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For decades, religious minorities like Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department has officially added Russia to its register of the world's “worst violators” of religious freedom, a list that includes Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and five other countries.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan, independent body created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom, proposed in its annual report released on April 21 that Russia, India, Syria, and Vietnam be put on the "countries of particular concern" list, a category reserved for those countries that carry out "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedoms.

On November 17, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that, of those four countries, he would be adding Russia to the list. Neither India, Syria, or Vietnam were designated as “countries of particular concern.”

The blacklisting paves the way for sanctions if the countries included do not improve their records.

The State Department added four countries to its special watch list, meaning there are still "severe" violations of religious freedom there, including Algeria, Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

The State Department did not follow through on USCIRF’s recommendation to add Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to the list.

5 Things To Know About The Jehovah's Witnesses In Russia
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“We will continue to press all governments to remedy shortcomings in their laws and practices, and to promote accountability for those responsible for abuses,” Blinken said in a November 17 statement.

In its April report, the USCIRF said that “religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated” last year, with the government targeting religious minorities deemed as “nontraditional” with fines, detentions, and criminal charges.

For decades, religious minorities like Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

A total of 188 criminal cases alone were brought against the banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, while there were 477 raids and searches of members’ homes, with raids and interrogations including “instances of torture that continue to go uninvestigated and unpunished,” the April report said.

Russia has continued to crack down on Jehovah’s Witnesses since then.

A court in the southwestern city of Astrakhan on October 26 sentenced four Jehovah’s Witnesses to lengthy prison terms for creating or taking part in an extremist group.

Earlier that month, a court in the southern city of Krasnodar sentenced a 59-year-old disabled Jehovah’s Witness to four years in prison for holding a Bible study with fellow believers.

Her viral moment: Liana Georgieva blows her whistle as riot police try to disperse her and others gathering for a pride parade in central Istanbul on June 26.

Expat singer and newly minted LGBT icon Liana Georgieva has found her voice.

A child of Bulgarian and German parents, the itinerant 26-year-old sauntered to worldwide attention in Turkey four months ago in a black spaghetti-strap dress and high heels, carrying a rainbow purse and blowing into a deafening purple whistle.

As police cracked down on a banned gay pride rally in downtown Istanbul that day in June, dozens were arrested and tear gas was fired into a crowd thinned by years of official refusal to permit such events.

But Georgieva, who describes herself as "very gay" and seems to compensate for her self-described "outsider" status with boundless charm, looked like an island of calm.

"Baby, I have heels on. How will I walk? I walk slowly," she told a column of Turkish police, in English, as they pressed her forward with riot shields.

The video of her casual defiance for the LGBT cause in Turkey, where homosexuality is legal but official opposition to the LGBT community has surged in recent years, went viral.

By August, she was promoting LGBT rights to German consular officials in Istanbul, Europe's largest city and Turkey's cultural and historic hub.

By September, she was hobnobbing with Istanbul's ascendant mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, who is regarded as a potential leftish challenger to strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey's next presidential election.

Now, Georgieva has released what she hopes is an "anthem" for Turkey's LGBT community and its current rights struggle.

"All For Love is a song that I wrote to prolong the moment of the viral video," Georgieva, whose stage name is Liana Georgi, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service ahead of the song's November 11 release on streaming platforms.

She said she exalts in the way music and art "explore boundaries...and connect people."

"That's why I wanted to write a gay anthem that not only shows my community how much I love them and how much I admire them and how much this community gives me hope and strength, I also wanted for them to know that the viral video was never about me: It's about all of us. It's all for love. What we do is just in order for us to exist and love who we want to love."

The project is partly the result of conversations she had with local NGOs after realizing the exposure that the viral pride video brought her over the summer.

They suggested that international attention could raise the political pressure within Turkey and get LGBT voices heard and constitutional rights protected, she said. "And we need money," they told her.

All For Love's message echoes her video moment flanked by Turkish riot police, Georgieva said.

"Even when there is aggression and even when we try to hide, there is a moment when we will just say 'no,'" she said. "And we will say it with love and I will keep trying to slow down the police and I will keep walking."

Georgieva worked with local LGBT artists, activists, and friends to produce the accompanying video, which she calls "a queer video clip of people from the community and it shows us in all our colors."

She said some of the song's proceeds will be donated to a local LGBT platform, called SPoD, which offers legal and psychological help to the LGBT community.

Georgieva, who came to Turkey two years ago and recently earned her master's degree in clinical psychology, was born to a Bulgarian father and a German mother and spent most of her childhood in Germany.

The LGBT community in one of her ancestral homelands has suffered recently, too: A right-wing candidate in last weekend's Bulgarian presidential election allegedly led a group of thugs as they ransacked an LGBT center in Sofia.

Georgieva credited "being rooted in two cultures" and extensive travels with helping her connect with people and "feel at home in a lot of places."

But she said she's also thankful for the "privilege" of being "an EU citizen" with a German passport, implying that Turkish members of their country's LGBT community face greater challenges.

She noted elsewhere recently that eight people are still facing charges for attending the pride event that shot her into the international spotlight.

"The problem with the viral video is that I am not representative of the whole LGBT community, because I have a different status here in Turkey because of my German passport," Georgieva told RFE/RL. "So the worst thing, let's say, that can happen to me is that I get deported for being so outspoken."

Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service correspondent Damyana Veleva

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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