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Foreign Affairs -- Losing Their Religion in Crimea

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April 15, 2015 | By: Thomas J. Reese and Daniel I. Mark

The following op-ed appeared in Foreign Affairs on April 15, 2015

“Our people survived [deportation by] Stalin,” commented a manager of ATR, which, until April 1, was the only Crimean Tatar television station left. “Will they not survive these current problems?” Russian authorities had just shut it down—along with other media outlets—by refusing to register it under Moscow’s complex religion laws.

Shutting down the station was only the latest affront. A year after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, much has changed—and not for the better—for the peninsula’s three million people, particularly its 300,000 Muslim Crimean Tatars who are among its original inhabitants. Reports of human rights abuses in Crimea, including violations of freedom of religion or belief, abound. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, is observing in Crimea what it has long seen in Russia: The abuse of religious communities, including those the Kremlin views as threatening the pre-eminence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate.

Once Russia took military control, it ordered all of Crimea’s 1,500 religious groups to register with Moscow in order to gain Russian legal operating status. Russian officials are permitted to make lengthy requests for comprehensive information, so the registration process can be onerous and costly. And the stakes for registration are high: Unregistered groups lack the status to open bank accounts, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, and publish literature.

Moscow is applying all of its restrictive laws in Crimea, including its anti-extremism law, which defines extremism as merely asserting the superiority of one’s religious beliefs and does not require the threat or use of violence for prosecution. This law, which USCIRF, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, and other organizations have repeatedly called on Moscow to reform, remains a major threat to religious freedom in Russia. And now it has come to Crimea, and Kremlin-installed local authorities are using it to persecute religious minorities.

For example, there have been numerous raids on Muslim homes, mosques, and schools, and on Kingdom Halls of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Moscow views as a “nontraditional” religious group outside of Russian culture. Crimean authorities have imposed fines for possessing Islamic and Jehovah’s Witness texts. Authorities have also accused the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar representative body, of extremism, and have harassed its members and sealed its office.

In addition, they have ordered nearly all Turkish Muslim imams and religious teachers to leave Crimea and have barred two Crimean Tatar Muslim leaders from entry. And after they shut down ATR, Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, wrote an open letter of protest to Russia’s communications minister and to the head of the Russian occupation in Crimea. 

Crimea’s Jewish community is also feeling the heat. In March of last year, Reform Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin of Simferopol was forced to leave Crimea after denouncing Russian actions. His synagogue had been defaced by a swastika and, a month later, vandals defaced Sevastopol’s monument to 4,200 Jews killed by the Nazis in July 1942. 

And even Christian churches and leaders who are not affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate have come under increasing pressure, facing abuse and violence. Last June, the leader of the Salvation Army in Crimea, left the peninsula after reporting repeated harassment by security agents. By late 2014, clergy without Russian citizenship, particularly Greek and Roman Catholics and those belonging to the Kiev Patriarchate, were compelled to leave Crimea, and the home of the Kiev Patriarchate’s Bishop of Simferopol and Crimea, Klyment Kushch, was burned down. 

What is happening in Crimea today bodes ill for eastern Ukraine. In the Donbas region, which Russian-backed separatists already control, a 4,000-man group known as the Russian Orthodox Army, which was headed by a former Russian military intelligence officer, reportedly has been attacking Protestant and Kiev Patriarchate communities and confiscating their property.

There is no question that Russia bears the responsibility. It instituted discriminatory laws at home, and those spread to Crimea. The question is what can be done about the problem. Certainly the international community should continue to demand that Russia withdraw from Ukraine. It also must renew its calls on Moscow to reform its anti-extremism law, and to stop using it to harass religious minorities and the Moscow Patriarchate’s Orthodox rivals. And supporters of the Moscow Patriarchate must ask themselves whether their church ultimately benefits when it is seen as a tool of Russian repression. And with the shutdown of most media outlets in Crimea, including nearly all Crimean Tatar media, the United States and other nations should step up broadcasting into Crimea and especially to Crimean Tatars.

The world must remember Crimea’s religious communities and defend the religious freedom of their members.

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