ENGLISH VERSION: Russia. USCIRF-recommended for countries of particular concern. From the Annual Report of the USCIRF-2020
During 2019, religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated. The government continued to target “nontraditional” religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism. Russian legislation criminalizes “extremism” without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent religious activity.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, whom the government banned outright as “extremist” in 2017, faced intensified persecution in 2019. By the end of the year, hundreds of members remained in detention, had travel restrictions imposed upon them, or were under investigation. The Jehovah’s Witnesses report that as of the end of 2019, 313 members had been charged, put on trial, or convicted for involvement in the group, and that Russian authorities conducted 489 raids on the private homes of their members during the year. According to Human Rights Watch, as of January 2020, 32 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia were imprisoned for their faith.
In 2019, the Russian government also continued to use its anti-extremism law to prosecute Muslims — particularly adherents of the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat and readers of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi — and Scientologists for peaceful religious activity.
In the North Caucasus, security forces acted with impunity, arresting and kidnapping persons suspected of even tangential links to Islamist militancy, and harassing Muslims at prayer services. In September, for example, suspected members of the Chechen Security Services allegedly abducted Ramzan Shaikhayev. Shaikhayev previously had been detained for what authorities described to his wife as “a check on his religious beliefs.” In December, police in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala set up checkpoints outside a mosque and demanded the personal information of those leaving the prayer service. Local Muslims described such operations as typical and designed to intimidate them. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov oversaw or condoned egregious abuses based on his religious views, including against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community and women.
In Russian-occupied Crimea, the occupation authorities continued to enforce Russia’s repressive laws and policies on religion, which has resulted in the prosecution of peaceful religious activity and bans on groups that were legal in Crimea under Ukrainian law. In 2019, authorities conducted mass arrests of politically active Crimean Tatars, whom they accused of membership in the banned Islamic Party Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). Many face lengthy prison sentences. On June 28, 2019, occupation authorities seized and closed the Cathedral of Vladimir and Olga in Simferopol, the main cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in Crimea. Members report that, since the occupation, the OCU has faced systematic persecution for its perceived ties to Ukrainian nationalism, including the confiscation of church property and the harassment of clergy and congregants. On November 6, 2019, a court in the western Crimean city of Yevpatoriya ordered the destruction of an OCU chapel.
Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine pursue an exclusionary religious policy that privileges the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in eastern Ukraine, rebel authorities supported by Russia have effectively banned all religious groups that failed to obtain legal registration by October 15, 2018, which includes all Protestant communities, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the OCU. On November 26, 2019, the LPR banned 12 Baptist books as “extremist,” including a Russian translation of the Gospel of John.
- Designate Russia as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA);
- Impose targeted sanctions on Russian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations; and
- Work with European allies to use advocacy, diplomacy, and targeted sanctions to pressure Russia to end religious freedom abuses, release religious prisoners of conscience, and permit the establishment of an international monitoring presence in occupied Crimea.
- The U.S. Congress should:
- • Pass legislation condemning the deteriorating religious freedom environment in Russia, and highlight—in briefings and hearings—the Russian government’s failure to bring its religion and extremism laws in line with international human rights standards; and
- • Pass the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R.5408), which calls on the President to take into account Russia’s religious freedom violations in Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian-controlled Donbas when determining CPC designations under IRFA.