WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two years ago today, Russia unlawfully annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, cynically using the Orthodox “culture, civilization, and human values” that Russia and Ukraine supposedly share to justify this invasion. On this anniversary, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reiterates its concern about Russian authorities’ violations of religious freedom in Crimea, and urges the international community to take a stand against these abuses.
“The human rights and religious freedom situation in Crimea has deteriorated dramatically since the illegal March 2014 Russian occupation,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George. “Religious minority communities, particularly Muslim Crimean Tatars, suffer because of Russia’s application of its more restrictive criminal and administrative codes, notably its onerous registration requirements and notorious anti-extremism law.”
No religious community remains unscathed, particularly given the Kremlin’s application of its extremism law in Crimea. Russian authorities have raided Tatar homes, mosques, media outlets, and schools, and the Kingdom Halls of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They also have detained imams and fined individuals simply for possessing Islamic and Jehovah’s Witness text which are banned under the extremism law. Twelve Crimean Tatars, accused by Russian authorities of being members of a banned terrorist organization, were arrested in February 2016 after speaking with international human rights monitors about the repression of Tatars in Crimea.
In order to gain legal operating status, Russia requires all Crimean religious communities registered with the Ukrainian state to re-register under Russia’s more stringent requirements. Of the over 1,500 religious communities with Ukrainian legal status, only 400 were re-registered under Russian authority. Unregistered religious groups, including the Ukrainian Catholic Church – banned by the Kremlin 70 years ago – and Armenian Apostolic parishes, cannot open bank accounts, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, and publish literature. In view of the Kremlin’s hostility, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate did not even apply for registration.
“Russia has spread its net of intolerance to Crimea and freedom of religion or belief has been its victim. The international community must not be silent in the face of these abuses,” said Chairman George. “Moscow must reform its anti-extremism law, cease its application to Crimea, grant legal status to the 1,500 religious groups that operated before the Russian annexation, and stop harassing religious minorities and those the Moscow Patriarchate views as rivals. USCIRF also urges the U.S. government to apply provisions of the Magnitsky Act and continue to identify Russian government officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom and human rights, freeze their assets, and bar their entry into the United States.”
USCIRF placed Russia on its Tier 2 list in its 2015 Annual Report. Tier 2 countries are those in which the violations the government engages in or tolerates are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of IRFA’s “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” standard. For more information, see the Russia chapter in USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report.
To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-786-0615.