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The East: U.S. Senators Concerned About Religious Intolerance

Washington, 19 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Two members of the U.S. Congress say there are a number of countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that are seriously restricting religious freedom.

Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-New York) and Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), co-chairmen of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, expressed the view Thursday at a commission hearing on religious intolerance in Europe.

D'Amato opened the hearing by saying he is concerned about a growing number of "assaults on religious minorities" currently underway in Eastern Europe and the former USSR.

He said many nations are using the "police power of the state" to restrict freedom of thought, conscience and religion to a point where it could "vanish" altogether.

D'Amato said he is particularly worried about the new religious legislation now being reviewed by the Russian Duma. A similar bill restricting religious practices was passed by the Duma earlier this year, but subsequently vetoed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

D'Amato said the newly proposed Russian law is "religious bigotry" and would unfairly restrict freedom of religion for millions of Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals and others in Russia. He said that the U.S. would be watching the outcome of the new religious legislation "very carefully," adding that the U.S. Senate had already voted once to cut off aid to Russia if such a law were passed.

D'Amato said: "If [the Russians] pass this bill and seek to discriminate against millions [of people] -- there will be consequences. We will stand with those who are oppressed."

He said he is also worried about recent incidents in Bulgaria where he said foreign missionaries have been refused visas and residence permits. He also mentioned situations where Mormons allegedly had personal belongings confiscated and cases where some Jehovah's Witnesses were beaten.

In Uzbekistan, D'Amato said he is disturbed by the unexplained disappearances of independent Islamic leaders, and the routine confiscation of bibles and other religious materials.

He added that he is particularly dismayed that the largest Protestant church in Uzbekistan -- Word of Faith -- has been blocked from officially registering with the state, and that its pastor has been intermittently imprisoned and denied a lawyer.

Smith said that he, too, considers Russia's proposed religious legislation to be a great threat to religious freedom.

Smith criticized the legislation, saying that if it became law it would return Russia to the "days of the commissars for so-called minority faiths."

Smith also dismissed some claims that restrictive religious policy is needed in Russia in order to fight crime.

"True, there is crime in Russia, but certainly it is not gangs of Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses who are mowing down business rivals in the parking lots of sleazy casinos. And, it wasn't the Catholic or Baptist churches that were running phony pyramid schemes to wipe out the savings of desperate investors," said Smith.

Like D'Amato, Smith singled out Bulgaria and Uzbekistan for what he said were their unusually restrictive actions against religious faiths.

But he added Armenia, Azerbaijan and Central Asia as a whole to his list of serious offenders.

In regards to Armenia, Smith said he was concerned with a 1991 law that prohibits proselytizing and more recent attempts by the Armenian parliament to further restrict the activities of religious minorities.

In Azerbaijan, Smith said he was worried by a January 1997 decree banning activities of foreign religious missionaries following June 1996 amendments to the nation's religion law which prohibits the preaching of religions foreign to Azerbaijani traditions.

In the Central Asia region, Smith said severely restrictive laws have been placed on printing and distribution of religious literature and speech, especially in the indigenous languages, and on organizing religious meetings.

Smith added that the majority of Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities in Central Asia have allied against Protestant and other minority religious groups to counter the increase of foreign missionary activities.

Yekaterina Smyslova, Chief of the Legal Department at the Institute for Religion and Law in Moscow, told the commission that the outlook for religious freedom in Russia is "not optimistic."

She cited a number of problems and focused particularly on attempts by the Russian Orthodox Church to consolidate power and prevent other religions from gaining a strong foothold in the country.

She said in 1994 the Russian Orthodox Church signed contracts with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Russian Armed Forces to have free access to military units. She said that Orthodox clergymen now sanctify naval ships, organize worship services for military personnel and construct churches on military bases and academies. No other religion has this right, said Smyslova.

In 1996, Smyslova said the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Russian Orthodox Church signed an agreement to "protect citizens from spiritual agression."

Following this, said Smyslova, the Russian Minister of Public Health sent letters to all regional departments that stated there was a need to "protect the mental and physical health of the Russian people from sects, especially new religious movements." Smyslova said he then offered to join in a partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church to establish special centers for the "mental correction" of vicitms of sects.

Smyslova also cited an incident in which she said the Orthodox church attempted to prevent other religious organizations from gaining a following.

She said the incident took place in the town of Semkhos near Moscow where a small Protestant sect had organized a special concert for children from poor and dysfunctional families. Smyslova said two Russian Orthodox priests and a group of their followers tried to physically block entrance into the school where the concert was being held.

When that didn't work, Smyslova said the priests returned to the school after the concert was over and asked the children to give them all the gifts they had received from the "foreigners" because they were "infected by seeds of the Devil." All the gifts were later burned in the school's furnace, said Smyslova.

"[This] demonstrates religious intolerance in modern Russia with its hatred toward other religions and even other branches of the Russian Orthodox Church and by trying to create special privileged conditions for itself by using all of the state's resources and power," Smyslova concluded.

D'Amato said he was holding the hearing because "America has always had a special role in leading the world to recognize and protect fundamental individual rights."