Since its inception, the Commission has monitored and reported on the status of freedom of religion or belief in the Russian Federation. During these years, Russia has been of consistent concern to the Commission not so much because of the severity of the country's religious freedom violations, but rather due to its fragile human rights situation, including that of religious freedom. Of primary concern are the trends which have emerged in the past few years which raise serious questions about Russia's commitment to democratic reform and the protection of religious freedom. This is also critical because Russia continues to be a model, especially for other former Soviet states and other nations struggling to establish democratic systems after a history of despotism.

The Commission expressed strong concern in its May 2003 report that the Russian government was retreating from democratic reform, endangering the significant human rights gains, including freedom of religion or belief, in the dozen years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Current curtailments in media freedom and in the role of political parties, as well as legal restrictions on freedom of assembly, popular referenda and the end to popular election of regional governors, all reveal that progress towards democracy is being halted, if not reversed. Most, if not all, of the concerns about freedom of religion or belief raised by the Commission appear to be directly related to the growing influence of authoritarian, and perhaps even chauvinistic, strains in the Russian government. The country's progress, based on the rule of law, the protection of human rights, and democratic freedoms, is now in peril.

Clearly, the practice of religion in Russia is far freer now than during the Soviet period, when militant atheism was the preferred state policy. Yet, despite that improvement, problems remain. A 1997 law on religious organizations contains provisions that have prevented some religious groups from registering and thus practicing freely. Many regional governments have passed ordinances that result in discrimination against minority religious groups, and acts of violence against members of religious and other minorities are widespread. The government has granted preferential treatment to the Russian Orthodox Church, calling into question whether religious freedom will be guaranteed for all. Until the late 1990's, however, the Russian government responded to some of these concerns, and Russian courts provided some protection against violations.

Developments in the past few years, however, raise very serious doubts about Russia's commitment to the protection of religious freedom. Russian authorities have denied registration to certain religious communities, based on the allegedly insufficient time they have existed, despite a February 2002 Russian Constitutional Court decision that found that an active religious organization registered before the 1997 law could not be deprived of its legal status for failing to re-register. The March 2004 Moscow court decision banning the Jehovah's Witnesses in that city, upheld on appeal, marked the first time a national religious organization in Russia has had a local branch banned under the 1997 law. The protracted trial took place even though 135,000 Jehovah's Witnesses practice their faith in registered communities in many other parts of Russia. The trial has led to increased difficulties for Jehovah's Witnesses in renting facilities to hold worship services in other parts of Russia. The Salvation Army has not been re-registered, despite a Constitutional Court ruling that overturned the government's decision not to register the organization in Moscow.

Official efforts to portray "foreign sects," mostly Evangelical Protestants, as alien to Russian culture and society continue. Members of unregistered Baptist and Pentecostal communities faced particular hardships in 2004. On the eve of hosting a major national conference, a Baptist church in Tula was burned. In the Buryatia republic, authorities removed children from Pentecostal families and placed them in orphanages. In the Udmurtia republic, police raided a registered Pentecostal church in Izhevsk in April 2005, and threatened four women with rape.

This official campaign appears to be part of an increased effort by the Russian authorities to promote the status of Russia's so-called "traditional" religions: Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. A "Law on Traditional Religions," first proposed in February 2002 and whose status remains unclear, would formalize benefits already granted de facto, in varying degrees, to organizations from these four religions. In March 2004, the Russian press reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin, while acknowledging the legal separation of church and state, said that he supports a legal initiative to "support the spiritual leaders of the traditional confessions," including on property issues.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has played a special role in Russian history and culture. However, there is continued concern that the ROC enjoys a favored status among many Russian government officials, a situation that sometimes results in restrictions on other religious communities. Particularly on the local level, evidence suggests that the Orthodox Church has a very close relationship with officials and other state bodies. There continue to be frequent reports that minority religious communities must secure permission from the local Orthodox Church before being allowed to build a place of worship. Adherents of minority faiths, including Muslims, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Old Believers, Protestants, and Hare Krishnas, report that government officials sometimes create other barriers to their activities, often at the behest of representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Due to their perceived links to the decade-long conflict in Chechnya, Muslims throughout Russia are increasingly subject to widespread discrimination, media attacks and occasional acts of violence. Meeting in secret session in February 2004, the Russian Supreme Court banned 15 Muslim groups because of their alleged ties to international terrorism. The Court's factual findings on which the court made its decision have not been made public. Yet, police, prosecutors, and courts reportedly have used those secret findings to arrest and imprison individuals from among Russia's estimated 20 million Muslims. Individuals of nationalities traditionally associated with Islam have also been subjected to numerous attacks in Russia and rarely is anyone held to account. Cemeteries and mosques have been vandalized, including five Muslim cemeteries in Moscow in 2004. There are reports that Russian authorities have also taken steps – including arrests, allegedly on the basis of fabricated evidence – against Muslims, Muslim human rights activists and Muslim groups that are independent of the country's official Muslim organizational structures. In response, Muslim individuals and communities increasingly are engaging in public protests.

Many in Russia's Jewish community say that conditions for the country's Jews are better than before 1991 because, unlike in the Soviet period, the state no longer has an official policy of sponsoring anti-Semitism. Despite this, anti-Semitic acts, including vandalism and physical attacks, are on the rise, particularly in the cities of Moscow, Volgograd, Voronezh, Petrozavodsk, St. Petersburg, Penza, and the Kaliningrad region,. According to one report, the number of anti-Semitic articles in the Russian media in the first few months of 2005 equaled the number for all of 2004. Moreover, at the same time that President Putin told an international audience at the Auschwitz commemoration ceremonies in late January 2005, that "no one has the right to be indifferent to anti-Semitism, nationalism, and racial and religious intolerance," 20 members of the Russian State Duma (Parliament) called on the Procurator General to ban all Jewish organizations in Russia for alleged incitement of religious and ethnic hatred. Though the letter was later officially withdrawn, none of the signers have expressed regret for the views it expressed. In April 2005, another letter, expressing similarly virulent anti-Semitic views, was signed by 5,000 people, including many well-known Russian public figures and church officials. Both letters were publicly condemned by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Jews have been assaulted in Moscow, Ulyanovsk, and Voronezh; official investigations of these incidents have been inconclusive. Last year, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and memorials were vandalized in St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk, Pyatigorsk, Kaluga, Makhachkala, and Derbent. There have been few prosecutions in response to these incidents.

Russian authorities continue to deny visas or residence permits for Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim clergy and other religious workers or to grant short-term visas, although, according to the 2004 State Department human rights report, a new government publication on the rights of foreign religious workers helped resolve a number of these problems. Yet, in April 2005, the head of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of European Russia was denied re-entry to Russia and his one-year residence permit was annulled. Responding to many requests from the Buddhist community in Russia, the Dalai Lama finally received a visa and was allowed to visit Kalmykia for several days in late November 2004, though strict limits were imposed on his itinerary and activities.

Members of minority religions continue to face prejudice, societal discrimination and occasional physical attacks. The perpetrators of this vandalism and violence are rarely held to account. Incidents of religiously, racially, or ethnically motivated attacks have markedly increased in recent years, though the exact motivation for such attacks is difficult to determine. The total number of extremist youth groups, conventionally known as "skinheads," according to some estimates, is 50,000 in 85 cities, particularly in several major cities in European Russia. Skinhead groups frequently express anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic views as well as hostility towards "foreigners" and "foreign" religions.

In April 2004, Commissioner Felice D. Gaer took part in the Berlin Conference on Anti-Semitism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where she discussed anti-Semitism in the OSCE region, including in Russia. In September 2004, at the Brussels OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia, and Discrimination, Commissioner Gaer made a presentation on religious freedom conditions in Russia and other countries in the OSCE region. During the October 2004 OSCE Human Dimension Meeting, the Commission staff presented information on the status of freedom of religion or belief in numerous countries from the OSCE region, including in Russia.

In July 2004, the Commission hosted a briefing in Washington DC on religious freedom conditions in Russia, featuring a video-taped interview with Aleksandr Chuev, a Russian Duma deputy, who has said that the Duma should adopt an amendment to punish those who insult "traditional" religious beliefs. In August 2004, the Commission released a press statement noting concern about the increasing influence of authoritarian and chauvinistic strains within the Russian government that appear to be directly related to growing religious freedom problems. In February 2005, the Commission held a joint briefing with the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies on "Russia: Religious Communities, Extremist Movements and the State," chaired by Commissioner Gaer, at which findings were presented by experts on the current status of Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, as well as on increased acts of ethnic and religious extremism. Also in February, the Commission issued a press statement calling on President Bush to raise with President Putin the state of freedom of religion or belief in Russia at their then-upcoming meeting. In April 2005, the Commission hosted a briefing with Oleg Mironov, the former Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, and Mufti Ismagil Shangareev, director of the Islamic Human Rights Defense Center in Russia.

The Commission has advocated continued inclusion of the "Smith Amendment" in the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, which conditions foreign assistance to the Russian government if the President certifies that the Russian government has not implemented any statute, executive order, or regulation that discriminates against religious groups or religious communities, in violation of accepted international agreements on human rights and religious freedoms to which the Russian Federation is a party. Congress included this provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005.

With regard to Russia, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • make clear its concern to the Russian government that efforts to combat terrorism should not be used as an unrestrained justification to restrict the rights, including religious freedom, of members of Russia's religious minorities;
  • urge the Russian government to ensure that any special role for the Orthodox Church or any other religious community does not result in violations of the rights of, or discrimination against, members of other religious groups;
  • make clear its concern to the Russian government that hostile rhetoric against Muslims and the Islamic faith is fueling an atmosphere in which perpetrators believe they can attack Muslim or Muslim-appearing persons with impunity;
  • urge the Russian government to take all appropriate steps to prevent and punish acts of anti-Semitism, including condemnation of anti-Semitic acts, the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of violent incidents of anti-Semitism, and, while vigorously protecting freedom of expression, counteracting anti-Semitic rhetoric and other organized anti-Semitic activities;
  • continue to press the Russian government to ensure that a previously reported government policy of grouping of Catholics, Protestants, and others together with Islamic extremists – collectively labeled as threats to Russia's national security – is not adopted as Russian government policy;
  • continue to urge the Russian government to cease interference in the internal affairs of religious communities, such as denials of visas and work permits to religious workers and attempted interference in the elections in religious bodies;
  • urge the government of Russia to monitor the actions of regional and local officials who interfere with the right to freedom of religion or belief, take steps to bring local laws and regulations on religious activities into conformity with the Russian Constitution and international human rights standards, and bring those who commit crimes to justice;
  • ensure that the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Chechnya remains a key issue in its bilateral relations with Russia and urge the Russian government to end, and prosecute acts of, torture, arbitrary detention, rape, and other abuses by members of the military in Chechnya; to accept a site visit to Chechnya from the UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture, Extrajudicial Executions, and Violence Against Women; and to provide full cooperation to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in connection with her upcoming visit to Chechnya;
  • raise religious freedom and other human rights violations in multilateral fora, including the OSCE and the UN, and continue, on a bilateral basis, to encourage the government of Russia to agree to the request of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit Russia and to provide full cooperation to the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance in connection with his planned visit to Russia in June 2005;
  • use every possible means to engage and support the genuine democrats in the Russian government at the federal and local levels, and ensure that U.S. aid programs are not being used to support the activities in Russia of authoritarian-minded officials; and
  • advance human rights, including religious freedom, in Russia by continuing to provide assistance, as appropriate, to non-governmental organizations, public interest groups, journalists, and academic institutions, and by expanding programs aimed at encouraging religious tolerance and supporting international standards on freedom of religion and other human rights.

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