WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) today called for countries to abandon discriminatory religious restrictions as the State Department released its annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
“The right to freely profess and practice our faith – or not practice a faith — is a cherished fundamental freedom too often taken for granted in our country and too often violated elsewhere,” said Chairman Cardin. “This annual report shines a needed light on those countries who have tried through official government actions to push minority religions deep into the shadows of their society. Whether intentional or not, government regulation of religion often amounts to discrimination, sending strong signals to society about which communities are favored and which are not. ”
The report labels “countries of particular concern” to flag places where laws and state actions have particularly harmed people’s ability to freely practice their religion.
“Many countries throughout the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe region have adopted highly restrictive and discriminatory laws that make it more difficult or impossible for religious communities to freely worship and undertake their normal activities,” said Co-Chairman Hastings. “Instead of allowing people to peacefully pursue their beliefs countries throughout the OSCE region are building bureaucracies for the sole purpose of regulating religion. In some instances, surveillance by security forces is used with the aim at intimidating believers or entire congregations.”
At this month’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, Poland, the Helsinki Commission and State Department officials raised concerns about actions in several countries, including:
• Armenia; where changes under consideration would ban people from sharing their faith with another establish a numerical threshold for groups seeking registration;
• Azerbaijan, where foreign-trained clergy are barred from leading prayers at mosques, requiring state approval of Muslim clerics;
• Belarus, where the government controls places of worship, requires state permission to conduct services and regularly sends KGB agents to religious services presumably for surveillance rather than spiritual purposes;
• Kazakhstan, where religious activities by unregistered groups frequently lead to fines and time in jail.
• Russia, where a nationwide campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses aims to ban the group’s religious literature; and
• Slovakia, which has one of the highest religion registration thresholds of any OSCE country, creating a burden for new or smaller faith groups;
• Tajikistan, where under a new religion law adopted this year all religious groups must undergo a process of re-registration by next year and Jehovah’s Witnesses remain banned since 2007;
• Uzbekistan, where Baptists and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Muslim groups have all been targeted by police raids and where laws prevent “illegally producing, storing, importing and distributing materials of a religious nature;”
“This type of state action to monitor and restrict religious activity is all the more troubling because it speaks to freedoms that are the most personal in nature,” Hastings added.
“By eliminating freedom of religion these countries are violating a host of other Helsinki Principles and basic freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, association and assembly,” Cardin said.