Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for convening this hearing today on a subject that is essential to the OSCE process. It is vitally important to examine the situation facing religious minorities in the OSCE today because treatment of religious minorities is part of that mosaic that constitutes a country’s human rights record toward its citizens.
Human rights are not just something that the State Department talks about in its Country Reports. Human rights count. As we have seen of late, governments ignore human rights at their peril, especially when the citizenry (to use the language of the original Helsinki Accords) “know their rights and act upon them,” and rise up to evict repressive governments and governors.
With regard to religious liberty in Russia, it is truly a mixed picture. Religious freedom is generally protected at the federal level, for example, in terms of law and a reasonably benign attitude by the executive branch. But the federal level is not where religious liberty is played out on a daily basis. Many unregistered religious groups throughout the Russian Federation must regularly overcome obstacles and discrimination at the local level to practice their faith freely. These communities face difficulties ranging from acts of violence to arbitrary prohibitions on public gatherings. One issue that the Commission has followed closely is that of an unregistered Baptists congregation in a region near Moscow. For reasons that remain unclear, local officials prevented them from meeting on private property, vandals burned their house church to the ground, and authorities have threatened legal action if the facility is rebuilt. This is only of several incidents where unregistered churches have mysteriously fallen victim to fire.
In a decision that was truly chilling in terms of its logic, the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization of the city of Moscow was deregistered by a city court in March 2004. Now, every time adherents of that community exercise their fundamental right to meet collectively, they place themselves in legal jeopardy. Moreover, local Russian officials appear to be using the Moscow decision to place roadblocks in the way of public convocations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in other regions of the country.
Mr. Chairman, these are two examples of repressive actions against unregistered or “deregistered” religious groups in Russia today. From a broader perspective, let me read one passage from the State Department 2004 country report on Russia:
“Conditions deteriorated somewhat for minority religious faiths…Some federal agencies and many local authorities continued to restrict the rights of various religious minorities. There were indications that the security services increasingly treated the leadership of some minority religious groups as security threats.”
In the 108th Congress I introduced legislation, HR 1224, co-sponsored by Commissioner Pitts and others, which would graduate Russia from our Jackson-Vanik requirements and extend normal trade relations. In our legislation we noted that the Russian Federation had: committed itself to ensuring the freedom of religion; engaged in efforts to combat ethic and religious intolerance; and continued to restitute religious property. The legislation also urged the Russian Federation to ensure that “its national, regional, and local laws, regulations, practices, and policies fully, and in conformity with the standards of the OSCE…safeguard religious liberty throughout the Russian Federation, including by ensuring that the registration of religious groups, visa and immigration requirements, and other laws, regulations, and practices are not used to interfere with the activities or internal affairs of minority religious communities.”
Today, Mr. Chairman, I have serious reservations about whether the Russian Federation is meeting the standards we have set out in our legislation to graduate them from Jackson Vanik and extend normal trade relations.
I look forward to an update on these issues from Ambassador Hanford, and an informative discussion by all of our witnesses today.