 Jews; […] and 25 percent identified as too scared to display Jewish-affiliated ornaments or accessories.” To address the problem, Bricman recommended investing in education (such as anti-racist and anti-bias training) that emphasizes the importance and strength of diversity and diverse communities, supporting civil society, and depoliticizing anti-Semitism and racism by having leaders engage responsibly in the public arena where it is not viewed as a left or right issue.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Role of Religious Actors in Responding to Hate

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RESPONDING TO HATE The Role of Religious Actors Tuesday, July 16, 2019 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. Witnesses will describe how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all in the OSCE region, and share strategies to prevent and respond to hate crimes and violence targeting our societies in public places, including places of worship and social institutions. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi and Cantor, Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA Father James Martin, Editor at Large, America Media, New York, NY Imam Gamal Fouda, Imam, Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch, New Zealand Radia Bakkouch, President, Coexister, Paris, France Alina Bricman, Elected President, European Union of Jewish Students, Brussels, Belgium Usra Ghazi, Director of Policy and Programs, America Indivisible; Mayor’s Interfaith Council, Washington, DC Reverend Aaron Jenkins, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, The Expectations Project (TEP), Washington, DC Additional witnesses may be added.

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Russia's Counterproductive Counterterrorism

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

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

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

  • Chairman Hastings Commemorates Eid al-Fitr

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

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

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

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

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

  • Remembering Boris Nemtsov

    Madam President, on Sunday, February 24, thousands of people marched in Moscow and in cities across Russia to remember Boris Nemtsov, a Russian statesman and friend of freedom who was gunned down in sight of the Kremlin walls 4 years ago. These people were honoring a Russian patriot who stood for a better future--a man who, after leaving the pinnacle of government, chose a courageous path of service to his country and his fellow Russians. Boris Nemtsov was a man who walked the walk. When others were silent out of fear or complicity, he stood up for a future in which the Russian people need not risk jail or worse for simply wanting a say in how their country is run. Sadly, since Mr. Nemtsov's assassination, the risks of standing up for what is right have grown in Russia. With every passing month, ordinary citizens there become political prisoners for doing what we take for granted here in the United States--associating with a political cause or worshipping God according to the dictates of one's conscience. Last month alone, in a high-profile case, a mother was jailed for the crime of being a political activist in Russia. She was kept from caring for her critically ill daughter until just hours before her daughter died. Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to years behind bars for practicing their faith. Also, a leader of a small anti-corruption organization was beaten to death with metal rods on the outskirts of Moscow. This was all just in February, and it is not even a comprehensive account of the Russian state's using its powers not against real enemies but against its own people--peaceful citizens doing what peaceful citizens do. As for the Nemtsov assassination, 4 years later, justice has yet to be served. It appears that President Putin and his cronies have little interest in uncovering and punishing the masterminds behind Russia's highest profile killing in recent memory. While a few perpetrators who had been linked to the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, were convicted and sent to prison, Mr. Nemtsov's family, friends, and legal team believe the organizers of his murder remain unidentified and at large. I understand that Russia's top investigative official has prevented his subordinates from indicting a close Kadyrov associate, Major Ruslan Geremeyev, as an organizer in the assassination, and the information linking Geremeyev to Mr. Nemtsov's murder was credible enough for a NATO ally to place Geremeyev on its sanctions list. Yet there has still been no indictment. Russian security services continue to forbid the release of footage from cameras at the site of the assassination. Russian legal authorities refuse to classify the assassination of a prominent opposition leader and former First Deputy Prime Minister as a political crime. Despite all of this, they have declared the case solved. Given this pattern of deliberate inaction on the part of Russian authorities, the need for some accountability outside of Russia has grown more urgent. Russia and the United States are participating States in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the OSCE, and have agreed that matters of justice and human rights are of enough importance to be of legitimate interest to other member states. Respect for these principles inside a country is often a predictor of the country's external behavior. So countries such as ours have a reason to be involved. At the recent meeting of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, we began a formal inquiry into Mr. Nemtsov's unsolved murder and have appointed a rapporteur to review and report on the circumstances of the Nemtsov assassination as well as on the progress of the Russian investigation. As the chair of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I supported this process from its conception at an event I cohosted last July in Berlin. Yet, as the United States of America, there is more we can do. To that end, I am glad to cosponsor a resolution with my Senate colleagues that calls on our own government to report back to Congress on what we know of the circumstances around Boris Nemtsov's murder. This resolution also calls on the Treasury Department to use tools like the Magnitsky Act to sanction individuals who have been linked to this brutal murder, such as Ruslan Geremeyev. We hear constantly from Russian opposition figures and civic activists that personal sanctions, such as those imposed by the Magnitsky Act, have a deterrent effect. Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear that these sanctions, based on personal accountability, are more of a threat to his regime than blunter tools, such as sectoral sanctions, that often feed his propaganda and end up harming the same people we are trying to help in Russia—innocent citizens. To its credit, the Trump administration has done a better job than had the previous administration in its implementing of the new mandates and powers Congress authorized in both the Russia and Global Magnitsky Acts. We are in a much different place than we were when these tools were originally envisaged nearly 10 years ago. The administration is mandated to update the Magnitsky Act's list annually, with there being a deadline in December that sometimes slips into January. Now it is already March, and we have yet to see any new designations under the law that the late Mr. Nemtsov himself called the most pro-Russian law ever adopted in a foreign legislature. While the law has been lauded by Russian democrats, it is rightly despised by those like Vladimir Putin who abuse and steal from the American people. Recall that it was at the Helsinki summit late last summer between the leaders of Russia and the United States of America—perhaps the grandest stage in U.S.-Russian relations in a decade—where Mr. Putin himself requested that his investigators be able to depose U.S. officials most closely associated with passing and implementing the Magnitsky law, as if they were criminals. We need to show the Russian dictator that this sort of bullying will not stand and that we will continue to implement the Magnitsky Act thoroughly and fairly. A year ago, I participated—along with many of my colleagues in the House and Senate—in the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy here in Washington, DC—the first official memorial to Boris Nemtsov anywhere in the world. One day, I hope there will be memorials to Boris Nemtsov all across Russia, but the best tribute to his memory will be a Russia he wanted to see, a just and prosperous Russia, at peace with its neighbors and a partner with the United States. I yield the floor.

  • Chairman Hastings Remembers 27th Anniversary of Khojaly Massacre

    WASHINGTON—On the 27th anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Khojaly, a town in the Republic of Azerbaijan, was home to a barbaric act of brutality that desecrated the norms and principles of international law, human rights, and freedoms. Armenian forces, with the support of the 366th motorized rifle regiment of the Russian army, stormed the besieged town of Khojaly engaging in acts so violent that their effects are still felt in the community, indeed the entire country, to this day… “Marking the anniversary of a tragedy is always a solemn occasion. However, as a member of the Azerbaijan Caucus, I believe it is important to recognize and remember those whose lives were lost. I ask my colleagues to join me in offering condolences to the people of Azerbaijan.” Chairman Hastings’ full statement was entered into the Congressional Record. On February 26, 1992, during the brutal war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, hundreds of Azerbaijani men, women, and children were killed by Armenian forces in Khojaly, in Nagorno-Karabakh.  

  • Asset Recovery in Eurasia

    Asset recovery—the process of repatriating funds previously stolen by corrupt officials—remains one of the most contentious points in the fight against transnational corruption. Though only a small percentage of stolen funds are ever recovered, major questions exist about the best ways to ensure that repatriated funds don’t simply reenter the same patronage cycle from which they came. This briefing explored approaches to repatriation in Armenia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Panelists discussed best practices and challenges in asset recovery as well as appropriate policy responses, both by the state in question and the international community, and compared the respective approaches of the three countries. Brian Earl, who worked the Pavlo Lazarenko case for years as a detective in the FBI, spoke of uncovering massive amounts of unexplained assets that were initially generated by fraudulent schemes in Ukraine but were scattered abroad. Earl underscored the importance of a multiparty investigation between authorities from the United States, Ukraine, and Switzerland in unearthing evidence of fraud against Lazarenko. Joint investigative liberty and resources were crucial to asset recovery efforts in the 1990s—resources he said were drastically reduced once attention was turned away from investigating capital flight from former Soviet states to antiterrorism efforts after the September 11 attacks. Professor Kristian Lasslet of Ulster University asked the question of what to do with restituted assets when the government to which the asset belongs may be part of the corruption scheme. Lasslet cited the example of Kazakhstan Two, in which seized assets flowed back into questionable hands by bungled efforts from the World Bank and the Swiss government. He contrasted the case with Kazakhstan One, in which asset recovery was handled well at arm’s length of parties that may be interested in funneling assets back into the cycle of fraud. Sona Ayvazyan of Transparency International Armenia offered optimism in the Armenian government’s renewed approach toward transparency and anticorruption efforts but warned of the serious lack of capacity on asset recovery infrastructure. Though the leadership may be serious about removing corruption, she spoke of a discredited judiciary that poses serious problems for Armenia’s future anticorruption policies. According to Karen Greenaway from the FBI (ret.), civil society and non-governmental societies must reassert their role in the conversation on asset recovery. She highlighted the severe lack in bureaucratic infrastructure for asset recovery in many nations afflicted with corruption—particularly Ukraine. The paradox, she asserted, was between the structure of corruption, which is designed to dissipate large quantities of money very rapidly, and the system to repatriate those assets, which is painfully slow and often lacking in resources.  

  • Wicker, Cardin Condemn Detention of Russian Activist Nastya Shevchenko

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today issued the following statements on the detention of Anastasia (Nastya) Shevchenko, a human rights activist with the Open Russia organization, who was placed under house arrest on January 23: “No one should face jail time for peaceful advocacy,” said Sen. Wicker. “The callous and cruel treatment of Nastya Shevchenko by Russian authorities is a disturbing tactic to silence a citizen-activist.” “The Russian authorities must release Nastya Shevchenko,” said Sen. Cardin. “It should not be a crime to advocate for the best interests of one’s country and fellow citizens.” Shevchenko is the first Russian to face criminal charges under Russia’s 2015 “undesirable organizations” law, which is intended to prevent NGOs based outside of Russia from operating within the country. A single mother, she was prevented from visiting her critically-ill special needs daughter until shortly before her daughter’s death at the end of January. Open Russia is a Russian-led, Russia-based organization that advocates for greater government transparency and accountability. Amnesty International has declared Shevchenko a prisoner of conscience.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Focus on Asset Recovery In Eurasia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ASSET RECOVERY IN EURASIA Repatriation or Repay the Patron? Wednesday, February 13, 2019 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Asset recovery—the process of repatriating funds previously stolen by corrupt officials—remains one of the most contentious points in the fight against transnational corruption. Though only a small percentage of stolen funds are ever recovered, major questions exist about the best ways to ensure that repatriated funds don’t simply reenter the same patronage cycle from which they came. Is it possible to ensure that recovered assets actually serve the people from whom they have been stolen? This briefing will explore approaches to repatriation in Armenia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Panelists will discuss best practices and challenges in asset recovery as well as appropriate policy responses, both by the state in question and the international community, and compare the respective approaches of the three countries. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Sona Ayvazyan, Executive Director, Transparency International Armenia Bryan Earl, Retired Supervisory Special Agent/Assistant General Counsel, Federal Bureau of Investigation Karen Greenaway, Retired Supervisory Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation Kristian Lasslett, Professor of Criminology and Head of School, Ulster University

  • Unorthodox?

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

  • First Person: Wood Smoke and Expectation

    By Stacy Hope, Communications Director When I checked in to my hotel room in Yerevan, Armenia, on December 6, it smelled faintly—not unpleasantly—of wood smoke. I never did find the source, but to me, the smell of wood smoke in December has always been a harbinger of good things to come. It reminds me of cozy evenings with family by the fireplace, talking about the hopes and expectations we have for the new year, even if the weather is frigid and damp and other circumstances are less than ideal. It is the aroma of expectation. It seemed fitting that wood smoke welcomed me to Armenia for December’s historic elections. In April, Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who had served as the country’s president since 2008, resigned less than one week after taking office for what was perceived by many to be a de facto third term. His resignation was sparked by popular protests against Sargsyan and his Republican Party, led by opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan, who was later elected interim Prime Minister. On October 16, Prime Minister Pashinyan resigned abruptly, forcing the country’s first-ever snap parliamentary elections on December 9. I traveled to Armenia as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s election observation mission, organized in coordination with the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The OSCE PA observation mission included approximately 50 short-term observers from 17 of the OSCE’s 57 participating States. Our pre-election briefings featured briefings by analysts, civil society, members of the media, and party representatives. Parties in Armenian politics have traditionally been associated with specific personalities, rather than domestic or foreign policy. However, according to interlocutors, this campaign was different. While the personalities of party leaders still play an important role, for the first time a nearly equal focus was placed on policies. This was highlighted by the country’s first-ever televised parliamentary debate, which aired on Armenian public television on December 5 and generated widespread excitement throughout the country. Previous elections in Armenia had been marked by allegations of election fraud, including abuse of state resources, pressure on civil servants, outright vote-buying, and undue influence of the ruling party on the media. Among the media representatives in particular, there was a tangible sense of hope, accompanied by an equal amount of trepidation, that things were changing for the better. In the past, several speakers noted, they had been explicitly directed (“we received phone calls”) by the party in power as to which candidates should be covered, how, and for how long. Now, they noted, there were no phone calls. They were flying blind—coverage decisions were completely at their discretion, as long as they remained within the guidelines of the electoral code. That freedom was unprecedented, exhilarating, and a little bit intimidating. * * * On the morning of December 9, my election observation partner—a British parliamentarian—and I arrived before sunrise at our first polling station in Yerevan. In the city, streetlights turn off in the early hours of the morning, so we gingerly picked our way in near-blackness around potholes and through puddles to the front door of a local school. Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by the head of the polling station, an enthusiastic and competent woman who proudly showed us where voting would take place: the large hallway/common area on the second floor of the building. Like most of the polling stations we would visit throughout the day, it was staffed predominantly by women, many in their mid-to-late twenties. Another thing it had in common with most of the precincts we visited: it was totally inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair or who could not easily navigate stairs.  We remained at the first polling station to observe pre-election procedures as well as the first several voters. We then departed to observe 10 other polling stations, all of which were located in Armavir, the province directly to the west of the city. Outside a polling station in Armavir, where a full list of voters registered at that location was displayed publicly, in line with the electoral code. The polling stations in Armavir ranged from substantially urban to relatively rural and were generally located in schools or “cultural centers”—desolate-looking structures built during the Soviet era, which are still used for civic events, including elections. Throughout the day, we observed very few irregularities and an obvious commitment by poll leaders and workers to faithfully follow election procedures. In addition to our own observation, most of the polling stations we visited were being observed by representatives of each of the political parties, known as “proxies.” We also encountered a few citizen observers. My observation partner and our interpreter speak with a poll worker. One particularly charming ritual we observed in two of the polling stations we visited was the recognition by the poll workers and others in the polling station of first-time voters. When new voters cast their ballots, they were ushered to the center of the room by poll workers and awarded, to a round of applause, a commemorative pin. Almost without fail, the new voters blushed and hurried out of the polling station, embarrassed but unable to hide their smiles. At the end of the day, we returned to the school in Yerevan to observe the polling station’s closing and counting procedure. At some point during the very long day, the vibrant leader of the polling station had contracted a head cold and nearly lost her voice. (She offered us snacks—we offered her cough drops. Both offers were gratefully accepted.) Despite her illness, she persevered, counting by hand the more than 900 ballots cast in her precinct among the 11 political parties and alliances competing in the election. Observed closely by party proxies, the leader of a polling station in Yerevan sorts and counts ballots. I returned to my hotel room—still faintly scented with wood smoke—after midnight, hoping that the high expectations of many of the Armenians we met had been fulfilled. * * * In a landslide victory, Pashinyan’s MyStep alliance surged from just nine seats (7.8 percent of the vote) in 2017 to 88 seats (70.4 percent of the vote). The joint preliminary statement by international election observers from the OSCE, the OSCE PA, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament reflected my own impressions: that the December 9 election process respected citizens’ fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust. Almost without exception, other international observers shared my sense that the polling stations were efficiently and professionally run. The overall campaign featured open political debate, including in the media, and the lack of vote-buying or similar examples of election fraud meant that the elections were genuinely competitive. Election turnout hovered just under 50 percent—low by Armenian standards, but according to many election analysts, not entirely negative. The relatively low voter turnout (12 percent lower than in the previous election) could likely reflect a lack of the vote-buying and bribery that would encourage otherwise apathetic voters to turn out in droves. Peter Osusky, leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission, noted, “Now that voters have delivered their message, it is up to the political leadership of Armenia to ensure that this momentum is maintained.”

  • The Holy See and Religious Freedom

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

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