U.S. Congress Approves Resolution for Religious Freedom in Russia

The U.S. Congress has passed a resolution urging Russia to protect the religious freedom of religious minorities, after a major international religious freedom report reveals the negligence faced by these groups last week.

The U.S. Congress has passed a resolution urging Russia to protect the religious freedom of religious minorities after a major international religious freedom report revealed last week the negligence faced by these groups.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Relations, hailed the adoption of the resolution by his subcommittee, according to a statement by the U.S. Helsinki Commission dated Nov. 15.

Smith, who also serves as the U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman stated, "Russia's religious minorities have suffered from harassment and even violence. This resolution urges the Government of Russia to ensure religious freedom for all."

Helsinki Commission, known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is a U.S. Government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

The Helsinki Accords is a set of agreements on 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.

This year’s annual International Religious Freedom Report, recently released by the U.S. Department of State on Nov. 8, criticized Russia authorities for "imposing restrictions on certain groups", although "the Constitution provides for freedom of religion."

The majority of the Russian population follows Russian Orthodox, which is generally equated with the national identity. Many mainline Protestant or evangelical churches in the minority, such as the Pentecostal Church, the Salvation Army and the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, were discriminated by the authorities in different extents in terms of visa application, registration, and use of properties among others, according to the religious freedom report.

Under Russian law, religious groups must be registered with both local and federal authorities. Many minority Christian churches have experienced obstacles in registration. The international religious freedom report stated, "The 1997 law ostensibly targets so-called ‘totalitarian sects’ or dangerous religious ‘cults’, by making it difficult for members of less well-established religions to set up religious organizations."

Smith told the Agence France Presse (AFP) reporters on Tuesday that groups which were not registered had often been subject to harassment and even violence.

"I'll never forget the pictures I saw of the arson attack against a Baptist church in Tula," remarked Smith, in the statement by U.S. Helsinki Commission. "After receiving numerous anonymous threats, late one night hate mongers finally took action and razed the church to the ground. The local authorities have been no help, attributing the explosion to a natural gas leak, although the local gas company reportedly found no gas residue at the site."

"Such episodes are becoming alarmingly common," Smith added, according to AFP. "These types of distinction between registered and unregistered religious communities are not viable under international standards."

Smith noted in the statement from U.S. Helsinki Commission, Russia – a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – must follow the international standard of religious freedom.

"The resolution passed by my subcommittee today will demonstrate to the authorities in Moscow that their actions will not go unnoticed," Smith said to AFP. He hopes that federal and local officials in Moscow will take the necessary steps to adjust the law.