Editor’s Note: The 2004 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Liberty assigned three republics of the former Soviet Union to its Watch List for abuses of freedom of conscience (Belarus, Georgia, and Uzbekistan) and placed one on its list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) for especially flagrant violations of religious liberties (Turkmenistan). The report also documents increasing infringements on religious liberty in Russia.
Violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief by the government of Belarus became more pronounced in 2003. Official intolerance and harassment of various denominations has grown, including of the Greek Catholic Church and the Belarusian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, as well as of religions relatively new to the country, including Pentecostals, Hindus, and Hare Krishnas. The Commission has placed Belarus on its Watch List and will continue to consider closely whether the government’s record rises to a level warranting designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC.
In October 2002, President Aleksandr Lukashenko signed new legislation on religion that led to further restrictions on religious freedom in Belarus. Although the law purports to codify protections for religious freedom, in fact it provides government officials with tools to repress and control religious activities without providing any clear mechanisms to check abuses by these officials.
Considered by many observers to be the most repressive religion law in Europe, the new law essentially prohibits all unregistered religious activity by organized groups; religious communities with fewer than 20 members; foreign citizens from leading religious activities; and religious activity in private homes, with the exception of small, occasional meetings.
The law also requires all religious organizations to apply for re-registration within two years. The registration criteria laid out in the law are vague, thus facilitating continued abuse by government officials. According to the new law, religious publishing and education will be restricted to religious groups that have 10 or more registered communities, including at least one that was in existence in 1982. This requirement of at least 20 years existence in Belarus is particularly onerous, since the cutoff date of 1982 falls during the Soviet period of religious repression when few religious groups were able to operate openly. Moreover, all religious literature is now subject to compulsory government censorship, and most communities are denied the right to establish institutions to train clergy.
Since 1994, President Lukashenko has openly pursued a policy of favoring the Russian Orthodox Church, a policy that frequently results in discrimination against other religious communities. The relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Belarus government has created particular problems for many Protestant groups, which have sometimes been denied registration or permission to build a place of worship by regional authorities who have been influenced by local Orthodox leaders.
Several “independent” Orthodox churches that do not accept the authority of the Orthodox Patriarch in Moscow have been denied registration, before and after the new law was passed. These churches include the Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the True Orthodox Church, a branch of the Orthodox Church that rejected the compromise with the Soviet government made by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1920s. In June 2003, the Belarus government and the Russian Orthodox Church signed a concordat codifying the Orthodox Church’s influence in government affairs and other facets of public life.
Georgia’s previous government under Eduard Shevardnadze maintained a slow and inadequate response to ongoing vigilante violence against some of the country’s religious minorities. In a welcome move in March 2004, the new Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili ordered the arrest and pretrial detention of seven leaders of mob violence against religious minorities. Following the ouster of Shevardnadze, officials reportedly permitted the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Bible Society to operate legally in November 2003. Nevertheless, other significant religious freedom issues remain unresolved, including the fact that only the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) has the right to register and gain legal status, giving the GOC precedence over other religious communities in official affairs, including public education. The Commission placed Georgia on its Watch List in 2004.
The 1995 Constitution guarantees religious freedom and forbids “persecution of an individual for his thoughts, beliefs, or religion.” In practice, however, violations of religious freedom do occur, especially at the regional level, where local officials restrict the rights of mainly nontraditional religious minorities, who in recent years have been subjected to societal violence.
In the past three years, minority religious groups in Georgia, including Baptists, Catholics, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox churches that do not accept the primacy of the GOC Patriarchate have been subjected to more than 100 violent vigilante attacks. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been especially singled out, as well as members of independent Orthodox churches. Pentecostals have also been attacked; adherents have been beaten and property has been vandalized or stolen. Local police are sometimes implicated in these attacks or often refuse to intervene to protect victims. What began in 1999 as a series of isolated attacks in the capital of Tbilisi escalated into a nationwide scourge of mob assaults against members of religious minorities treated with relative impunity. According to the Department of State, the number of such attacks continued to increase in 2002 and 2003.
The main instigators of these attacks were “renegade” members of the GOC: defrocked priest Vasili Mkalavishvili and director of the Orthodox “Jvari” Union, Paata Bluashvili, who reportedly was supported by some in the GOC hierarchy. On November 4, 2003, a court in Rustavi sentenced Bluashvili and four associates to conditional prison terms, ranging from two to four years.
In June 2003, a court ordered that Mkalavishvili be held in preventive detention for three months, but he went into “hiding” and continued to act without consequence. Over 100 police stormed Mkalavishvili’s church in Tbilisi in March 2004, where the priest and his followers had barricaded themselves. Mkalavishvili was taken at once into three-month, pre-trial detention in conformity with the June 2003 court order. At a closed hearing on March 14, the judge ruled that seven of Mkalavishvili’s followers also be held for three months of pre-trial detention.
The GOC, to which 65 percent of the country’s population claim adherence, is granted privileges and influence not given to other religions. Article 9 of the Constitution recognizes the “special importance of the GOC in Georgian history,” giving the GOC considerable influence in official affairs, particularly education. The GOC is the only religious organization to have been granted tax-exempt status. In October 2002, the Georgian government signed an agreement, or concordat, with the GOC, which grants the Patriarch immunity, excludes GOC clergy from military service, and gives GOC clergy the exclusive right to conduct religious services in prisons and the military. The agreement also grants the GOC approval authority over construction of religious buildings and publication of religious literature. Assyrian Chaldean Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, Old Believers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roman Catholics have informed Forum 18 News Service that the GOC Patriarchate has often acted to prevent them from acquiring, building, or reclaiming places of worship. The GOC Patriarchate has also reportedly denied permission for Pentecostals, the Salvation Army, and the True Orthodox Church to print religious literature in Georgia.
At present, Georgia is the only country of the former Soviet Union that does not have a religion law. The absence of a mechanism for obtaining legal status means that only one religious community in the country—the GOC—in effect has such status. In September 2003, the Roman Catholic Church failed to gain legal status in Georgia when the Georgian government suddenly cancelled plans to sign an agreement with the Vatican. The leaders of many religious minorities also seek recognized legal status, since that is a prerequisite for owning property and organizing most religious activities.
The Russian Federation
Clearly, the practice of religion in Russia is freer than at any time in its history. Despite this improvement, problems remain. For example, a federal law on religious organizations enacted in 1997 contains provisions that have prevented some religious groups from registering and thus practicing freely. Regional governments have often passed ordinances that result in discrimination against minority religious groups, and acts of violence against members of religious minorities are widespread. What is more, foreign religious leaders and workers have experienced difficulty gaining entry or maintaining residence in Russia.
The March 26, 2004, Moscow court decision banning Jehovah’s Witnesses in that city may mark a major shift in Russian official policy towards religious minorities. The protracted trial in Moscow took place even though 135,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses practice their faith in registered communities in many other parts of Russia. If that decision is upheld on appeal, Jehovah’s Witnesses will become the first national religious organization to have a local branch banned under the 1997 law. The prosecutor’s claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses were inciting inter-religious conflict because they see their religion as having the sole claim to truth is especially troubling.
Official efforts to portray “foreign sects,” mostly Evangelical Protestants, as alien to Russian culture and society appear to be escalating. In December 2003, state-controlled Kultura TV ran a film made in 1960 that reportedly portrays Pentecostals as practicing human sacrifice. This official campaign appears to be part of an increased effort by Russian authorities to promote the “more equal” status of the state-approved forms of Russia’s purported “traditional” religions: Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. A “Law on Traditional Religions,” which was proposed in February 2002 and whose status remains unclear, would grant benefits, at varying levels, to these four religions. In March 2004, the Russian press reported that President Putin, while acknowledging the legal separation of church and state, said that he supports a legal initiative to “support the spiritual leaders of the traditional confessions,” including on property issues.
Particularly on the local level, evidence suggests that the Orthodox Church has a very close relationship with officials and other state bodies. For example, there are frequent reports that minority religious communities must secure permission from local Orthodox churches before being allowed to build a house of worship.
Russian authorities often seem to turn a blind eye to societal violence directed against certain religious communities, especially at the local level. On the eve of a national conference in January 2004, the “Initiative” Baptist church in Tula was bombed. Arsonists have attacked Pentecostal churches in Podolsk, Chekhovo, Balashikha, Tula, Lipetsk, and Nizhny Tagil. No criminal investigations into these incidents have been launched.
Turkmenistan is among the most repressive states in the world today and engages in particularly severe, ongoing violations of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief. Since 1985, the country has been ruled by President Saparmurat Niyazov, who, since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, has assumed total control of the country through a “cult of personality.” Niyazov’s all-pervasive authoritarian rule has effectively prevented any opposition from operating within the country. The Commission continues to recommend that the Secretary of State designate Turkmenistan as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC. Despite the fact that religious freedom is severely proscribed in Turkmenistan, the Secretary of State has not yet named Turkmenistan a CPC.
The status of religious freedom declined further after the passage of a new law on religion in November 2003. This law further codifies the Turkmen government’s already highly repressive policies that effectively ban most religious activity in Turkmenistan and calls for criminal penalties for those found guilty of participating in “illegal religious activity.”
President Niyazov has promoted a state-controlled version of Islam as part of Turkmen identity. The earlier 1997 version of the religion law effectively banned all religious groups except the state-controlled Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church, though religious instruction even for these two communities is severely limited. Niyazov has allowed only one madrassa, or Islamic school, to remain open. In late March 2004, he proclaimed that no new mosques should be built. Imams have been instructed by the government to repeat an oath of loyalty to the “fatherland” and to the president after each daily prayer. Niyazov bolstered his personality cult with the publication of a three-volume work, Ruhnama, containing his “spiritual thoughts,” which is required reading in all schools. Copies of Ruhnama are now reportedly required in mosques and Russian Orthodox churches, and given equal prominence with the Koran and the Bible.
Turkmen security forces routinely interrogate and intimidate believers, especially those attempting to fulfill the registration requirement. Members of unregistered religious communities—including Baha’is, Baptists, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Shi’a, and other Muslims operating independently of the Sunni Muslim Board— have been arrested, detained, imprisoned, and reportedly tortured, deported, harassed, and fined. In addition, they have had their congregations dispersed, services disrupted, religious literature confiscated, and places of worship destroyed. Members of some religious minority groups in Turkmenistan have reportedly been forced to renounce their faith publicly, swearing an oath on a copy of Ruhnama. Security officials regularly break up religious meetings in private homes, search homes without warrants, confiscate religious literature, and detain and threaten congregants with criminal prosecution and deportation. Family members of detained religious leaders have been subjected to harassment and internal exile. Even the registered Russian Orthodox community has been affected by the repressive policies of Niyazov, who in September 2003 issued a decree banning residents of Turkmenistan from receiving Russian publications by mail, a ban that included the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Uzbekistan has a highly restrictive law on religion that severely limits the ability of religious groups to function. The Uzbek government in recent years has also been harshly cracking down on Muslim individuals, groups, and mosques that do not conform to government policies on the practice and expression of the Islamic faith. As a result, thousands of people have been arrested, many of whom have been tortured in detention. The Commission has placed Uzbekistan on its Watch List and will continue to consider closely whether the government’s record rises to a level warranting designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC.
The Uzbek government continues to exercise tight control over all religious practice in the country. Despite the constitutional guarantee of the separation of religion and state, the government under President Islam Karimov strictly regulates Islamic institutions and practice through the officially sanctioned Muslim Spiritual Board. Over the past 10 years, and particularly since 1999, the Uzbek government has arrested and imprisoned, with sentences up to 20 years, thousands of Muslims who reject the state’s control over religious practice.
The government of Uzbekistan does face threats to its security from certain groups that claim religious links, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has used violence in the past but whose membership reportedly declined significantly as a result of U.S. military action in Afghanistan in late 2001. Uzbekistan continues to be subject to violent attacks, though the perpetrators are not often apparent. In late March 2004, 47 people were reported dead after bombings and shootouts during several days of violence in the capital Tashkent and the ancient city of Bukhara, according to the Uzbek government. A female suicide bomber was allegedly involved in one incident.
The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations passed in May 1998 severely restricts religious freedom. Through a series of regulations that are often subjectively applied, the law imposes what the State Department calls “strict and burdensome criteria” for the registration of religious groups; criminalizes unregistered religious activity; bans the production and distribution of unofficial religious publications; prohibits minors from participating in religious organizations; prohibits private teaching of religious principles; and forbids the wearing of religious clothing in public by anyone other than clerics. As with Muslims, pastors or other members of Protestant churches have been arrested on spurious drug, or other charges. Several Christian leaders have in the past reportedly been detained in psychiatric hospitals, severely beaten, and/or sentenced to labor camps. In the past year, Christian groups continued to have their churches raided, services interrupted, Bibles confiscated, and the names of adherents recorded by Uzbek officials. Several Christian leaders were imprisoned for leading religious services in private homes. Some Christian groups in Uzbekistan have been forced to operate underground.
Edited excerpts reprinted with permission of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from the Commission’s 2004 annual report, available at http://www.uscirf.gov/ reports/12May04/ finalreport.php3?scale= 1024.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report