The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one's belief or religion
The right to join together and express one's belief


Thursday 9 September 2004

Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism,
Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18
News Service surveys some of the more serious
discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some
countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to
religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined,
imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are
broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious
literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18
believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the
eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which has
as members all the states of Europe, Central Asia and North America, works
not by coercion but by consensus and persuasion. Membership is not
compulsory: states have the free choice whether to accept the binding OSCE
commitments by joining or not. The commitment of all OSCE states to respect
freedom of religion is clear. The 1990 OSCE human dimension conference
declared "everyone will have the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change one's
religion or belief and freedom to manifest one's religion or belief, either
alone or in community with others, in public or in private, through
worship, teaching, practice and observance. The exercise of these rights
may be subject only to such restrictions as are prescribed by law and are
consistent with international standards." Yet government
discrimination against religious believers remains disturbingly

As delegates assemble in Brussels for the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and
the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September
2004, many ask how violators of these fundamental OSCE commitments -
especially Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia - can
be allowed to continue as members of an organisation whose fundamental
principles they blatantly flout. OSCE officials argue off the record that
it is better to keep violators in, with the hope that they can be persuaded
to mend their ways, rather than expel them, abandoning local people to the
clutches of their governments. The result is that persecuted believers
Forum 18 News Service has spoken to in a number of states
now have little faith in what the OSCE can and will do for them to protect
their right to religious freedom.

The OSCE has reaffirmed that discrimination against religious believers is
as unacceptable as discrimination against ethnic or other social groups or
individuals. Meeting in the Dutch city of Maastricht in 2003, the OSCE
Ministerial Council stressed in its Decision No. 4 on Tolerance and
Non-Discrimination that it "[a]ffirms the importance of freedom of
thought, conscience, religion or belief, and condemns all discrimination
and violence, including against any religious group or individual
believer" and "[c]ommits to ensure and facilitate the freedom of
the individual to profess and practice a religion or belief, alone or in
community with others, where necessary through transparent and
non-discriminatory laws, regulations, practices and policies". The
ministerial council also emphasised what it believed is the importance of a
"continued and strengthened interfaith and intercultural dialogue to
promote greater tolerance, respect and mutual understanding".

While many governments would prefer this conference to concentrate on
tackling social discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, in
much of the region it is important to stress that the most serious
discrimination against religious believers, at least, comes from
governments. In many states discrimination is enshrined in law and in
official practice (from national to local level). Believers will only be
free of such discrimination if such discriminatory laws are abolished or
amended, and if other laws and international commitments guaranteeing
religious freedom are put into practice.

Social discrimination against religious minorities does exist -
especially among Orthodox in Georgia, among Muslims in Central Asia, and
among ethnic Albanians (whether Muslim or Catholic) in Kosovo - but
only in exceptional circumstances has this led to persistent denial of
believers' rights. Governments have a duty to promote tolerance and harmony
in society, but many could start with improving their own behaviour.

It is also important to remember that criticising the beliefs of another
faith does not constitute a crime: only violence or incitement to violence
is. A key element of religious freedom is the right peacefully to expound
and promote the beliefs of one's faith and to set out how they might differ
from those of other faiths.

In the run-up to the July 2003 OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting
on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Forum 18 News Service
surveyed some, but not all, of the continuing abuses of religious freedom
in the eastern half of the OSCE region (see F18News 9 July 2003 ). Discrimination against
believers also occurs in other OSCE countries (such as the About-Picard law
in France, restrictions on newer religious communities in Belgium and
discrimination against minority faiths in Turkey). It is disturbing that
one year on, almost all the abuses Forum 18 noted in 2003 have continued

RELIGIOUS WORSHIP: An alarming number of states raid religious meetings to
close down services and punish those who take part. Turkmenistan is the
worst offender: all unregistered religious activity is illegal and no
non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox religious communities - even the
few registered minority communities - are able to hold public worship
freely. Uzbekistan and Belarus specifically ban unregistered religious
services. In Belarus, numerous Protestant congregations - some numbering
more than a thousand members - cannot meet because they cannot get a
registered place to worship. Officials in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and
Azerbaijan also raid places where worship is being conducted. In Macedonia,
members of the Serbian Orthodox Church have difficulty holding public
worship and leaders have been prosecuted. In Russia and some other states,
minority faiths are often denied permission to rent publicly-owned
buildings available to other groups.

PLACES OF WORSHIP: Opening a place of worship is impossible in some states.
In Turkmenistan non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities cannot in
practice open a place of worship, while those that existed before the
mid-1990s were confiscated or bulldozed. Uzbekistan has closed down
thousands of mosques since 1996 and often denies Christian groups' requests
to open churches. Azerbaijan also obstructs the opening of Christian
churches and tries to close down some of those already open, while in 2004
it seized a mosque in Baku from its community and tried to prevent the
community meeting elsewhere. Belarus makes it almost impossible for
religious communities without their own building already - or substantial
funds to rent one - to find a legal place to worship. An Autocephalous
Orthodox church (which attracted the anger of the government and the
Russian Orthodox Church) was bulldozed in 2002. In Slovenia, which
represents the incoming OSCE Chair-in-Office, the Ljubljana authorities
have long obstructed the building of a mosque. In Bulgaria, the current
Chair-in-Office, in July 2004 the police stormed more than 200 churches
used by the Alternative Synod since a split in the Orthodox Church a decade
ago, ousting the occupants and handing the churches over to the rival
Orthodox Patriarchate without any court rulings.

REGISTRATION: Where registration is compulsory before any religious
activity can start (Turkmenistan, Belarus and Uzbekistan) or where
officials claim that it is (Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan), life is made
difficult for communities that either choose not to register (such as one
network of Baptist communities in the former Soviet republics) or are
denied registration (the majority of religious communities in Azerbaijan
and Turkmenistan). Registration in Turkmenistan is all but impossible,
despite the reduction in 2004 from 500 to 5 in the number of adult citizens
required to found a community. In countries such as Azerbaijan or
Uzbekistan, registration for disfavoured communities is often made
impossible - officials in the sanitary/epidemiological service are among
those with the power of veto in Uzbekistan. Belarus, Slovenia, Slovakia,
Macedonia, Russia and Latvia are also among states which to widely varying
degrees make registration of some groups impossible or very difficult.
Moscow has refused to register the Jehovah's Witnesses in the city, despite
their national registration. Some countries - including the Czech
Republic, Slovakia and Austria, with plans for similar moves in Serbia
- grant full status as religious communities to favoured religious
communities only. Faiths with smaller membership or which the government
does not like have to make do with lesser status and fewer rights.

RELIGIOUS LITERATURE: Belarus and Azerbaijan require compulsory prior
censorship of all religious literature produced or imported into the
country. Azerbaijani customs routinely confiscate religious literature,
releasing it only when the State Committee for Work with Religious
Organisations grants explicit written approval for each title and the
number of copies authorised. Forbidden books are sent back or destroyed
(thousands of Hare Krishna books held by customs for seven years have been
destroyed). Even countries without formal religious censorship - eg.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - routinely confiscate imported religious
literature or literature found during raids on homes. Uzbekistan routinely
bars access to websites it dislikes, such as foreign Muslim sites.

INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: Believers from minority religious communities in
institutions such as prisons, hospitals or the army may face difficulties
obtaining and keeping religious literature, praying in private and
receiving visits from spiritual leaders and fellow-believers. In
Uzbekistan, even Muslim prisoners have been punished for praying and
fasting during Ramadan. Death-row prisoners wanting visits from Muslim
imams and Russian Orthodox priests have had requests denied, even for final
confession before execution.

DISCRIMINATION: Turkmenistan has dismissed from state jobs hundreds of
active Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and members of other religious
minorities. Turkmen and Azeri officials try to persuade people to abandon
their faith and "return" to their ancestral faith (Islam).
Although the order has now reportedly been rescinded, Armenia ordered local
police chiefs to persuade police officers who were members of faiths other
than the Armenian Apostolic Church to abandon their faith. If persuasion
failed, such employees were to be sacked. Belarus has subjected leaders of
independent Orthodox Churches and Hindus to pressure - including fines,
threats and inducements - to abandon their faith or emigrate. Officials in
Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus repeatedly attack disfavoured religious
minorities in the media, insulting their beliefs, accusing them falsely of
illegal or "destructive" activities, as well as inciting popular
hostility to them.

RELIGIOUS SCHOOL CLASSES: Some states have allowed the dominant faith to
determine the content of compulsory religious education classes and
textbooks in state-run schools. In Belarus, minority faiths complain their
beliefs are inaccurately and insultingly presented. In Georgia, classes
often became denominational Orthodox instruction, with teachers taking
children to pray in the local Orthodox church.

GOVERNMENT INTERFERENCE: Many governments meddle in the internal affairs of
religious communities. Central Asian governments insist on choosing
national and local Muslim leaders. Turkmenistan ousted successive chief
muftis in January 2003 and August 2004. Tajikistan has conducted
"attestation tests" of imams, ousting those who failed. Islamic
schools are tightly controlled (in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, schools
have either been closed or access to them restricted). Turkmenistan
obstructs those seeking religious education abroad. Some countries with
large Orthodox communities (but not Russia or Ukraine), try to bolster the
largest Orthodox Church and obstruct rival jurisdictions (Belarus,
Bulgaria, Macedonia, Georgia, Moldova). Russia has prevented communities
from choosing their leadership, expelling a Catholic bishop and several
priests, and dozens of Protestant and other leaders, while the secret
police tried to influence the choice of a new Old Believer leader in
February 2004.

PROTECTION FROM VIOLENCE: Law enforcement agencies fail to give religious
minorities the same protection as major groups. Between 1999 and 2003,
Georgia suffered a wave of violence by self-appointed Orthodox vigilantes,
with over 100 attacks on True Orthodox, Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals
and Jehovah's Witnesses in which believers were physically attacked, places
of worship blockaded and religious events disrupted. The authorities - who
know the attackers' identity - have punished only a handful of people with
suspended sentences. In some cases, police cooperated with attacks or
failed to investigate them. In Kosovo the Nato-led peacekeeping force and
United Nations police have repeatedly failed to protect Serbian Orthodox
churches in use and graveyards, especially during the upsurge in anti-Serb
violence in March 2004, when some 30 Orthodox sites were destroyed or
heavily damaged. Few attackers have been arrested or prosecuted.

DISCRIMINATION AGAINST MIGRANTS: Many religion laws restrict the rights of
legal residents who are not citizens, requiring founders and leaders of
religious organisations to be citizens. Azerbaijan provides for deportation
of foreigners and those without citizenship who have conducted
"religious propaganda". In the past decade, Turkmenistan has
deported hundreds of legally-resident foreigners known to have taken part
in religious activity, especially Muslims and Protestants. Some states
(including Russia and Belarus) have denied visas to foreign religious
leaders chosen by local religious communities.

LACK OF TRANSPARENCY: Major laws and decrees affecting religious life are
drawn up without public knowledge or discussion. Examples are the
restrictive laws on religion of Belarus and Bulgaria in 2002, and planned
new laws in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. International organisations,
such as the OSCE or the Council of Europe may be consulted but governments
often refuse to allow their comments to be published or ignore them. Many
countries retain openly partisan and secretive government religious affairs
offices. Between 1999 and 2003, Slovenia's religious affairs office refused
to register any new religious communities. Azerbaijan's has stated which
communities it will refuse to register and what changes other communities
will have to make to their statutes and activities to gain registration.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORTING: Those reporting on religious freedom such as
Forum 18 News Service and groups campaigning on the issue
face lack of cooperation, obstruction and harassment. Those suspected of
passing on news of violations have been threatened in Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, with the aim of forcing silence. In a region
without much government transparency or a genuinely free media, officials
involved in harassing religious communities often refuse to explain to
journalists what they have done and why. Local religious freedom
campaigning groups are denied registration or kept waiting. Demonstrators
protesting in Belarus against the restrictive 2002 religion law were fined.
In September 2004, the Belarus bureau of the Union of Councils for Jews in
the Former Soviet Union, which included monitoring religious persecution in
its work, was denied registration. Government reports on religious freedom
issues to bodies such as the OSCE or Council of Europe are often
confidential and closed to public scrutiny.

CONCLUSION: Many of these discriminatory restrictions predate the 11
September 2001 terrorist attacks - and 1999 Islamic-inspired
incursions into Central Asia - so governments cannot validly argue
that such restrictions are necessary to ensure public security. The
comprehensive nature of many of these measures shows the hostility of some
OSCE member states to the right to exercise the faith of one's choice
freely, something described by the European Court of Human Rights in 1993
as "one of the foundations of a democratic society".

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