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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Neo-Soviet Russia Cracks Down on Religion

The Washington File reports that the U.S. Congress is holding hearings to document increasing religious persecution in Russia:

Washington -- President Bush and other U.S. officials should “be prepared to counter persistent claims by Russian leaders” that U.S. and U.N. efforts to advance human rights constitute foreign “meddling” or are intended to harm the Russian Federation, the head of a U.S. commission charged with making policy recommendations advised July 27.

At a congressional hearing on human rights and U.S.-Russian relations, Felice D. Gaer, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), presented a number of recommendations based on a recent trip to Russia by a USCIRF delegation.

The delegation visited the Russian cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan June 17-28, meeting with Russian government officials, legislators, academics and representatives from a range of Russia’s religious communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

As a result of that trip, the USCIRF recommended that President Bush and other U.S. officials raise human rights concerns both publicly and privately at the July 15-17 Group of Eight (G8) Summit in St. Petersburg.

Gaer said the delegation found several “major areas of concern,” including the Russian government’s failure to address the rise in xenophobia and ethnic and religious intolerance in the country; official actions related to countering terrorism that have resulted in harassment of individual Muslims and Muslim communities; and continuing restrictions on religious freedom, particularly at the regional and local levels.

The USCIRF also said it was concerned that recently adopted Russian legislation on NGOs, including religious organizations, “may be used to restrict severely their ability to function.” The legislation increases the Russian government’s oversight of the registration, financing and activities of NGOs in Russia. (See related article.)

“One key purpose of the new legislation was to prevent NGOs – especially those receiving foreign funding – from engaging in so-called political activities, a purpose not spelled out or defined in the legislation,” Gaer said.

She linked the NGO legislation to the Russian government’s challenging of international human rights institutions and its claim that foreign funding of Russian human rights organizations constitutes illegitimate interference in Russia’s internal affairs.

Noting the NGO legislation’s special strictures on foreign funding, Gaer said, “It is the commission’s view that these provisions of the NGO law on foreign funding are a part of the broader effort by Russian officials … to link human rights groups to ‘foreign interference,’ and thus to discredit -- and perhaps ultimately halt -- their activities.”

Gaer also linked rising ethnic and religious intolerance to the efforts of Russian government officials to label foreign funding of NGOs as “meddling” in Russia’s internal affairs. “Moreover, the official branding of human rights organizations as ‘foreign’ has increased the vulnerability of Russia’s human rights advocates and those they defend,” she added.

Gaer said the commission recommends the U.S. government encourage the Russian government to:

• Affirm publicly that all religious communities in Russia are equal under the law and entitled to equal treatment, publicly express its reported opposition to any legislation that would grant preferences to so-called “traditional” religions over other groups, and direct national government agencies to address and resolve continuing violations of religious freedom at the regional and local levels;

• Speak out frequently and specifically to the citizens of Russia to condemn specific acts of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and hate crimes, and to affirm a commitment to uphold the multiethnic nature of Russian society.

• Develop regulations in accordance with international standards that clarify and sharply limit the state’s discretion to interfere with the activities of NGOs, including religious groups.

• Implement the many specific recommendations made by Russia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights, the official Human Rights Ombudsman’s office and the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance to address xenophobia and prevent and punish hate crimes.

USCIRF intends to issue a further report and recommendations in the fall of 2006, she said.

ther panelists at the hearing included Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy; Tom Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House; Fritz Ermarth, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and former CIA officer; and Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest.

Congress created the USCIRF through the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to give religious freedom and other freedoms a more prominent place in U.S. foreign policy. The full text of Gaer’s prepared testimony is available on the USCIRF Web site.

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