USCIRF Annual Report 2013 - Thematic Issues: Legal retreat from religious freedom in post-Communist countries

In recent years, various post-Communist countries have enacted increasingly restrictive laws relating to religion and religious groups, and have applied them to limit rather than promote religious freedom. This negative trajectory is discussed in this Annual Report's chapters on Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

This trend is also evident in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

In December 2012, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich signed controversial amendments to the country's 1991 Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. Ukrainian civil society and religious communities criticized the amendments as overly broad and vague and the amendment process as non-consultative. The leaders of Ukraine's largest religious communities, Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and Major Archbishop Sviatoslav of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, separately joined in this appeal. Some observers expressed concern that the amendments would provide opportunities for President Yanukovich to favor the UOC-KP.

The amendments complicate the registration process for religious groups by introducing two unclear and separate processes. The number of state regulatory bodies also was increased to include the Prosecutor's Office, the central body on religious matters (the Ministry of Culture), other ministries, and local authorities. Other issues of concern include requirements that religious groups must obtain prior permission to hold peaceful assemblies and that the Ministry of Culture must approve the activities of foreign religious personnel, including students and volunteers. The amendments have already taken effect and Ukrainian religious groups have expressed concern about a possible destabilizing effect on civil society. Ukraine's major Muslim organization also has criticized the autonomous Crimean government for disregarding Ukrainian laws, including using textbooks that promote religious discrimination.

In Kyrgyzstan, before 2009, both registered and unregistered religious groups could function quite freely. The 2009 Religion Law, however, sets numerous restrictions, including a complex and cumbersome registration process required for all religious communities to complete by 2010. To register, at least 200 adult citizens (a major increase from the previous requirement of 10) must submit detailed personal and other data. The registration application must include written permission from local officials to use local meeting premises, and if a religious community has administrative centers outside Kyrgyzstan or foreign citizens on its executive board, it is classified a "mission" and must re-register annually. The State Committee on Religious Affairs (SRCA) can recommend rejection of a registration application if it deems the group a threat to national security, inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony, public order, health, or morality. Religious groups must submit financial data to the State Agency for Statistics, tax authorities, the SCRA, and the Prosecutor's Office. If they do not comply, the SCRA can seek a court order to close down the organization.

By early 2012, only 135 Muslim communities and three Russian Orthodox parishes had been registered, leaving hundreds of mosques, Protestant churches, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna communities unregistered. Reportedly, the SCRA often refused to inform religious organizations why their registration or re-registration was denied. Unregistered religious groups are banned from renting space and holding religious services, although many hold regular services without official interference. As of December 2012, Ahmadi Muslims had gone to court to challenge denials of registration at the local and national levels and Jehovah's Witnesses had taken consistent state registration denials to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The law also allows the government to examine any religious materials, including in libraries and imported literature which must also be examined by the National Security Service. The law also restricts distribution of religious materials to a religious group's legal property, or in places allocated by local authorities. Under the religion law, local cemeteries are controlled by local officials who often deny non- Muslims burial sites. The 2009 law also bans involvement of minors in religious groups, "insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another (proselytism)," and undefined "illegal missionary activity." It allows for the teaching in public schools of religious courses only if the state deems them mainstream.

During the its Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, the Kyrgyz government agreed to review the 2009 law, but it has not done so. Yet, during the reporting period, the Kyrgyz parliament considered amendments to the 2009 law that would: authorize the National Security Services to request assistance from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Spiritual Board of Muslims in examinations of religious literature; require state permission to send students for foreign religious education; and require a state license for all foreigners exercising freedom of religion or belief. Additionally, in January 2013, new and higher administrative penalties for violations of religion laws were part of proposed Justice Ministry amendments to the Kyrgyz code of administrative offenses, Forum 18 reported.


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