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Administration Certification of Russia Regarding Religious Freedom

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

106th Congress, First Session

Mr. Speaker, through Public Law 105-292, the International Religious Freedom Act, Congress is on record as standing for religious liberty throughout the world. Furthermore, Public Law 105-177, the foreign appropriations legislation passed in the 105th Congress, mandates that no foreign aid money be appropriated to the Government of the Russian Federation if the President determines that the Russian government has implemented legislation or regulations that discriminate, or cause discrimination, against religious groups or religious communities in Russia in violation of accepted international agreements on human rights and religious freedoms to which the Russian Federation is a party. This provision was in response to the 1997 Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which many feared would lead to limitations on religious worship and a retreat from the standards of religious freedom that had been achieved in Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

 

This year, for the second year in a row, the President has made the determination that the Government of the Russian Federation has not implemented legislation or regulations that cause such discrimination against religious groups. The Presidential Determination states “During the period under review, the Government of the Russian Federation has applied the 1997 Law on Religion in a manner that is not in conflict with its international obligations on religious freedom. However, this issue requires continued and close monitoring as the Law on Religion furnishes regional officials with an instrument that has been interpreted and used by officials at the local level to restrict the activities of religious minorities.” Furthermore, the Presidential Determination states, “To the extent that restrictions on the rights of religious minorities have occurred, they have been the consequence of actions taken by regional or local officials and do not appear to be a manifestation of federal government policy. Such incidents, while they must be taken seriously, represent a relatively small number of problems when viewed against the size of the country and the number of religious organizations.”

 

Mr. Speaker, I believe that the above statements are a reasonably accurate representation of the religious liberty situation in Russia and that the Presidential Determination is probably a fair one, given the lack of firm legal structure and the geopolitical situation in the present-day Russian Federation. Moreover, some of the most egregious instances of restrictions against religious groups in Russia have been corrected through court action. And to be fair, Russia is hardly the worst offender in the former Soviet Union.

 

In Turkmenistan, for instance, religious groups are required to have five-hundred members before they can be legally registered with the government to operate openly. It is a ridiculously high number and has resulted in harassment of unregistered religious groups. Of course, unlike Russia, the Government of Turkmenistan doesn’t claim to be much of a democracy or go out of its way to adhere to international standards of human rights.

 

In Uzbekistan, the 1998 law imposes severe criminal penalties for meeting without registering and for engaging in free religious expression with the intent to persuade the listener to another point of view, in violation of OSCE religious liberty commitments. Since February 1999, several pastors in Uzbekistan have been detained and jailed on charges of drug possession eerily reminiscent of charges brought in years past against Soviet religious dissidents. These comparisons, however, do not change the fact that there are still several problems in the area of religious liberty in Russia that should be noted and corrected, especially if a considerable sum of U.S. taxpayer money still continues to go to Russia. In the East-West Church & Ministry Report of Winter 1999, Mark Elliot and Sharyl Corrado of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies write: Implementation of the 1997 law to date has been uneven. At least in the short run, a number of factors appear to have worked against consistently harsh application . ….. Still life since the passage of the law has not been easy for many who wish to worship outside the folds of the Moscow (Russian Orthodox) Patriarchate. The first 15 months of the new law included at least 69 specific instances of state harassment, restriction or threat of restriction against non-Moscow Patriarchate religious communities in the Russian Republic. For instance, I wonder if it was a coincidence that a few days after the Presidential Determination, the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice rejected the application of the Society of Jesuits for official registration. For that matter, most of the property seized by the Communists from the Roman Catholic Church in Russia has not been restored. In the city of Moscow, which is considered a liberal jurisdiction, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been subjected to a protracted trial that threatens to return them to “underground” status.

 

In Stavropol, the local Moslem community has not only been refused the return of a mosque that had been seized by the Communists, but also been prevented from holding worship services in other quarters. A provincial official justified this policy by saying that Moslems only make up 10 percent of the population in the city. These are only a few of the most prominent cases of concern. In rural areas, local officials attempt to hinder worship activities by a number of subterfuges, ranging from the refusal to rent city property to religious groups without their own premises to outright threats and eviction of missionaries.

 

Therefore, while I believe the Presidential Determination is, by and large, acceptable at this time, I would emphasize the reference to “continued and close monitoring” of the situation. In my opinion, the Administration has done a good job of monitoring the Russian religious liberty situation, and I trust these efforts will continue. As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I urge the Russian government to take every appropriate step to see that religious freedom is a reality for all in Russia, and I know the Congress will continue to follow this issue closely.

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