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Helsinki Commission Releases U.S. Statement on Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion or Belief at OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

Warsaw, Poland – The following statement on Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion or Belief was delivered by the United States at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation currently being held in Warsaw, Poland:

Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion or Belief

Statement of Ambassador Melissa Wells

U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Implementation Meeting

Mr. Moderator, the United States is deeply concerned about the proliferation of regulatory schemes promulgated in an increasing number of participating States throughout the OSCE region, schemes that place religious freedom at risk. The protection of religious freedom is critical in the overall panoply of human rights, and is a cornerstone of democratic development. Accordingly, the creation of legal barriers is a matter of substantial concern to my country. Several states have utilized these provisions to stamp out religious-based movements deemed hostile to government interests. By creating registration requirements that are in effect impossible to fulfill, or by placing excessive bureaucratic hurdles to ensure that only favored groups achieve state recognition, some governments manipulate the law to justify raids, fines and imprisonments. We, therefore, urge all participating States to ensure that, as declared in the Vienna Concluding Document, “their laws, regulations, practices and policies conform with their OSCE obligations” and ensure that those laws are enforced.

I want also to give particular emphasis to the surge of anti-Semitic activity in the OSCE region. The United States is alarmed at this development and calls upon all participating States to ensure that such activities are rapidly and severely condemned and effectively countered according to law and the OSCE obligations of States.

While Uzbek authorities may have started down the road to reform, by registering non-governmental organizations, prosecuting seven corrupt police officers who were guilty of torture, and amnestying approximately 900 prisoners, the government falls short of fulfilling its OSCE commitments. Roughly 6,500 individuals reportedly remain incarcerated for allegedly being members of Hizb ut- Tahrir, an extremist group that seeks to replace the Government of Uzbekistan (and other governments) with a worldwide Muslim Caliphate. Individuals seeking to worship at many independent mosques, and conservative observant Muslims attempting to spread their beliefs, are often accused of being members of the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir. These individuals are often arrested, tortured, tried and convicted for terms of 15 to 20 years, typically based on falsified criminal evidence.

Continued government efforts in Uzbekistan to jail activists and individuals worshiping in many non-state-controlled mosques, including their relatives, will only serve to disaffect many in the country’’s largely Muslim population. For example, at the end of May 2002, police arrested Yuldash Rasulov, a well-known human rights defender and devout Muslim, for “religious extremism.” Rasulov’’s work through the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan focused on government actions against Muslims choosing to worship outside the government-approved religious system. This type of excessive and unfounded prosecution is common, and is a clear violation of Uzbekistan’’s commitments as an OSCE participating State. We urge the Government of Uzbekistan to prosecute people on the basis of their actions, not beliefs. In addition, authorities continue to deny government registration to many independent mosques and churches throughout the country, especially for churches in the Karakalpakstan region.

Turkmenistan also has a burdensome religious registration law, requiring a religious group to have 500 individual members in any given locale, a restriction that only Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church are able to avoid. Frankly, religious freedom does not exist, as the law criminalizes unregistered individuals meeting with coreligionists, whether Muslim or Christian, in violation of international norms. Harassment of non-registered religious congregations continue and include arrest and seizure of property. Keston News Service reported that in May 2002, police forced Turkmen Christians in the village of Deinau to renounce their faith. There were credible reports that the government closed all Baha’’i Sunday schools which had been allowed to operate since the country’’s independence and that certain congregations of Russian Orthodox Christians were prevented from practicing their faith, despite being registered. There were some positive developments, however. In December of 2001, several members of Jehovah’’s Witnesses who had been imprisoned for conscientious objection were released, leaving six in detention. Prisoner of conscience, Shageldy Atakov, was released, although he has not been completely cleared by the criminal justice system. In addition, the exit-visa requirement was quietly dropped in spring of 2002.

In Kazakhstan, while we welcome the decision of President Nazarbaev to uphold a ruling of the Constitutional Court that found a draft law on religion unconstitutional, there are continuing concerns about the use of legal provisions. By penalizing leaders of religious communities refusing to register with Kazakh authorities, amendments to the criminal code are being abused and are not in harmony with OSCE commitments. Authorities have arrested and fined Baptists throughout Kazakhstan, with some instances of police beatings.

The Government of Georgia has not adequately enforced its laws in order to protect members of religious minorities as for over three years mobs have attacked peaceful religious communities with impunity, sometimes with the facilitation or participation of some in the local law enforcement community. Authorities have made few arrests; the trials have proceeded slowly, and no one has been convicted. The government’’s inability or unwillingness to end the violent attacks is deeply troubling, despite repeated statements by President Shevardnadze. Georgian authorities can do much more to end the violence and protect all citizens. In addition, a new draft religion law regulating religious groups is problematic in its potential for abuse.

In Belarus, harassment and intrusive government involvement in the life of religious communities is also a concern. We have observed little respect for religious freedom, with non-Russian Orthodox religious groups bearing the brunt of government harassment. The activities of the Lukashenko regime are deeply troubling, especially the August bulldozing of a church in the village of Pahranichny by Belarusian authorities. In addition, the draft law on religion would impose serious restrictions on non-Russian Orthodox religious communities.

Turkey’’s system of regulating religious groups remains problematic. While the Lausanne Treaty does dictate certain actions, the government’’s overall conduct often serves as an impediment to religious freedom. The Government of Turkey’’s control, among other things, of Islamic teaching, its ban on head scarves in government institutions, including universities, its closure of the Halki Seminary, and its efforts to seize church land under the pretext of maintaining cultural sites all contravene Turkey’’s OSCE commitments. In addition, the inability for Protestant Christian groups to achieve government recognition and to register officially as religious groups leaves these small communities in a precarious position.

In Azerbaijan, the creation of the State Committee for Religious Affairs (SCRA) has served to restrict religious freedom. In only a few instances has it assumed an advocacy roll for religious groups against local harassment. The most recent re-registration campaign seems designed to exclude some religious communities from needed government recognition. Other issues of concern are the ban on head scarves for Muslim women at certain state-run universities, the apparently state-sanctioned media campaign against minority Christian groups, the liquidation of the Love Baptist Church for alleged statements made by the pastor, and the internal deportation from the town of Nakhichevan of Adventist pastor Vahid Nagiev. These acts are clearly not in keeping with Azerbaijan’’s OSCE commitments. We note, however, that the SCRA has acted as an advocate for religious freedom in at least three instances for groups being harassed by local authorities.

Some democratic states in Western Europe have undertaken policies resulting in the stigmatization of minority religions, the result of identifying them indiscriminately and often inaccurately with dangerous “sects” or “cults.” These practices are troubling in that other nations struggling toward democracy, as well as certain non-democratic states, are adopting “anti-cult” laws and policies that are based in part on those of Western Europe. In non-democratic nations, lacking a tradition of commitment to human rights and rule of law, “anti-cult” laws could easily be implemented in ways that result in the persecution of people of faith.

Also of concern are laws and registration requirements targeting or limiting religious communities, or that establish hierarchies of preferred religious groups. Certain legal schemes such as the French “anti-cult” law, and the Austrian, Czech, and Hungarian laws that discriminate against minority religious communities all violate OSCE commitments. Accordingly, the United States welcomes the initiative last summer of the Government of the Netherlands in convening a seminar highlighting religious registration laws, an area ripe for further discussion under the Dutch chairmanship.

Finally, the United States is concerned about the Russian Federation’’s repeated decision to deny entry to religious workers representing out-of-favor religious communities, including Catholics, Protestants and the Dalai Lama. The decision to deny the return to Russia of one of four Catholic Bishops in the country, as well as several Catholic priests, has had a decidedly negative impact on religious freedom. Moreover, the draft religion law under consideration would create a discriminatory structure that favors so-called “traditional religions”, placing religious communities in three separate tiers, each with different benefits and rights. Furthermore, many local authorities consistently harass minority religious groups, denying registration and sometimes suing in court for liquidation. For example, the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army, despite having its court-ordered liquidation overturned and its legal status affirmed, still faces another lower court hearing to consider the Moscow Justice Department’s appeal that it be liquidated. Despite applying almost four years ago, the branch has yet to obtain re- registration.

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