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Religious liberty problems remain in Russia, Land says in Moscow

WASHINGTON (BP)–Important problems remain unresolved regarding religious liberty in Russia, Southern Baptist church-state leader Richard Land said at a recent conference in Moscow.

Speaking as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Land said the advisory panel has noted “several positive steps” by Russian officials, including judges, in protecting religious liberty. “Yet, significant problems remain,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

According to a text of Land’s speech at the conference on “Religion, Politics and Human Rights,” those issues noted by the commission include:

— More than 2,000 religious groups face “liquidation” for failing to re-register under the 1997 Religion Law, which requires religious organizations to register with the government. “Dozens of groups have already been liquidated, including several that apparently are actively functioning,” Land said.

— Newly proposed laws and amendments to the 1997 law “will inevitably restrict religious freedom or result in discrimination on the basis of religion” if enacted, Land said. Several USCIRF members, including Land, visited Belgium and France the previous week and found similar laws were “creating an atmosphere of intolerance, an apparatus of discrimination and an increasing suppression of religious freedom,” he said.

— Policies and practices at the local and regional levels have been adopted that are more restrictive than the 1997 law and have interfered with the religious expression of some groups. “Finding an effective method of disciplining local officials for human rights violations or bringing regional laws and practices into line with constitutional human rights guarantees is a difficult but essential task in any federal democracy,” Land said.

— Foreign missionaries and other religious workers have had problems with visas, residence and citizenship.

— Extremists have targeted Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities for mistreatment.

— There have been calls for a closer relationship between the Russian Federation and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Land’s speech, which was endorsed by all the commissioners as an official USCIRF statement, cited the following among recommendations made by the panel for U.S. policy with Russia:

— The United States should continue to monitor religious liberty in Russia and to voice concerns to the highest officials in the government. “The commission believes that the responsiveness of the Putin government to U.S. concerns regarding religious freedom is an important indicator of Russia’s commitment to uphold its international human rights obligations,” Land said. Vladimir Putin is the Russian president.

— Congress should extend a measure prohibiting foreign aid to the Russian Federation unless the U.S. president verifies the government has not implemented a law that discriminates against religious bodies in violation of international human rights pacts.

— The United States should endorse the actions of organizations in Russia that defend freedom of religion in the courts.

The USCIRF has acknowledged in its annual reports the last two years that Russia “is at an important moment in its development as a democratic country that respects religious freedom,” Land said. “The relationships between the Russian state and its religious communities — as well as the relationships between Russia’s many religious groups — have not been fully formed. We understand that these issues are hotly debated in Russia. The outcome of that debate — in other words, how relationships are expressed in the laws and official policies in Russia — will be critical to laying the foundations for protecting religious freedom and other human rights.”

The USCIRF, which began its work in 1999, made Russia one of its initial countries to research because of its influence in Europe and Central Asia, the uncertainty of religious liberty after implementation of the 1997 law and the increasingly close relationship between Russia and the United States, Land told the audience.

“The international campaign against terrorism has brought the [countries] even closer together,” he said. “From the commission’s point of view, this provides more opportunities to talk and to deepen the exchange over human rights issues. At the same time, however, cooperation on terrorism presents a challenge. It presents a challenge to the respect for human rights and, in particular, to religious freedom.

“Fighting terrorism is an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to rule of law and human rights, rather than an excuse to abuse them,” Land said.

The commission has expressed its concerns about the war against terrorism. It wrote President Bush shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11 to urge him not to compromise the United States’ commitment to human rights, including religious liberty, in building an anti-terrorism coalition, Land said.

Land spoke March 18, the first day of a three-day conference at the Russian Academy of State Service in Moscow. The academy and the Brigham Young University Center for Law and Religion Studies were among the sponsors of the event.

Other speakers included Russian public policy officials, academics and religious leaders, as well as American church-state specialists.

The USCIRF consists of nine members appointed by the president and congressional leaders who are charged with researching religious liberty issues in foreign countries and making policy recommendations to the White House and Congress. Bush named Land to the panel in September.