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Religious Freedom Worsens in the Post-Soviet Space

(Washington, DC-- December 21, 2005) Religious freedom in the post-Soviet space has worsened over the past few years, according to three experts on the subject. Catherine Cosman, Felix Corley and John Kinahan told an RFE/RL audience last week that religious communities continue their struggle to practice their faith, despite ever more stringent controls on the practice of religion in many of the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union.

Cosman, a Senior Policy Analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor religious freedom in other countries and advise the US government on how best to promote it, said that Russians have had more freedom to practice their respective religions since the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Cosman said, the Russian Orthodox Church often receives preferential treatment from the Russian government, while other religions face harsh restrictions. She noted that the adherents of such government-designated "traditional" religions as Judaism and Islam still face hostility at the local level, which includes violence and the arrest of clergy and members. According to Cosman, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship are often vandalized, but the perpetrators of these crimes are rarely prosecuted. Cosman also noted that 50,000 skinheads live in more than 80 Russian cities, where "they promote and act upon their anti-semitic views."

Corley, Editor of the Forum 18 News Service, highlighted "four religious rights, which people in the post-Soviet space are denied." These are: conducting worship; having a place of worship; avoiding government interference in religious practice; and the absence of censorship of religious literature. In a country like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, with their "Soviet heritage of atheism," Corley said, the government fears religion because it "fears institutions that can't be controlled." Corley added that "religious freedom exists only in a democracy... democracy is needed to have religious freedom."

Forum 18 News Service Assistant Editor John Kinahan agreed with his colleague that "religious freedom does not stand alone" and stressed that "all faiths and belief systems have the right to be defended" under international obligations such as the Helsinki Act. Kinahan also said that no evidence exists that those involved in the Andijon uprising were Muslim extremists. The problem, according to Kinahan, is that the Uzbek regime does not define the term extremism, and because the term is vague it can easily be used as a tool against many Muslims in Uzbekistan.

Archived audio of this briefing can be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats.