WORLD: US delegation at the OSCE denounces religious repression in the OSCE space
US Delegation qt the OSCE (06.10.2023) – At the Warsaw Human Conference, the US delegation made the following statement as prepared for delivery by Daniel L. Nadel, Principal Deputy to the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Warsaw, on 6 October 2023.
Freedom of religion continues to be severely restricted in some OSCE participating States.
In November of 2022, Secretary Blinken again designated Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
Under Putin, Russia’s government systematically targets, imprisons, tortures, and seizes property from people because of their religious identity, practice, or affiliation. The government has designated religious groups not aligned with the Kremlin as “extremist,” “terrorist,” or “undesirable” without credible evidence, including Pentecostal groups, Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and followers of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. In 2022 alone, there were reportedly 93 criminal convictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Russia also targets religious groups in parts of Ukraine it occupies, particularly Crimean Tatar Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
We remain concerned about restrictions on religious practices in Tajikistan, including restrictions on the participation of women and minors in religious services, rejection of the registration applications of minority religious organizations, and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature. We welcome the release of a Jehovah’s Witness, but the community continues to report persecution.
Although we welcomed Turkmenistan’s release in 2021 of 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been imprisoned as conscientious objectors, the government has not provided alternatives to military service compatible with their beliefs. Additionally, members of some religious groups continue to face harassment and some religious organizations report registration and re-registration are challenging due to excessive bureaucratic requirements. Although some religious groups reported improvements in the religious freedom climate over the last year, this easing of restrictions against religious groups is not reflected by new laws or official policy.
The government of Uzbekistan continues to curtail religious freedom despite promises to eliminate restrictions. The government still prevents registration of religious communities, and vaguely worded extremism-related charges, and ignores allegations of abuse in custody.
A 2021 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations retains restrictive and rights- violating provisions and is inconsistent with international human rights law.
In Azerbaijan, religious observance is tightly regulated by the government, and state persecution has continued against some non-state-aligned religious communities, including both Shia and Sunni Muslim communities. The “Law on Freedom of Religious Beliefs,” amended in 2021 and 2022, expanded the state’s already extensive control over religious organizations in the country. We are also concerned by reports of the detention of hundreds of Shia religious believers this year, allegedly for drug possession or distribution.
Among all the other excuses the Lukashenka regime in Belarus has come up with to crack down on the pro-democracy movement and civil society, it prohibits religious activities that it claims undermine “civic harmony.”
Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic continue to employ legislation to monitor religious activities. All religious groups, both registered and unregistered, report that security forces monitor their activities and fear that the government could penalize them at any point. Sunni Muslims continue to face widespread state targeting for their religious activities.
Elsewhere in the OSCE region …
Proposed or enacted laws in some participating States banning religious attire, religious animal slaughter, and circumcision threaten the viability of Muslim, Jewish, and other religious communities by restricting their members’ ability to observe their faith, and thus interfere with the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief.
The United States has expressed deep concern for the acts of Quran and other holy book burnings and desecration in several participating States. Such demonstrations could create an environment of intolerance that impacts the ability of Muslims, Jews, and members of other religious groups to freely exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. We commend Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and others for their strong advocacy of both national security and human rights, which together ensure safe and prosperous countries, in their response to these acts. More work to foster an inclusive environment for members of religious minority groups is needed.
However, efforts to ban or criminalize expression deemed offensive are not an effective means of addressing hatred and intolerance. No matter how disagreeable someone’s speech may be, silencing it often serves as a catalyst for further antagonism. This is why the United States firmly opposes blasphemy laws and other laws that purport to criminalize “insult to religion.” The best way to deal with offensive speech is to counter voices of hate with positive speech. In this spirit we advocate for education and interfaith and intercultural dialogue as part of our commitment to UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and its action plan to combat intolerance based on religion or belief while respecting freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
Turning to the other topics for today’s Working Group, the United States is also concerned about continued, and in some cases intensifying, restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the OSCE region.
In Russia, organizations and individuals designated by the Kremlin under vague and restrictive legislation as “undesirable,” “extremist,” and/or “foreign agents” are subject to restrictions on their work and face potential criminal prosecution. Since the expansion of the law’s scope to include anyone under “foreign influence,” an even greater number of individuals and institutions have now been classified as “foreign agents.” The closures of Memorial Human Rights Center, the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Sova Center for Information and Analysis, and other civil society organizations — as well as the Kremlin’s efforts since February 2022 to prohibit open discussion of its war against Ukraine — demonstrate Putin’s fear that the people of Russia could receive information and views from sources he doesn’t control.
The Lukashenka regime in Belarus has continued its full-scale repression of the pro- democracy movement and civil society, banning all independent labor unions and shutting down nearly all civil society organizations, including the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, claiming they were “extremist” organizations. This is an unacceptable blow to freedom of association. Peaceful protestors still cannot assemble without fear of arrest and/or violent dispersion. The authorities continue to prosecute peaceful participants of the 2020 protests. Belarus enacted regulatory amendments to allow the police to use combat weapons and special military equipment to disperse public protests.
Azerbaijan’s government continues to restrict freedom of peaceful assembly and association, with conditions that amount to a de facto ban on assembly. For example, authorities have responded to peaceful protests by using force against, or detaining, protesters. While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continues to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission rather than merely prior notification.
Georgia’s Parliament is considering amendments that would restrict freedom of assembly. The 2023 Tbilisi Pride festival was shut down by violent right-wing extremists despite the government’s insistence that it would secure the festival. In addition, Georgian authorities have not held the organizers of the 2021 Pride-related violence accountable.
In Serbia, this year’s Pride Events in Belgrade — by some estimates the largest ever held in the city — were incident-free, in stark contrast to the tumultuous weeks that preceded Belgrade’s hosting of EuroPride 2022.
In Turkiye, severe restrictions of freedoms of peaceful assembly and association include overly restrictive laws regarding government oversight of nongovernmental organizations. In addition, the United States is gravely concerned about the fate of Osman Kavala, a civic activist who was sentenced to life in prison ostensibly for supporting anti-government protests. The European Court of Human Rights found that Mr. Kavala was wrongfully convicted and that his arrest was an attempt to “silence him and dissuade other human rights defenders.”