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Chairman Daniel Mark at CSCE Briefing on Religious Freedom Violations in the OSCE Region: Victims and Perpetrators


 Chairman Daniel Mark
 U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom

Chairman Daniel Mark, The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Briefing
November 15, 2017 


Thank you to my friend and role model, Mr. Hurd, and thank you to the Helsinki Commission, particularly the chairman and cochairman, Senator Wicker and Representative Smith, for holding a briefing on this very important topic. My name is Daniel Mark, and I am the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, as we’re known.

A quick word about USCIRF: USCIRF was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act, commonly known as IRFA. IRFA also created the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom as well as the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. We are very pleased that President Trump has nominated Governor Brownback to that position and hope the Senate ends the delays and swiftly confirms him to this critical position.

We at USCIRF are tasked by Congress to monitor and review religious freedom abroad and make policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. As part of our mandate, we recommend countries for designation by the State Department as Countries of Particular Concern, or CPCs. In April, along with the release of our annual report, we recommended 16 countries for designation as CPCs because we believe they meet the legal standard of perpetrating or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of international religious freedom.

Religious freedom in the OSCE region is always a concern for USCIRF, but it is at the forefront of my mind because I just returned from Uzbekistan last week. My fellow commissioner John Ruskay, USCIRF Policy Analyst Andrew Kornbluth, and I had a very productive week there, and I’ll say more about it later.

USCIRF currently monitors a number of OSCE countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. My remarks today will be limited to the OSCE countries USCIRF reports on, not the entire collection of 57 nations.

The OSCE members which we recommended as CPCs are Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The State Department agrees and has designated Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as CPCs, and new designations have not been made since we first recommended Russia this past April.

We encourage the State Department to make its CPC designations in line with our recommendations, which are based on a careful review of all available information about the religious freedom situation in each country.

I must add that the State Department missed Monday’s legislatively mandated deadline for designating CPCs. Secretary Tillerson made an excellent statement-bold and thorough-with the release of the State Department’s international religious freedom report three months ago, and we hope he will follow up his strong rhetoric with timely CPC designations, in turn to be followed by appropriate steps by the administration pursuant to those designations.

USCIRF also has a Tier 2 that includes countries that have severe violations and that meet at least one element of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard. Within the OSCE region, our Tier 2 includes Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Unfortunately, we at USCIRF are not optimistic with regard to the outlook for religious freedom in the OSCE countries we monitor. Generally speaking, the trend has been toward authoritarian governments imposing more written and unwritten restrictions on expressions of religion. These restrictions are arbitrarily and capriciously enforced by courts that are not independent of the executive branch in their respective countries. Punishments range from police harassment and fines in the mildest cases to effective life imprisonment and death in prison by torture or starvation the most severe.

Uzbekistan, which has long been designated as a CPC by the State Department, is the one OSCE country reported on by USCIRF that currently seems to offer hope for improvement although, as I will explain later, USCIRF is still waiting for further evidence of much needed reforms.

The religious freedom conditions in the OSCE countries monitored by USCIRF are similar in part because of their shared legacy of Soviet communist government. In the Soviet Union, all social and political movements not affiliated with or endorsed by the state were subject to constant scrutiny and repression by the omnipresent security services. Moreover, the state was officially atheist.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, elements from the security services became the ruling elites in many of the newly independent countries, and they remained deeply hostile to independent social mobilization. At the same time, the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, from the early to mid-1990s, was a time when the restraints on civil society imposed during the Soviet Union were temporarily relaxed as new regimes worked to consolidate their power. In this early period, many citizens of the new republics began renew or reexamine their traditional faiths. Proselytizing movements, both Islamic and Christian, were able to operate relatively freely, connecting adherents to global religious trends and movements.

By the late 1990s, the former Soviet countries viewed the wave of renewed religiosity with growing alarm. The authoritarian regimes, guided by the security services, were also more confident of their strength and ready to reestablish full control over civil society. It was at this time that the legal architecture underpinning the repression of religious belief first began to be formulated. The linchpin was religion laws, which consisted of three key restrictions:

  • the requirement that religious communities register with the government, effectively requiring all religious groups to obtain government sanction for their legal existence;
  • restrictions on the possession and distribution of religious literature;and
  • restrictions on where and how proselytizing could occur, with the aim of stopping or controlling the spread of religious ideas that were not officially approved.

Within a few years, laws on extremism became another widely-used tool for suppressing religious expression. While the OSCE member countries monitored by USCIRF do have legitimate security concerns, their laws define extremism vaguely to permit the suppression of virtually any kind of expression-religious or secular. With the rise of international terrorism, the need to combat radicalism became an even more convenient pretext for shutting down all forms of expression not approved by the government. One of the surest proofs that extremism laws are often less about fighting terrorism than about repressing peaceful expression is the fact that Christian minorities in all of these countries who pose no security threat whatsoever are persecuted under these same statues.

Indeed, legitimate security concerns notwithstanding, these laws are often little more than legal excuses for the governments to take whatever actions they want against any individual or group they want.

It is these religion laws the misuse of extremism laws that most concern USCIRF in the OSCE member countries we report on, along with the corresponding arrests, torture, and imprisonments that result. A review of these countries shows that, for the most part, religious freedom conditions are only getting worse.

The Russian Federation, which in many ways inspired or pioneered the use of religion and extremism laws to suppress freedom of religion, has doubled won on religious repression. As every here is likely aware, this year saw the banning by the Russian Supreme Court of the Witnesses as a supposedly “extremist” organization. While many observers wondered why Russia would target the 175,000 strong community of Witnesses, it fits a pattern of suspicion of the community dating back to the Soviet period. In addition, it is consistent with an effort on the part of the Russian security services to prove their success against extremism by going after a minority community incapable of resisting.

The year before, in the name of combating proselytism, Russia also passed a law that effectively criminalized all forms of religious speech. Currently, one member of the Witnesses and five Scientologists are being held in pre-trial detention, while dozens of Muslims are serving prison terms for peaceful religious expression or, in some cases, on fabricated terrorism charges. In the occupied Crimea peninsula, Russia continues to persecute the native Crimean Tatar population, which it distrusts because of its Muslim identity and loyalty to the Ukrainian state.

Turkmenistan is perhaps the most egregious offender among the OSCE countries in our roster. Religious prisoners disappear into the notorious desert prison of Ovadan-Depe, where they are held incommunicado under horrific conditions. One religious prisoner who died in the prison in 2016 is said to have weighed only fifty-five pounds at the time of his death. No wonder then that another observant Muslim is believed to have committed suicide in December 2016 rather than face arrest and imprisonment in Ovadan-Depe.

In Tajikistan, the government’s persecution of Muslims and Christians alike has become more zealous and has shown no signs of relaxing. This year, a Christian pastor was sentenced to three years for extremism, a teenage Witness conscientious objector received six months in jail, and Buzurgmehr Yorov, the lawyer for the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, was sentenced to more than twenty years in prison, where, reportedly, he is being tortured regularly. In addition, the government has launched new campaigns interfering in everything from the wearing of hijabs to the food served at wedding banquets.

With regard to Kazakhstan, USCIRF was deeply disappointed by the decision of that government to raid Witness Kingdom Halls only days after a meeting between government representatives and USCIRF. Kazakhstan’s parliament is currently considering a number of changes to the laws which may lead to further tightening of controls over religious life. This year the government also gave the Witnesses a three-month ban on religious activity, and a member of their community who is ill with cancer was sentenced to five years in prison, allegedly for proselytism.

In Kazakhstan, USCIRF also is concerned that campaigns against Salafism mask attempts to repress political unrest more generally. I emphasize again that USCIRF understands that many of the countries we follow have legitimate security concerns. Security and religious freedom are not mutually exclusive, however.

USCIRF is guardedly optimistic about the situation for religious freedom in Uzbekistan, particularly since our trip there. Although Uzbekistan has long been regarded as a severe violator of religious freedom, the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has relaxed longstanding restrictions on the majority   Sunni Muslim population. In many circles there is real optimism.

That being said, the continuing atmosphere of fear and intimidation among Uzbek Christians-and others-is palpable. Registration of religious groups and the possession of religious literature are tightly controlled, and policies such as registration are used as tools to surveil and harass believers. Intimidation, arrest, and torture remain a constant fear for both proselytizing Christian groups and those who, for whatever reason, have the misfortune of attracting the attention of the police. Moreover, thousands of Uzbek Muslims continue to serve long prison sentences on trumped-up or fabricated charges.

While we are hopeful about the future, USCIRF also whishes for the Uzbek government to be more forthcoming and transparent about substantive reforms to the architecture of religious control in the country.

In conclusion, USCIRF calls on all OSCE countries to adhere to international standards of religious freedom. Although the bright spots are few and far between, we remain hopeful that even the most egregious violators will change their practices for the better, and we are ready to engage in dialogue with all OSCE members who whish to do so.

Thank you.