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Experts: Eurasian Governments Manipulating Religious Institutions for Political Gain

(Washington, D.C.--October 15, 2004) The governments of Russia and Uzbekistan manipulate religious institutions in their respective countries in effort to secure support for themselves, according to two experts on the subject. Lawrence Uzzell, President of International Religious Freedom Watch, and Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement, agreed during a briefing yesterday at RFE/RL's Washington office that the major religious confessions of Russia and Uzbekistan accommodate themselves to state control with the hope of recovering previously confiscated religious property and to bolster their own influence on society.

In Russia, Uzzell said, "the Kremlin is getting more skillful" at using the Russian Orthodox Church for political advantage, as well as demonstrating a "growing ability to manipulate all religions." President Vladimir Putin recently had his first meeting in four years with Russia's "Inter-Religious Cooperation Council," which adopted a statement on global terrorism nearly identical to that of the Kremlin, Uzzell said, and endorsed Putin's proposal for a new chamber within the Federation Council. Uzzell asserted that the Kremlin continues to pursue a policy of "divide and rule" towards religious confessions, as demonstrated by the fact that some denominations, such as the Russian Baptist Union, are not members.

Seiple noted that the people of Uzbekistan have depended on strong central leadership for their survival for centuries. According to Seiple, a "seamlessness" has grown up between religion and culture and the state since Islam was brought to the country in the 7th century--"To be Uzbek, is to be Muslim." As a result, Seiple said, it is not surprising that the current Uzbek government has "harnessed Islam" to lend "legitimacy to the state and nation-building." While acknowledging that the lack of viable political parties allows Islamist movements to draw strength from the social grievances of the Uzbek people, Seiple cautioned that, without the Karimov government's crackdown on Islamic fundamentalism, "Uzbekistan would be like Northwest Pakistan."

In addition to seeking to control the religious establishment in their respective countries, Uzzell and Seiple agreed that both presidents use religion to burnish the image they project to their citizens. For example, Uzzell said, Putin "[did] not acknowledge a higher being when asked about his religious beliefs" during a September 2000 appearance on the U.S. television program "Larry King Live," but is frequently seen in photographs in front of religious institutions and while meeting with religious authorities.

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