Setting Sights Higher on Religious Freedom

Washington is bureaucratizing the cause of human rights — for both good and ill, as one can see in the U.S. State Department’s latest annual report on worldwide religious freedom, released in the latter half of December. Bureaucracies can be superb at collecting information, and simply by publishing catalogues of specific abuses they deter abusers and encourage victims. But government reports, produced by compromises between bureaucratic factions, are less adept at creative analysis. They tend to fall back on standard formulas, repeating them every year rather than providing new insights into the changing dynamics of repression. They often flinch from telling hard truths.

Religious freedom, tolerance, and intolerance

Note: While there are some areas for legitimate concern with regard to religious freedom, the U.S. government – with its track record of double standards where human rights issues are concerned – has shown itself to be unfit when it comes to addressing these concerns.

One huge problem the U.S. Government has, is its unqualified support for destructive cults such as the so-called “church” of Scientology, and quasi-political/religious gangs such as Mungiki

For example, the new report’s section on Russia states that “there was no change in the overall status of respect for religious freedom” during the period it covers — the year 2002. Contradicting that conclusion are facts that the report itself acknowledges. It provides a commendable wealth of detail on expulsions of foreign clergy and missionaries, but fails to state explicitly that such expulsions have sharply increased in recent years.

The year 2002 was dramatically worse for Roman Catholic clergy than any previous year since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the expulsion of one bishop and four priests. In essence, 2002 was the year when the Roman Catholics abruptly caught up with the Protestants as targets of religious repression — but the State Department report fails to make this clear, or to make any serious attempt to analyze the reasons why.

The report cites the groundbreaking research of Geraldine Fagan, now Moscow correspondent of the Forum 18 News Service, but fails to share her finding that the number of known cases of expulsions of foreign Protestant missionaries in 2002 alone was about the same as the total for the previous four years combined.

Combining Fagan’s data and other sources, Mark Elliott of Samford University recently estimated “a current total of 84 known expulsions of foreign religious workers (1997-2003), including 54 Protestants, 15 Muslims, seven Catholics, three Buddhists, three Mormons, and two Jehovah’s Witnesses.” He stressed that “these totals undoubtedly are incomplete because of the desire of many to avoid publicity.” Nor do they include missionaries who have suffered lesser forms of harassment such as finding that they are stuck in Moscow, barred from returning to the provinces where they had been serving.

In carefully neutral language, the State Department’s report notes that Russian officials often cited “state security” as the justification for expulsions. It fails to make clear, however, that they consistently failed to provide any evidence for that vague allegation. When bureaucrats make a habit of patently false, sensational charges against vulnerable minorities, outside observers — even diplomats — should explicitly state that those charges are false.

On the other hand, the report provides a useful summary of the draft report by a Russian government task force on “religious extremism,” leaked to the press in December 2002.

It correctly observes that this draft “appeared to reflect the types of concerns that prompted government actions in a number of visa and registration cases” — such as the view that Roman Catholics are a prime security threat. Unfortunately, the State Department fails to mention an essential piece of context: a policy document on national security issued by Vladimir Putin himself in January 2000, warning against “foreign religious organizations and missionaries” as tools for “the cultural-religious expansion of neighboring states into Russian territory.”

Indeed, one of the report’s striking features is that every specific reference to Putin is either neutral or positive — mostly the latter. It is as if U.S. officials have accepted the old Russian view of the tsar himself as being above criticism, no matter how oppressive his ministers.

The report deserves credit for focusing on repression of Muslims, an issue sometimes neglected in the past. It rightly highlights the demagogic use of the term “Wahhabi” to smear a broad range of Muslim groups no matter what their actual beliefs. It lists specific government actions such as Sochi’s refusal to let that city’s Muslims build a new mosque, and also positive steps such as a court decision allowing Muslim women to wear head-scarves in their passport photos.

But on some other indigenous minorities, especially those without vocal co-religionists in America, the State Department continues to be unsatisfactory. As in past reports, the Old Believers and the unregistered initsiativniki Baptists are barely mentioned. The latter especially have suffered more in recent years than mainstream Protestant groups — but since they are not partners of well-connected groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s evangelical Protestant lobbyists are not interested. Human rights advocates should defend the weakest of the oppressed, not just those with the best legal and public-relations machines.

Another flaw is the report’s excessive emphasis on “tolerance” and “interfaith dialogue.” These may be good things, but they are not identical to religious freedom and can even undermine it. When the state promotes feel-good ecumenical meetings in which groups with radically different belief systems are coached to avoid offending each other, it marginalizes those who oppose ecumenism out of strong conviction and who just want to be left alone. Unlike America’s culture, Russia’s takes ultimate metaphysical questions seriously; the challenge for Russians is to find ways to disagree about such questions without enslaving each other, not to smother disagreements under U.S.-style political correctness.

Finally, the State Department report fails to use the word “corruption” even once. Admittedly this is a difficult topic to investigate — but in church-state relations, as elsewhere in Russian life, it is crucial. For example, the Salvation Army’s refusal to pay a bribe in 2001 was one of the major reasons for its subsequent difficulties with Moscow officialdom.

Russia is not a militant persecutor like China. It does not penalize individuals simply for praying at home or attending worship services, though it denies some groups the right to disseminate their beliefs in public.

Nor is it a theocracy: There is almost no correlation between a religious minority’s disagreement with Orthodox Christian teachings and its likelihood of suffering repression. Overall, Moscow’s current agenda is not so much ideological as bureaucratic: It does not chain religious leaders but leashes them, keeping them dependent on the state and intimidated from speaking out on issues such as Chechnya.

To understand that agenda we need deeper, more nuanced analysis. The State Department needs to raise its sights.

Lawrence A. Uzzell, president of International Religious Freedom Watch, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Moscow Times, Russian Federation
Jan. 12, 2004
Lawrence A. Uzzell

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 12, 2004.
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