Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I now convene this Helsinki Commission hearing on unregistered religious groups in Russia, to highlight the serious problems faced by groups who have lost their registration or have chosen to operate without official recognition. Be they Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Muslims, unregistered groups throughout the Russian Federation are facing real limitations to their religious liberties and in some instances have even experienced violent attacks against their places of worship. As an OSCE participating State, Russia has a duty to uphold this fundamental right without distinction.
On February 18th, along with Chairman Brownback, I wrote a governor of a region near Moscow, expressing our serious concerns about problems faced by a Baptist church in the area. Their troubles began in August 2004 when the congregation erected a tent to host a religious meeting. Their story is indicative of problems experienced by various other religious communities across the vast Russian Federation.
After the tent was up, local authorities demanded the tent be removed from private property, in contravention of the Russian religion law. When the Baptists did not comply, the governor reportedly deployed some 200 law enforcement personnel – including police, FSB, riot police and officers of the organized crime squad – wearing camouflage, helmets and gas masks and carrying machine guns. This small army cordoned off the field and forcibly removed the tent. When the undaunted Baptists met anyway, authorities established checkpoints and refused entry into the region to Russian citizens without local residence registration, shut off the water and power, and attempted to intimidate worshippers by checking identity papers and recording names.
This excessive use of force was shocking and more appropriate for dealing with terrorists, not peaceful Baptists. Tragically, just three weeks after these troubling events the Baptist house church was torched by arsons. Instead of receiving condolences and assistance from local authorities, the congregation was threatened – they were told the authorities will seek a court order to bulldoze it to the ground if the Baptists persist in rebuilding their lost prayer house.
I would point out that this incident is not unique to a single village. There are numerous examples of non-Orthodox religious communities being harassed by local officials or assaulted by vandals or both, without any intervention by federation authorities to ensure respect for rights of believers.
For instance, the problems faced by unregistered Pentecostals throughout Russia often mirror those of unregistered Baptists. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow have also had to fight for basic religious freedoms. The international community was stunned by the June 2004 deregistration and banning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Moscow branch, as many believed these actions had passed with another era. I am very concerned with how this decision will be interpreted at the local level, as other regions may copy this approach to ban other non-Orthodox religious groups. There is also growing concern about the free practice of Islam in Russia today, as Islam practiced outside the control of the government-approved Muslim bodies is increasingly repressed by secular authorities.
Because of these concerns, I am very happy with the body of experts gathered here today. Much needs to be done to protect religious freedom for all, as protection not only varies from region to region, but even from village to village.