Monday, Jan. 27, 2003. Page 5
Religious Freedom Called 'Fragile'
Wrapping up a weeklong visit, a U.S. government advisory group described the state of religious liberty in Russia as "fragile" and said some of its findings might be qualified later as violations.
However, Felice Gaer, head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said at a news conference Friday that she would refrain from making any conclusive statements until the commission publishes its annual report in May.
"Russia attracted the interest of the commission from the very start," she said, referring to the commission's founding in 1998 under the International Religious Freedom Act.
"Not because it requires a special concern, like Sudan -- it was not the severity of the problem but the fragility of religious freedom and all freedoms in Russia," she said.
Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and a member of the American Jewish Committee, met throughout the week with representatives of various faiths, government agencies and human rights groups. She was accompanied by senior Bahai representative Firuz Kazenmzadeh and Roman Catholic Bishop William Francis Murphy.
Their visit was prompted by the leak last month of a draft report co-authored by Nationalities Minister Valentin Zorin and Moscow-backed Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov that described Roman Catholics, Protestants, new religious movements and Muslims as threats to national security.
"It reflects a disturbing trend in Russia that includes the exclusion of representatives of the Catholic Church, restrictions on the rights of new and minority religious movements, recurrent anti-Semitic incidents, as well as the equation of Islam with terrorism," Gaer wrote in a Jan. 15 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. She urged him to raise U.S. concern "at the highest levels of Russian government."
Gaer said Friday that the commission was scheduled to meet with Zorin later in the day and was not prepared to comment on the issue.
She said commission members had asked Russian officials during talks why a dozen or so Catholic and Protestant clergy were denied visas last year, and the response they often got was "surprise."
"We've been told that reasons to deny visas are something governments never provide information about," she said. "We have raised that issue. The number [of denials] is significant enough that it can't be accidental. We think it is a serious development."
During their trip, the commission also examined discriminatory regional policies, violence against minority groups, whether the government has a tendency to get involved in internal religious disputes and whether the government cooperates with the Russian Orthodox Church, the main faith in Russia.
"We can say that the picture looks fragile," Gaer said.
Last year, the commission recommended that the State Department designate North Korea, Laos, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan as "countries of particular concern." However, the State Department only added North Korea to its watch list, which includes countries such as Myanmar, Iran, Iraq and Sudan.
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