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The East: U.S. Expresses Concerns About Religious Freedom

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 23 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. says it is concerned about what it views as restrictions on religious freedom in several countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

A new report issued Tuesday by the State Department examines the state of religious freedom in 78 countries that the U.S. says either have problems with particular religious denominations, or a law requiring religious institutions to register with the government.

The religious freedom report, the first of its kind, was mandated by the U.S. Congress, which is concerned about what some members view as persecution of Christians in many countries. The State Department, however, broadened the scope of its inquiry to include all faiths. The report is separate from the State Department's annual report on human rights practices around the world, which is issued at the beginning of each year.

During a press conference Tuesday, John Shattuck, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, said the purpose of the report was to spotlight the persecution of religious groups around the world and find ways to promote greater religious freedom so that "instability in various settings will not be as severe as sometimes it is."

"Freedom of religion is not an American value only," Shattuck said. "It is a universally recognized human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many international human rights treaties grant all citizens of the world the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

The countries in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union covered in the report are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Serbia-Montenegro, Slovakia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

In Armenia, the U.S. says that while the government generally respects freedom of religion, the U.S. is nevertheless concerned about legal restrictions imposed on religious freedom and the lack of full protection for freedom of conscience. The U.S. says faiths other than the Armenian Apostolic Church face problems. The U.S. says it has called upon President Levon Ter-Petrossian to pay greater attention to citizens' human rights.

The U.S. says concerns in Azerbaijan center around a law that forbids religious proselytizing by foreigners. The U.S. says it has raised the issue of discrimination and alleged harassment of Christians with government officials, including President Heydar Aliyev.

In Belarus, the U.S. says it is particularly concerned with a July 1995 directive issued by the Council of Ministers that sharply limits the activities of foreign religious workers. The report says that the directive has enhanced the position of the Orthodox Church at the expense of the faster-growing Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The report also says that President Aleksandr Lukashenko has granted special tax and other financial advantages to the Orthodox Church that other denominations do not enjoy, and that there are still difficulties in transferring church property from state control back to the former owners.

The U.S. says it has engaged the government of Belarus on a wide range of human rights issues and concerns, including religious freedom.

In Bosnia, the report says that in general, those people living in areas where their ethnic background is in the majority enjoy relatively untroubled religious freedom. However, the report cites concern over a July 1996 fire-bombing of a Catholic church in the Muslim-led town of Bugojno and says that the Croat Catholic minority in Bosnia-Hercegovina has been subjected to numerous forms of harassment.

The report also listed several major concerns about religious freedom in Bulgaria, saying that religious intolerance and discrimination in the country rose sharply in 1996. The U.S. says that while the Bulgarian constitution provides for freedom of religion, the government restricts this right in practice for several non-Orthodox Christian groups, especially those of the Mormon and Jevovah's Witnesses faiths. The report adds that although there were several applications by various religions for registration, not a single new denomination was registered in 1996.

The U.S. says that it is especially troubled by the fact that the Bulgarian government is refusing most requests for visas and residence permits for foreign missionaries, saying that some of them even came under physical attack in the street and in their homes.

The report cites a specific case that occurred in April of 1997 when Bulgarian National Investigative Service officials confiscated personal and religious materials belonging to several Mormon missionaries, and a beating by the Bulgarian police of a Jehovah Witness. The U.S. says it continues to raise both publicly and privately its concerns with Bulgarian officials.

The report says that in Croatia most religious problems are related to ethnicity. The report cites the bombing of two Orthodox churches last year and an attack on a Catholic church in Eastern Slavonia during Christmas services. The U.S. says it repeatedly urges the Croatian government to respoect the human rights of its citizens, including religious freedom.

In Kazahkstan the U.S. says it is troubled by the constitution's requirement that all activities of foreign religious associations and the appointment of leaders of foreign religious centers in Kazakhstan must be carried out "in coordination with the government." The report also says that some foreign missionaries have complained of harassment by low-level government officials.

Kyrgyzstan was mentioned in the report for requiring religious organizations to register with the state and for the reported harassment and denial of official registration of a Baptist congregation in the Naryn oblast. The U.S. says it has urged senior Kyrgyz officials to stop the harassment of the Baptists.

The U.S. also expressed concern over Latvia's requirement for religious organizations to register with the Justice Ministry, but adds that the recent registration of members of the Mormon faith -- which had been previously denied -- was a step forward. However, the U.S. says it is still worried by Latvia's continued refusal to register Jehovah's Witnesses.

Moldova is listed in the report as requiring religious organizations to register with the government, and prohibiting proselytizing. But the U.S. says it has not raised the issue with Moldovan officials because of a lack of complaints from religious organizations.

In Romania, the U.S. says the government does not generally impede the observance of religious belief. However, the report also says that members of some groups, such as Baptists and Greek Catholics, have faced harassment and even violence. The State Department says it regularly raises its concerns on this issue with Romanian officials.

In Russia, the U.S. again voices its concerns about a pending law on religion that would restrict the activities of some minority religions. The law was passed by both houses of the Russian legislature, but yesterday President Boris Yeltsin vetoed it, saying it violated human and constitutional rights.

Serbia-Montenegro is mentioned in the report for giving preferential treatment -- including access to state-run television for major religious events -- to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Overall, the report harshly criticizes Serbia, saying that "all of Serbia's religious/ethnic minorities face serious discrimination and harassment."

Ukraine is listed in the report as requiring religious organizations to register with the government and criticized for a 1993 amendment to a 1991 law restricting the activities of non-native religious groups. Additionally, the report states that some foreign religious workers have complained of being "occasionally impeded" from their work by local officials. The U.S. says it is continuing to monitor the situation from its embassy.

In Uzbekistan, the U.S. says that although the Russian Orthodox Church and several other Christian denominations operate rather freely, tensions arise when churches attempt to convert across ethnic lines, particularly the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. The report also expresses concern that missionary activity and proselytizing are illegal in the country.

Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Turkmenistan are mentioned in the report primarily because they require religious groups to register with the government. The U.S. says its embassies in these countries continue to monitor the registration process for discrimination against certain religious organizations.

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."