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Former and Current Communist Countries PDF Print E-mail

Peter Juviler
Columbia University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

y first point is that in communist countries right now, although we can emphasize the restrictions on religion, the current situation is not so much a threat to religious freedom as much as a threat from growing religious freedom. That growing religious freedom is in part de facto—freedom that is grasped and exercised by believers—and in part due to a series of small, grudging concessions by governments.

For example, the Cuban government recently recognized the possibility of Jehovah’s Witnesses having meetings at a central office in Havana and a publication, which is a very big step forward in Cuba. In China, where despite all the restrictions both recognized and non-recognized religious communities are growing, one of the human rights reports made the point that the threat is seen from religion, not to religion. Government and party officials perceive religious gatherings as a challenge to their authority, a threat to public order, and an alternative to socialist thought. That point should not be forgotten.

Of course, many of the threats to religious freedom, which were outlined by Pedro Moreno and Lee Boothby, take place outside communist countries and in countries where we would least expect it, including the most advanced, industrialized, so-called developed countries.

My topic today, however, is about one particular part of the world, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. My talk is going to be a little bit less specific than the preceding talks and perhaps, but I do want to share these points with you.

Who are the protagonists in this drama of struggle over religious freedom and limits of religious freedom? Most of you could put yourself in the place of the first three protagonists, but you probably would not want to imagine yourself being the fourth protagonist. The first protagonist is people who are active members of religious groups that are proponents of religious freedom. How many here would put yourselves in that category? Hold up your hands. There are many of you. Thank you.

The next exercise in stretching is to think about human rights advocates who may have been, shall we say, neglectful. Willy Fautre of Human Rights Without Frontiers, who is Belgian, has pointed out that human rights NGOs have tended to add to their list of mandates a whole series of specific rights—women’s rights, children’s rights, corporations, and so on. The list has been gradually broadening but omits religion. Just look at the latest Human Rights World Report. Religion as a major human rights issue is not yet in those reports. Until recently, I myself and probably several others were guilty of this omission, but recently we have been converted to the idea that religion is important.

That brings us to the third group, the uniters. At first I called them collaborators, but that sounds like you may be collaborating with oppression. Uniters are people who are in religious organizations that are concerned with religious freedom and human rights people who have come around to join them in the view that these freedoms are important. It was mentioned earlier that in its decision of March 25, 1993, in the Kokkinakis case, the European Court of Human Rights mentioned that freedom of religion is one of the foundations of civil society.

Our students and I have been studying materials on civil society, in which, for example, Galston and Levine talk about church-affiliated groups as the backbone of civil society. The clerics, the group of bishops, in Cuba, on November 1 of last year came out with a statement saying the role of the church in civil society should be allowed to be greater. In a way, then, there is a common stake in religious freedom and human rights.

How many of you here are unifiers, that is people who are both human rights advocates and/or people working in the field of religious freedom who are beginning to collaborate together? Raise your hands. You notice it is a smaller number. But that number must increase. That is one of my messages. I am sure that message is not unwelcome to many of you sitting here. I think you can collaborate across religious lines and across lines of specialization. Religion and human rights really are so closely related.

Let me go on to talk about the issues we are dealing with in the post-communist countries—issues that, whatever our protagonist category, we ought to be dealing with. First of all, the blessings of liberty in these countries are not to be underestimated. There have been dramatic changes in a variety of post-communist countries of eastern Europe that should be heartening, as well as discouraging or warning changes.

If you include Lithuania and Latvia, with all their problems, you would have 9 of 13 post-communist countries of eastern Europe with more or less religious freedom in the relative terms we must use regarding any country today. Interestingly enough, the major religious traditions of these countries vary. It could be Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or mixed. The Muslim country is Albania. For all its troubles, Albania is one of the more free countries in religious terms.

If you look at the newly independent states, the 12 countries forming out of the Soviet Union, the record is somewhat less good. Perhaps half of them, with less than half the total population of those countries, could be said to carry out a policy that does more or less recognize religious freedom. Interestingly enough again, the background of those countries is varied. Georgia and Moldova are Orthodox countries, although in Moldova, two Orthodox churches are contesting one another, and the Orthodox church recognizing the Romania patriarchy is having problems. I must admit that. But go outside Moldova and the religions are mixed. Kazakhstan is Muslim, Orthodox, and other Christian. Ukraine is quite mixed. I know there is a ban on proselytizing in Ukraine, but that ban must be something that is more or less exercised, because the statistics are amazing. The number of people who declare themselves believers in some kind of religion in Ukraine grew in five years from 5 percent to 70 percent, because there were a lot of hidden believers. But the number of religious organizations grew in 1990-1995 from 4,500 to 16,000, including a wide range from Christ Church and Unity Church to the Mormons to the Unification Church to Krishna Consciousness.

Finally, another positive sign is that Jewish communities, which were among those bearing the biggest brunt of cultural and religious restrictions under the communists, are today one of the freest communities in these countries. That is true despite manifestations of grassroots anti-Semitism, including the recent bombing of a synagogue in Moscow.

Five of the 14 eastern European post-communist countries can be said to seriously deny religious freedom. In most of them, the Orthodox faith condones this.

In Bosnia, the situation is more complicated because there is no unity yet. One of the biggest violations of the practice of religious freedom is simply the lack of possibility for refugees to visit graveyards and holy places where they used to live but from which ethnic cleansing removed them. None of the major faiths is free of culpability in that area.

Six of the 12 post-Soviet, newly independent states, including Russia with an overwhelming majority of the population, seriously violate religious freedom. In some cases, like Russia, the violations are reminiscent of the three-tiered system of religious discrimination that Christian Brunner will talk about or to which Lee Boothby referred.

Because the law in Russia has already been mentioned, I will be very brief. But the law of September 26 and the whole policy of religious freedom in Russia tends to violate almost all the seven deadly sins to which Lee Boothby referred. You have to have been operating as a religious community for 15 years by the time the law went into effect on October 1 of last year. If you are short of that, then you have to re-register every year until the 15 years are up. You essentially are stripped of your freedom to do all the things that religious organizations might want to do, including holding public religious ceremonies, publishing, and proselytizing.

So there really are three levels in Russia, as there are in Austria. This is more or less true in Bulgaria and certainly the other countries that restrict freedom. There are three levels of religious organizations. In Russia, the Orthodox Church has a special role, recognized in Russian history; then come respected religions such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. However, in their cases the situation is a little more precarious, and there is more likelihood they will have trouble getting their buildings and properties back. The Orthodox Church does enjoy privileges. Third place goes to a whole series of unrecognized religions, some of them evangelical sects, many of which have actually operated within Russia for hundreds of years.

Before I get to the prospects and wind up what all this means, I will try to look at some of the underlying motivations. If we are going to try to join forces and unify in an attempt to reduce the threat to religious freedom, I think it is a good idea to begin to understand how complex and deep this phenomenon is. Sometimes the real motivation is that the people believe in themselves, and they think they are doing the right thing.

First of all, there is anxiety over identity. This defensive nationalism is certainly prominent in Belarus, where the president wants to have unity with Russia and thus limits missionary activity other than that pertaining to the Russian Orthodox Church and persecutes other religions in a variety of ways.

In Russia, if you want to know the motivations of the Orthodox Church, the best person to ask is Patriarch Aleksy, who has been quite frank in talking about the need to protect his people against harmful cults. In fact, the closest allies in this fight are the communists and the Russian Orthodox Church, who both talk about the question of identity.

The second motivation is to repress competition. For example, why can’t the Catholic congregation in Kursk get back access to the Church of the Assumption, which was confiscated by the Bolsheviks and is now being turned into a cultural center? Why is it that the judge in a rural district was removed by the local mayor because he is a member of the Pentecostal Church? Why does the Russian Orthodox Church confiscate and have local authorities confiscate the buildings of the free church, the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, and the Russian Orthodox Church abroad in the Holy Land? I think part of that is competition. The churches sometimes fall back on an alliance with the state to repress competitors, rather than simply striving to have a more effective outreach in their religious ministry.

Then there is self-interest-the desire for power and money. Aleksy talks about the amount of money that Catholics are pouring into missionary activities; that is why he doesn’t want to meet with the pope. But I think the Russian Orthodox Church itself is very well looked after, because it has the right to tax free trade and sales of alcohol, tobacco, and oil abroad.

Finally, prejudice is also a factor. Some of that is coming out. Right now, six civil actions are being brought against the Unification Church in a Moscow court, alleging that it mistreats children and estranges them from their parents.

With regard to the prospects in terms of future activity, I think we need to be more reflective; we need to look into the complexities of the motivations behind religious intolerance, discrimination, and persecution. We need to understand that, for communist countries, it is not the threat to freedom but the threat of freedom that is of concern.

Second, it has been shown through experience that collaboration between human rights people and those in favor of religious rights from religious organizations is good and should be increased. Sitting in the audience today is the coordinator of programs at the Columbia University Human Rights Center. We have had a great experience working with representatives of various organizations from eastern Europe who bring together concerns of human rights and religious freedoms.

Aside from that, we need more serious thought on what the dividing line is between the human right of religious freedom and the human rights of people whose rights allegedly have been violated by the activities of proselytizing groups. I had breakfast today with the California coordinator of CAN, the [new] Cult Awareness Network. What struck me in that conversation is another way to look at this issue. Through mediation—working together with troubled people, parents, converts, authorities, and so on-we can begin to understand the complexities involved and determine where the line should be drawn between religious freedom and the rights of alleged victims of religious freedom. Ultimately, however, I think the effort, especially now, should be in the direction of increasing religious freedom through the collaboration of all interested parties. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, “religious rights are human rights.”