A Survey of Current Religious Rights Infringements
Editor's Note: Oslo-based Forum 18 News Service provides judicious religious rights reporting on post-Soviet territories, with free E-mail subscriptions available at its Web site: http://www.forum18.org. Its respected journalists are well known to defenders of freedom of conscience: Felix Corley, Geraldine Fagan, Igor Rotar, and Branko Bjelajac. The cogent and succinct survey of current religious rights abuses in post-Soviet states, which follows, well illustrates the capable, ongoing coverage of state and majority faith infringements of freedom of conscience highlighted on a regular basis by Forum 18 News Service.
Membership in the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is not compulsory: states have the free choice whether or not to accept binding OSCE commitments by joining. The commitment of all OSCE states to respect freedom of religion is clear. A 1990 OSCE conference declared everyone will have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change one's religion or belief and freedom to manifest one's religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, through worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The exercise of these rights may be subject only to such restrictions as are prescribed by law and are consistent with international standards.
Many ask how violators of these fundamental commitments, especially Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, can be allowed to continue as members of an organization whose fundamental principles they blatantly flout. OSCE officials argue off the record that it is better to keep violators in, with the hope that they can be persuaded to mend their ways, rather than expel them, abandoning local people to the clutches of their governments. The result is that persecuted believers in a number of states now have little faith in what the OSCE can and will do for them to protect their right to religious freedom.
An alarming number of states raid religious meetings to close down services and punish those who take part. Turkmenistan is the worst offender: it treats all non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox worship as illegal. Uzbekistan and Belarus specifically ban unregistered religious services. In Belarus numerous Protestant congregations, some numbering more than a thousand members, cannot meet because they cannot get a registered place to worship. Officials in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan also raid places where worship is being conducted.
Places of Worship
Opening a place of worship is impossible in some states. In Turkmenistan it is impossible to open a place of worship for non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities, and those that existed before the mid-1990s were confiscated or bulldozed. Uzbekistan has closed down thousands of mosques since 1996 and often denies requests of Christian groups to open churches. Azerbaijan also obstructs the opening of Christian churches and tries to close down some of those already open. Belarus makes it almost impossible for religious communities without property to rent or find a legal place to worship. An Autocephalous Orthodox Church (which attracted the anger of the government and the Russian Orthodox Church) was bulldozed in 2002.
Where registration is compulsory before any religious activity can start (Belarus and Uzbekistan) or where officials claim that it is (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan), life is made difficult for communities that either choose not to register (such as one community of Baptists in former Soviet republics) or are denied registration (the majority of religious communities in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan). Registration in Turkmenistan is all but impossible (the 1996 religion law requires each community to have 500 adult citizen members), but even in countries such as Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan with less onerous hurdles, registration for disfavored communities is often made impossible. Officials in the sanitary/epidemiological service are among those with the power of veto in Uzbekistan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Russia are also among states that, to widely varying degrees, make registration of some groups impossible or very difficult.
Belarus and Azerbaijan require compulsory prior censorship of all religious literature produced or imported into the country. Azerbaijani customs routinely confiscate religious literature, releasing it only when the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations grants explicit written approval for each title and the number of copies authorized. Forbidden books are sent back or destroyed (thousands of Hare Krishna books held by customs for seven years were recently destroyed). Even countries without formal religious censorship--Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan--routinely confiscate imported religious literature. (Russian-language Baptist magazines were recently burned in Uzbekistan.) Uzbekistan routinely bars access to Web sites it dislikes, such as foreign Muslim sites.
Believers in institutions such as prisons, hospitals, or the army may face difficulties obtaining and keeping religious literature, praying in private, and receiving visits from spiritual leaders and fellow believers. Muslim prisoners in Uzbekistan have been punished for praying and fasting during Ramadan. Death-row prisoners requesting visits from Muslim "imams" and Russian Orthodox priests have been denied, even for final confession before execution.
Turkmenistan has dismissed hundreds of active Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other religious minorities from state jobs. Turkmen and Azeri officials try to persuade people to abandon their faith and "return" to their ancestral faith (Islam). Armenia has ordered local police chiefs to persuade police who were members of faiths other than the Armenian Apostolic Church to abandon their faith. If persuasion failed, such employees were to be fired. Belarus has subjected leaders of independent Orthodox churches and Hindus to pressure--including fines, threats, and inducements--to abandon their faith or emigrate. Officials in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus repeatedly attack disfavored religious minorities in the media, insulting their beliefs, accusing them falsely of illegal or"destructive" activities, as well as inciting popular hostility to them.
Many governments meddle in the internal affairs of religious communities. Central Asian governments insist on choosing national and local Muslim leaders. Turkmenistan ousted the chief mufti in January 2003. Tajikistan has conducted "attestation tests" of "imams," ousting those who failed. Islamic schools are tightly controlled. (In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, schools have either been closed or access to them restricted.) Turkmenistan obstructs those seeking religious education abroad. Some countries with large Orthodox communities try to bolster the largest Orthodox church and obstruct rival jurisdictions (Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Moldova). Russia has prevented communities from choosing their leadership, expelling a Catholic bishop, several priests, and dozens of Protestant and other leaders.
Protection from Violence
Law enforcement agencies fail to give religious minorities the same protection as major groups. Georgia has had violence by Orthodox vigilantes, with over 100 attacks in the past four years on True Orthodox, Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Jehovah's Witnesses who have been physically attacked, places of worship blockaded, and religious events disrupted. The authorities--who know the attackers' identity--have sentenced no one. In some cases, police have cooperated with attacks or failed to investigate them. In Kosovo the NATO-led peacekeeping force and United Nations police repeatedly fail to protect Serbian Orthodox churches and graveyards. No one has been arrested or prosecuted, despite over 100 attacks that have destroyed or badly damaged churches.
Lack of Transparency
Major laws and decrees affecting religious life are drawn up without public knowledge or discussion. Examples are the restrictive laws on religion of Belarus and Bulgaria in 2002, and planned new laws in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. International organizations such as the OSCE or the Council of Europe may be consulted, but governments often refuse to allow their comments to be published or ignore them. Many countries retain openly partisan and secretive government religious affairs offices. Slovenia's religious affairs office has refused to register any new religious communities in the past three years. Azerbaijan's has stated which communities it will refuse to register and what changes other communities will have to make to their statutes and activities to gain registration.
Religious Freedom Reporting
Those reporting on religious freedom such as Forum 18 News Service (www.forum18.org) and groups campaigning on the issue face lack of cooperation, obstruction, and harassment. Those suspected of passing on news of violations have been threatened in Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan with the aim of forcing silence. In a region without much government transparency or a genuinely free media, officials involved in harassing religious communities often refuse to explain to journalists what they have done and why. Local campaigning groups are denied registration or kept waiting. Demonstrators protesting in Belarus against the restrictive new religion law were fined. Government reports on religious freedom issues to bodies such as the OSCE or Council of Europe are often confidential and closed to public scrutiny.
Many restrictions predate the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and 1999 Islamic-inspired incursions into Central Asia, so governments cannot validly argue that such restrictions are necessary to ensure public security. The comprehensive nature of many of these measures shows the hostility of some OSCE member states to the right to exercise the faith of one's choice freely, something described by the European Court of Human Rights in 1993 as "one of the foundations of a democratic society."
Edited excerpt of "Eastern Europe: OSCE Meeting on Freedom of Religion--A Regional Survey," 9 July 2003, reprinted with permission of Forum 18 News Service (http://www.forum18.org).
Felix Corley is the author of Religion in the Soviet Union: An Archival Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1996) and editor of Forum 18 News Service.
Felix Corley, "A Survey of Current Religious Rights Infringements," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Fall 2003), 5-6.
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© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report