"An increasing number of participating states have abused their responsibility and have introduced measures that undermine the right of individuals and communities of individuals to profess and practice their religion or belief freely," Felice Gaer, a USCIRF commissioner, noted at a conference in Warsaw, Poland, listing eight countries in particular, including Russia.
OSCE, an ad hoc coalition of 56 countries, examines such issues as arms control, the environment and human rights. Member states include countries from Europe, Central Asia and North America. OSCE is the largest regional security organization in the world.
Some OSCE members have allowed or even endorsed acts of religious intolerance, according to USCIRF, citing such abuses as imposing severe restrictions on religious education, banning religious literature, labeling peaceful religious sects "extremist" or "terrorist" and fostering nationwide condemnation of various faiths.
OSCE's leading human rights resolution, the Helsinki Act, has been an integral part of its human rights dimension. Since the act passed in 1975, it has been expanded to promote individual freedom. The 1989 Vienna expansion, in particular, makes specific references to religious freedom, ensuring all countries that confirm the document provide universal equality.
However, recent studies conducted by USCIRF show some member countries have failed to comply with principles summarized in the Helsinki Act and its expansions. The Vienna expansion notes the obligation of all member states to guarantee all citizens the freedom to worship, including the right to private religious education and training; freedom to build centers for worship; cultural preservation; and publication of religious materials.
Gaer, of USCIRF, speaking at the OSCE review conference Oct. 1 in Warsaw, pointed out that a refusal to grant religious liberties begins a dangerous precedent that could lead to a loss of other individual freedoms.
"Failure to protect the rights of members of religious minorities contributes to the erosion of not only rights to religious freedom but also to free assembly, expression and other human rights and fundamental freedoms," Gaer said, according to a prepared, written statement.
As a result of frequent monitoring, USCIRF named Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Russia as the most prominent perpetrators of religious injustice. According to USCIRF, acts of discrimination and even violence have been reported against "non-traditional" Protestants (including Baptists and Pentecostals), Jews, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and practitioners of Hare Krishna. For example, in these countries, Protestants often are attacked by state-controlled media and mosques not under direct state control face the threat of demolition or closure.
While Gaer discussed a number of violations in the Middle East, she also mentioned some acts of religious intolerance in Canada, France, Greece and other Western countries. According to USCIRF, anti-Semitic violence has increased in many of these countries, including attacks on synagogues and Jewish grave sites. Violent acts against Muslims also have been reported.
Gaer concluded her speech by encouraging all OSCE member states to uphold their promises to provide their citizens the opportunity to practice their religion freely and safely.
"The U.S. calls on each OSCE participating State to adhere more closely to OSCE commitments on freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," Gaer said. "People who belong to any peaceful religious community -- or those who prefer a secular approach -- clearly deserve government respect and protection."
Hannah Cummings is as an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.
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