U.S. Agency Calls for Religious Freedom in Russia

The chairman and co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission are calling upon the Government of Russia to fully protect religious freedom.

The chairman and co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission have introduced a resolution to the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively, calling upon the Government of Russia to fully protect religious freedom, according to the independent U.S. Government agency.

"The Russian government's record on religious freedom has not met the standards of the Helsinki Process, or even the Russian Constitution itself," said Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "Freedom of religion is the linchpin of all other freedoms. President Putin must do more to ensure all Russian citizens enjoy their religious liberties."

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, monitors and encourages compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other commitments of the 55 countries participating in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Under the Helsinki Final Act, the participating countries agreed to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. They also agreed to promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development.

However, according to Commission Co-Chairman Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), the Russian system of registering faith is used “as a shield by the Russian police and other government agencies to discriminate against and mistreat people who hold certain religious beliefs.”

Under the Russian system, a religion must be registered with the government in order to enjoy certain rights and privileges. Historically, some religious groups have refused to do so on grounds of doctrine or because they do not wish to be implicated in Russian Government policy.

"This resolution makes clear that whether registered or unregistered, Russia must abide by its commitments to support religious freedom,” Smith stated.

Rep. Ban Cardin (D-Md.) added, “Russia needs to immediately improve its record on protecting religious freedoms for unregistered groups. Nobody is expecting Jeffersonian pluralism overnight, but the Russian Government needs to take positive steps to assure equal protection of all religious groups.”

According to some statistics, there have been as many as ten arson attacks on unregistered Protestant churches in Russia in the past two years, with little or no effective response by law enforcement officials to bring the perpetrators to justice. There have also been incidents of discrimination against other religious groups.

In April, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on unregistered religious groups in Russia, which highlighted the problem facing these communities throughout the Russian Federation.

During the hearing, John V. Hanford III, International Religious Freedom Ambassador-at-Large for the U.S. Department of State, noted that while Russia's constitution recognizes freedom of religion and the Russian government generally respects this right in practice, the 1997 law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations and its amendments have had the practical effect of restricting religious freedom for a few groups and organizations.

Hanford said the law imposes restrictive registration requirements that prevent new and minority faith groups from gaining legal status. Nearly 1,000 faith groups were unable to meet the registration requirements and were dissolved and prohibited from conducting activities, he reported.

The Ambassador-at-large also said his organization had received reports of difficulties experienced by Roman Catholics, unregistered Baptists, Pentecostals, and independent Muslims - religious minorities not belonging to one of four state-favored organizations that include the Russian Orthodox Church, under the auspices of the Moscow patriarch; Judaism; Islam; and Buddhism. Reportedly, even those religious groups that are registered still encounter restrictions and harassment.