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East: Soul-Searching -- Former Communist Nations Still Resistant To New Religions (Part 1)

By Robert McMahon/Don Hill

From verbal abuse to beatings and imprisonment, missionaries are learning the hard way the limits of religious freedom in much of the former communist world. Human rights watchdogs say that a decade after the collapse of officially atheistic states, governments and government-subsidized religions continue to lash out at people seeking to propagate various faiths in the region. In the first of a four-part series, RFE/RL correspondents Robert McMahon and Don Hill explore the concept of religious freedom in the region and the reasons behind the resistance to new religions.

New York, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Freedom of religion, despite its enshrinement in international law and the constitutions of most former communist states in transition, remains severely restricted in practice throughout Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Authorities, backed by established religions in these states, enforce restrictions primarily against the numerous new or nontraditional groups that have flooded in since the fall of communism, seeking to win converts.

Missionaries from a diverse group of religions, including Western-based Christian fundamentalists, Hare Krishnas, and members of the Bahai faith, are attracted to a region they see as spiritually starved after a long period of officially sanctioned atheism. But many face persecution, and even punishment, from these governments -- backed by a religious establishment that views them as a threat to cultural identity.

Michael Young notes this trend with concern. Young is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a monitoring group set up by the U.S. Congress. He tells RFE/RL that the reaction of the Orthodox Christian Church in many former communist states has been especially troubling: "They view themselves as threatened and at risk, and so they [make] a series of arguments that are essentially nationalistic. And they appeal to the kind of people who are revanchist and nationalistic. That's the chord they're trying to strike, and it is a pretty -- to put it mildly -- unholy alliance."

In the predominantly Islamic countries of Central Asia, different challenges confront religious freedom. Many authoritarian governments cite the spread of fundamentalist Islam -- and terrorism -- by the Al- Qaeda terrorist group in Afghanistan and from Iran as a cause for a crackdown on devout Muslims.

In Uzbekistan, laws aimed at Islamic fundamentalism punish activities such as organizing a banned religious group and persuading others to join such a group. Thousands of people have been arrested and convicted since 1999 for participation in banned Islamic groups, particularly the Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Imam Alisher Sobirov of the state-approved Khoji Akhror Grand Mosque said in a recent interview that Uzbek government policy and Uzbek law on religious freedom are in accord with Islamic rules opposing division within Islam: "Today, there are many different groups among Muslims, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ahmadiya, Hizbollah, and so forth. We had them in the past, too. They all claim to be Muslims and they call upon Allah, but indeed they are lost people."

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has written that the new form of Islam preached by militants in Central Asia is much different from the tolerant, moderate form of the religion traditionally taught there. Rashid wrote in "The World Policy Journal" last year that since the collapse of communism, the type of Islam preached by activists in Central Asia is influenced more by the militant Islamic schools, or madrassahs, of Pakistan and the extreme Wahhabi doctrine of Saudi Arabia.

But Rashid joins other experts on the region in saying that state repression, rather than countering extremism, has only created more.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has warned of a backlash against religious practices caused by the international antiterrorism campaign. Chairman Young says he hopes the increased engagement of U.S. agencies with Central Asian nations will help persuade governments there that they can fight terrorism while remaining religiously pluralistic societies: "One of the ways you fight terrorism is [by reducing] that sense of disenfranchisement that is a breeding ground for terrorism. And you do that by allowing all people to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience."

The U.S. religious freedom commission is among a number of rights monitors noting developments in Turkmenistan with alarm. Worshipers practicing outside the two recognized faiths -- Islam and Russian Orthodoxy -- face fines, detention, and imprisonment. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has spoken out against anyone propagating what he calls "alien" faiths, which he said inflict harm on the country's accepted religions.

Elsewhere in the former communist states, the specter of brainwashing cults has been raised by nationalists and advocates of established religions. In Georgia, for example, human rights groups have reported repeated instances in which local police and security officials harass nontraditional religious minority groups, particularly Jehovah's Witnesses. There are a number of reported cases in which police participated alongside Orthodox extremists in attacking religious minorities.

Rusudan Beridze, deputy secretary in charge of civil rights for Georgia's National Security Council, says the state cannot legislate religious tolerance: "The main goal must be to create an atmosphere of tolerance within the country. If this atmosphere is not created, we will never be able to solve the problems of intolerance. I think this is the first goal of a civil society. We will never be able to solve these problems with punitive measures."

But Kote Kemalaria, parliamentary deputy and former Georgian justice minister, gave credence to charges of official involvement in attacks against religious groups in a recent interview with RFE/RL. He said the Georgian government's apparent unwillingness to act against these extremists only encourages more attacks: "As often happens in Georgian politics, I cannot rule out that the government is somehow supporting -- or even financing -- these kinds of activities. Extremists are allowed to do things that ordinary people would never be permitted -- beatings, burning of property -- and the repressive machinery of the state takes no action."

Such incidents are seen as damaging to the Orthodox faith, as well as to the cause of religious freedom. Lawrence Uzzell is director of the British-based Keston Institute, which monitors freedom of religion in communist and postcommunist countries. He told a briefing at RFE/RL in Washington recently that in the case of Russia, the willingness of the Orthodox Church to be co-opted by the government in return for favors has blunted its moral authority on a number of issues.

Uzzell says the Russian Orthodox Church has remained silent on issues such as alleged Russian military atrocities in Chechnya or Moscow's brutal treatment of the homeless. Such silence, he says, violates the long-standing doctrines of the Russian Orthodox Church: "They are energetic, active, militant in lobbying for their institutional interests as a bureaucratic and political and subsidy-receiving organization. They are not militant in lobbying for the moral heritage of the Orthodox Church if that moral heritage happens to be in conflict with what the Russian state wants to do at the present."

Richard John Neuhaus is a Roman Catholic priest and editor of "First Things," a publication run by the U.S.-based Institute on Religion and Public life. He says the Orthodox Church's reaction to evangelization has been a disappointment to many who expected the church to revive and spread its message more vibrantly.

Neuhaus says Orthodox Christianity cannot survive by isolating itself as it has done: "Orthodoxy has locked itself into a defensive and xenophobic posture, which in the long run is dead-ended because we live in a world in which these dynamics of different world views and different religions are going to continue to interact."

But Orthodox Christians say Western models of religious freedom cannot be expected to function automatically in former communist societies. Nicholas Ohotin is a spokesman for the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The church is divided from the Russian church's Moscow Patriarchate but feels sympathy for Russians trying to cope with non-native religious influences.

"For other faiths, other religions and other ideologies to run in there and take advantage of these people is very unfair. I would suggest that these groups, these Protestant churches, these New Age churches, should let the Russian people reacquaint themselves with their own tradition first. And if that is unsatisfactory to them, then they should be able to [see] if other religions meet their needs."

Advocates of religious freedom see a need for more education about the ties between freedom of religion and human rights in general.

The UN's special rapporteur on religious intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor, says that what he calls a "strategy of prevention" is needed to curb religious intolerance. He says the strategy should focus on education and dialogue as ways of eradicating intolerance and changing people's mind-sets.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Georgian services contributed to this report.)