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Worldwide religious freedom still distant

By Lawrence A. Uzzell

President of International Religious Freedom Watch

Though the power of the United States government to export freedom is limited – as we are learning in Iraq – Washington retains enormous influence as a watchdog and truthteller. The State Department’s annual reports on topics such as religious persecution, with their country-by-country surveys, get far more attention from the alleged persecutors and their victims than from Americans.

Unfortunately the department’s latest report, released this month, tends to confirm the view that Washington is reluctant to tell the truth about its own allies – or even countries with which it would like to be allies. Unlike last year, when the State Department belatedly added Saudi Arabia to its formal list of “countries of particular concern,” this year it added not one new country. Nearly unanimous appeals by independent human rights experts, and even by its own advisory commission, to label Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan accurately as two of the world’s grossest violators of religious freedom were rejected.

These two Central Asian states are in some ways more tyrannical today than they were 15 years ago as parts of the dying Soviet Union. Uzbekistan has launched a new wave of persecution since its brutal suppression in May of an uprising in the eastern city of Andijon, including police raids on its Protestant minority which had no connection with the Andijon events. In practice it denies state registration to new religious congregations other than those of Jews or of state-controlled Muslim clergy, while treating unregistered religious activity as a criminal offense. It indiscriminately arrests young men whose sole offense is belonging to any independent Muslim group, and tortures them to confess that they are terrorists.

A year ago it was obvious why the US government was treating Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov with kid gloves: The Pentagon wanted to continue using an air base near Afghanistan. But it turned out that Mr. Karimov valued the alliance less than President Bush did. After Washington called for an independent investigation into the Andijon massacre, Karimov expelled the US Air Force. Bush now has the worst of both worlds: He has lost both the military alliance and the chance to use that alliance to pressure Karimov for reforms.

The department’s treatment of Turkmenistan is even more egregious. Its report states that Turkmenistan’s government “continues to monitor all forms of religious expression” – “restrict” or “control” would have been a much more accurate description. The report goes so far as to claim, falsely, that Turkmenistan has no religious prisoners.

Turkmenistan’s dictator Saparmurat Niyazov enforces a personality cult that amounts to a pseudoreligion. His officials systematically force citizens to revere the Rukhnama, two volumes of “spiritual thoughts” written by Mr. Niyazov himself, on a par with the Bible and the Koran. Both Muslim and Christian clergy have been ordered to display it in their places of worship and to quote from it in their sermons. This banal narcissistic work even occupies a growing place in school and university curricula – at the expense of subjects such as science and literature.

Last year Niyazov adopted some legal changes that have turned out to be almost meaningless in practice. For example, he finally agreed to register some congregations of Turkmenistan’s tiny Baptist minority – but his secret police still mount raids even on registered congregations.

As noted by the advisory US Commission on International Religious Freedom, “religious groups continue to require permission from the state before holding worship services of any kind, making it unclear what – if any – practical benefits registration actually provides.” Sadly, the State Department report encourages the illusion that cosmetic changes amount to genuine reform.

The State Department pays too little attention to some of Turkmenistan’s deeply rooted, indigenous minority faiths such as the Shiite Muslims and the Armenian Apostolic Church. It similarly slights historic Russian minorities, such as Orthodox Christians who have split from the dominant Moscow Patriarchate and the unregistered initsiativniki Baptists who have little contact with US denominations. The report thus plays into the hands of Russian ultranationalists who claim that America’s interest in religious freedom is merely a cloak for imperialism, for helping only religions newly introduced by Western missionaries.

As a tool for prodding the consciences of authoritarian rulers, the US report on religious persecution should be continuing to improve as its writers gain more sophistication in understanding the changing dynamics of repression. Instead, it is often coasting, often repeating the same language from one year to the next. The State Department needs to raise its sights.