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U.S. Commission Decries ‘Alarming State’ Of Religious Freedom In Russia, Central Asia

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) will hold a virtual hearing on September 16 about what it says is the alarming state of religious freedom in Russia and Central Asia.

Russia and various Central Asian countries have undermined religious freedom since the late 1990s, when former Soviet states adopted repressive religion laws that drew upon past precedent, according to the Washington-based commission.

“Officials across the region strictly monitor and regulate religious practice, including placing surveillance cameras in places of worship and keeping official databases with the detailed personal information of community members,” the commission said in a notice announcing the hearing.

The independent, bipartisan USCIRF was created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom. In its annual report in April, it proposed that the State Department remove Uzbekistan from its “worst of the worst” list of offenders of religious freedom, while reiterating that Russia should be put on that list.

The commission says regional governments in Russia suppress religious minorities and use vague extremism laws that effectively criminalize any speech or religious practice of which they disapprove.

Russia has also exported repressive practices to Ukraine, making mandatory religious regulation and vague extremism laws “weapons in the subjugation of occupied Crimea,” the commission said.

Its annual report said that “[in] Russian-occupied Crimea, the Russian authorities continued to kidnap, torture, and imprison Crimean Tatar Muslims at will.”

Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries.

Participants in the hearing will provide analysis on the abuse of registration and extremism laws used to target the rights of religious communities across this region and offer policy recommendations to the U.S. government.

Representative Joe Wilson (Republican-South Carolina) will make opening remarks. Among the other participants is John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The hearing is being held virtually as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.

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