Thu, May 4 at Prague 09:35 am, N.Y. 03:35 am
Freedom Of Religion In Danger In Russia
WASHINGTON, May 2, 2000 -- (Agence France Presse) Religious freedom in Russia is in danger of deteriorating significantly in the near future and the United States should monitor developments, an independent panel set up by the US Congress said Monday.
In its first annual report, the Commission on International Religious Freedom said that Russia's 1997 Religion Law was a "significant step backward."
The law makes it harder for new, often aggressively active religious organizations to operate in Russia, forcing them to register with the government while traditional religions do not have to do so.
The law "creates a hierarchy of religious organizations and effectively restricts smaller, newer, and foreign religious communities," the commission, created in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world, said in its first annual report.
"It also establishes an onerous and intrusive registration process and other means of state interference with religious organizations' activities."
Most alarming, the report said, was a decree by Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin which extends the deadline for registration to the end of the year, but stipulates that from then, non-registered churches would be banned.
Regional officials have denied unpopular religious groups registration as a way to have them banned, the report said.
It said that the threat to religious freedom in Russia often came at the regional level where religious believers have been victimized and foreign clerics expelled from the country.
One third of the regions have enacted religious laws more stringent that the 1997 federal law, said the commission, which makes recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress.
The report also accused the Russian government of using anti-Muslim propaganda in its civil war against the separatist republic of Chechnya.
"While the conflict in Chechnya is based on political and geographic factors, the severity of the documented human rights abuses against the majority Muslim population requires the attention of the commission and the US government," the report said.
The commission members, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Bahai religious leaders as well as experts on human rights and international law, recommended continued US government monitoring. It also said Washington should pressure Moscow to keep an eye on regional and local officials.
"The United States should urge the Russian federal government to monitor more closely and respond to more effectively the actions of regional and local officials who interfere with religious freedom," it said.
The State Department said it welcomed the recommendations of the report for increased monitoring of religious freedom.
"The administration has already enhanced our efforts on each of these issues and we will look for more opportunities to do even more in the future," it said.
©Copyright 2000 Agence France Presse