Today’s hearing is particularly timely as the President prepares for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, in early May. More and more people are asking the question: Is religious freedom evaporating in Russia? There are certainly indications that selected minority religious communities are facing increasing difficulty in freely practicing their faith. While in most instances these problems arise at the local level, the Government of Russia has done little to stop these violations of OSCE commitments.
The reality is that unregistered religious communities throughout the country struggle regularly to enjoy their religious freedoms, as the right is not consistently protected for thousands of Russian citizens who belong to such groups. Meanwhile, the trends are not moving in the right direction.
Indeed, reports coming from religious communities lead me to believe that the situation is certainly not improving. Last week, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I convened a hearing on the efforts of the Chabad community and the U.S. Government to recover the “Schneerson Collection” of sacred and irreplaceable Jewish books and manuscripts from the Russian Government. That hearing reinforced my belief that Russia has no rightful claim to these books and no desire to return them, thereby preventing the Chabad community from benefiting from the wisdom contained in these texts.
Another troubling development was the deregistration and banning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow last June, a culmination of over seven years of litigation. Banning does more than deregister a group and void its legal status – a group is actually prohibited from meeting collectively. The June ban technically applies to the 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting in the Moscow region. However, the ruling creates a dangerous precedent for other regions and other minority communities.
Baptists, Pentecostals and Muslims all face similar threats. For instance, in February of this year I, along with Co-Chairman Smith, wrote the governor of a region near Moscow concerning the troubling events surrounding an unregistered Baptist congregation. Authorities forcibly prevented this small Baptist church from holding an outside worship service, sending in police to take down the tent that was erected on private property. Later, when their house church was burned down by arsons, local authorities did not vigorously investigate the crime, but rather threatened to bulldoze any attempt to rebuild their place of worship.
These local instances are alarming, but trouble may be brewing at the federal level. One ominous decision was the creation this month of a new agency, the Federal Registration Service. Its director stated the Service should work to get rid of “dead soul” NGOs. One wonders if religious groups will be targeted by what is, in effect, a deregistration commission?
Religious freedom is truly a sacred human right. President Bush boldly made human rights and liberty the cornerstone of his foreign policy. He said, “America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.” As Secretary of State Rice visits Moscow early next week to prepare for the President’s trip there in early May, I urge the administration to ensure that the issues discussed at today’s hearing are raised with the Russian leadership.