WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin has created a “police state” and imposed new laws to progressively erode religious freedom, according to an annual report compiled by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Putin has signed a law imposing administrative fines, amounting to more than the average annual salary, on individuals who participate in unauthorized public gatherings that violate “public order,” including religious services, the commission reported.
USCIRF, a nine-member bipartisan commission Congress created in 1998 to inform the federal government of religious freedom overseas, released the report, “Russia: Unruly State of Law,” on Jan. 8
“The Kremlin has not just passed a set of bad new laws in 2012, it has changed the Russian political system,” the commission wrote. “Overall, religious freedom conditions in Russia continue to deteriorate. Chronic serious problems highlighted in previous [commission] reports remain, including the application of the religion law and the use of the anti-extremism law against peaceful religious groups and individuals.”
The law banning unauthorized public gatherings has been used against several religious communities, including a Protestant pastor who was fined for holding a religious service, the commission confirmed.
Under Russia’s extremism law, certain religious texts are banned throughout the country and individuals who “prepare, store, or distribute banned texts may be criminally prosecuted for ‘incitement of ethnic, racial or religious hatred,’” according to the report.
Richard Land, who served on the commission from 2001-12, said the findings of the report are no surprise.
“Sadly the USCIRF report confirms trends that we saw developing in Russia during my time on the commission. Russia has been sliding back into a police-state mentality for a decade,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Signs are prevalent of an official policy of “selective secularism” in which the government favors the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church over other religious communities, the commission wrote.
“The draft blasphemy bill before the Duma, if passed in the spring of 2013,” according to the USCIRF report, “would further curtail the freedoms of religion, belief and expression.”
The commission found the most severe human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, where Chechnya’s Kremlin-appointed president, Ramzan Kadyrov, condones or oversees mass violations of human rights, including religious freedom. Kadyrov has instituted a repressive state based on his political views and has ordered citizens to wear the hijab, the commission reported.
At least nine women in Chechnya have been killed since 2008 for “immodest behavior,” with Kadyrov praising the murders and the killers not standing trial, according to the report. Russian chauvinist groups operate unchecked, the commission found, and often threaten to kill individuals and groups who “defend the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and migrants.”
Russian citizens who participate in international human rights conferences or supply information on religious rights violations to international organizations can be prosecuted as traitors, under amendments to the treason bill.
The commission compiled the report based on onsite investigations and interviews with Russian civil society activists, who expressed support for the Magnitsky Bill, a U.S. measure barring Russian human rights violators from entering the U.S. and freezing their U.S.-linked assets.
Under the Magnitsky Bill, Kadyrov is on the list of Russian officials to be sanctioned, as the committee recommended.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Diana Chandler.)