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The East: Excerpts From State Department Report On Religious Freedom

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 23 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Here are some excerpts from the U.S. State Department's report on religious freedom in 78 countries around the world. The report was made public yesterday in Washington.

Armenia: "The Armenian constitution provides for the right to practice the religion of one's choice, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. However, the law imposes some restrictions on religious freedom, and the right to freedom of conscience is not fully protected...

"The 1991 law forbids proselytizing and requires all non-Apostolic religious organizations to register with the Government...

"A presidential decree issued in 1993 supplemented the 1991 law and strengthened the position of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The decree empowers the Council on Religious Affairs to investigate the activities of representatives of registered religious organizations and to ban missionaries who engage in activities contrary to their status.

"The U.S. Ambassador has met with President Levon Ter-Petrossian to urge greater attention to citizens' human rights and to convey the U.S. Government's concern about attacks on non-mainstream religious communities, both Christian and non-Christian. The Ambassador's intervention followed an incident in 1995 when paramilitary troops staged a series of attacks against members of a dozen non-Apostolic religious groups, both Christian and non-Christian..."

Azerbaijan: "... the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict led in the late 1980's to rising anti-Armenian sentiment and the forced departure of most of the Armenian population, which has led to the closing of Armenian churches. A 1996 law on foreigners and stateless persons prohibits religious proselytizing by foreigners, although it is unclear how actively this law is being enforced.

"The U.S. Ambassador has repeatedly raised U.S. concerns about the law on proselytizing with top-level Azerbaijani officials, including President Heydar Aliyev..."

Belarus: "...a July 1995 Cabinet of Ministers directive sharply limits the activity of foreign religious workers. Citizens are not prohibited from proselytizing, but foreign missionaries may not engage in religious activities outside the institutions that invited them. Only religious organizations already registered in Belarus may invite foreign clergy.

"The Cabinet of Ministers regulation is seen as a means of enhancing the position of the Orthodox Church with respect to the faster-growing Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and also as a means of preventing religious movements outside the mainstream from spreading."

Bulgaria: "Although the constitution provides for freedom of religion, the Government restricts this right in practice for some non-Orthodox Christian groups, and discrimination against them increased during 1996. The ability of a number of religious groups to operate freely continued to come under attack, both as a result of government action and because of public intolerance.

"The Government refused most requests for visas and residence permits for foreign missionaries, and some of them came under physical attack in the street and in their homes. The police response was indifferent, despite the expressed concern of the Government about such cases.

"On several occasions during 1996 the police shut down religious meetings of unregistered groups. In June the police broke up a Jehovah's Witness meeting at a public dance hall in Asenovgrad and confiscated religious material. In August the police raided a private hall in Sofia and closed down a meeting of Word of Life.

"The U.S. Government has privately and publicly raised its concerns about the treatment of Christian evangelical groups in Bulgaria, including specific incidents, with the Bulgarian Government."

Kazakstan: "The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and various denominations worship without government interference. However, the constitution also requires that the appointment by foreign religious centers of the heads of religious associations must be carried out "in coordination with the Government," as must the activities of foreign religious associations.

Romania: "The constitution provides for religious freedom, and the Government does not generally impede the observance of religious belief. However, members of some groups, such as Baptists and Greek Catholics, who proselytize in traditionally Orthodox regions, have faced harassment and even violence.

"An international conference of Jehovah's Witnesses scheduled for June 1996 in Bucharest was banned by the Government following public attacks by the Romanian Orthodox Church; a national conference later took place without incident in Cluj."

Russia: "... the Duma and Federation Council recently passed legislation which, if enacted, would replace the 1990 law and introduce significantly more government regulation over religious organizations. While the law is not directed against Russia's established major faiths (Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism), it would impose registration requirements on religious groups, provide significant official discretion in decisions on registration, and would restrict the activities of foreign missionaries, as well as confessions, sects or religions, that are relatively new to Russia or that have relatively small numbers of adherents.

"These groups would have to wait up to 15 years before attaining full legal status, making it impossible for them to own property or have a bank account during this period. The draft legislation enjoys broad public support, but will not become law unless and until President Yeltsin signs it. (President Yeltsin previously rejected a similar proposal as unconstitutional.)

"The United States has acted consistently to encourage Russia to fulfill completely its constitution and pledges of religious tolerance. In June 1997, President Clinton expressed concern to President Boris Yeltsin about the restrictive law on religion then pending in the Duma. Assistant Secretary of State Shattuck also voiced concern about the draft law and local restrictions on religious freedom to his Russian counterpart during bilateral consultations on human rights in May."

Ukraine: "The Government respects these rights in practice. However, the law restricts the activities of non-native religious organizations. Religious organizations are required to register with local authorities and with the Government's Committee for Religious Affairs, a process that generally takes about one month. There is no official state religion.

"In addition, local officials have occasionally impeded the activities of foreign religious workers."

Visit the U.S. State Department's Web site to read the report, entitled "United States Policies in Support of Religious Freedom: Focus on Christians."