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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Freedom of Faith for All

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What if the West monitored freedom of the press in Russia in the same way that we monitor freedom of religion? We would pay less attention overall -- and none to threats affecting only Russian journalists rather than our fellow Westerners. Western governments would protest harassment of Western news organizations such as Radio Liberty, but not that of indigenous newspapers such as Novaya Gazeta.

For the last four years the U.S. State Department has published an annual report on religious freedom worldwide, with sections on nearly 200 countries. A quasi-independent advisory commission, consisting of religious and human-rights leaders, publishes its own annual review of the State Department's work -- most recently last month. Overall, these reports provide excellent surveys of threats to the freedom of conscience of certain religious minorities in Russia -- namely those that have political clout in Washington such as Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons and Jews. On threats to religious bodies less well-known in the West, the reports are mostly vague or silent.

Russian nationalists have reacted to these reports by accusing the U.S. government of supporting a "spiritual invasion" by faiths new on Russian soil and alien to Russian culture. (They ignore historical facts such as the arrival of the Baptist faith in the mid-19th century.) Theorists such as Nikolai Trofimchuk apply geopolitical concepts such as "sphere of influence" to Western missionaries. Trofimchuk's influential book "Expansion" argues in deterministic, quasi-Marxist fashion that missionaries work primarily to advance the secular interests of their home countries. According to this view, the State Department uses universalistic terms such as "human rights" merely as a cover for U.S. imperialism.

Western denials of such accusations would be more credible if Western governments worked more consistently to promote the evenhanded rule of law for all bona fide religious bodies, including those which do not have members on the Commission on International Religious Freedom or other Washington power structures. Two examples are Russia's Old Believers and "initsiativniki" Baptists. Neither Soviet nor post-Soviet Russia has ever conceded full religious freedom to either, but the annual reports have not seriously discussed them.

The Old Believers provide an especially compelling case. Far from being a novel import such as the "foreign sects" demonized by Russian nationalists, they are the most uniquely Russian form of Christianity. Unlike mainstream Orthodox Christianity, brought by Greek missionaries in the 10th century, their faith was born on Slavic soil and to this day exists only in Slavic countries or in places where it was brought by Slavic emigres. They have won admirers among Russia's secular intelligentsia with their work ethic and heroic endurance under persecution almost uninterrupted since the 17th century.

To this day the Kremlin still discriminates against the Old Believers. The most obvious example is on Red Square, where the Kazan Cathedral (a triumph of architectural restoration by the mainstream Russian Orthodox) houses a shamefully stolen treasure, a huge bell forged a century ago. The Soviet regime seized that bell from Moscow's largest Old Believer church and kept it in storage for decades; the post-Soviet state then transferred it to the mainstream Moscow Patriarchate, which is thus a willing recipient of stolen property. Old Believers have told me that many of their historic bells, icons and other valuables have met similar fates. This was their main reason for opposing Boris Yeltsin's harsh 1997 law on religion, which omitted a proposed amendment to bar such thievery.

Raising such issues would help Western government officials show that they are not just lobbying for the interests of Western denominations. Unfortunately, even when they discuss Russian Protestants, for example, they concentrate on those groups that have the best connections in the West.

However, the U.S. State Department and its advisory commission are supposed to monitor the rights of all believers, including the small and the weak. Indeed, they should go out of their way to speak up for the small and the weak, especially those who are targeted by Russia's current policies precisely because they refused to collaborate with the Soviet state.

On the other hand, over the past two years the U.S. religious freedom reports have made welcome improvements in their discussions of Islam. Russia's largest religious minority often experiences discrimination despite pronouncements that it is one of Russia's "traditional" faiths. In some cities Muslims have found themselves barred from building mosques and even from holding worship services in rented facilities. The fact that Washington is belatedly paying attention is important for averting a "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam as a whole.

It was Christian (and some non-Christian) activists in Washington who first proposed the U.S. legislation mandating these annual reports. They pointed out rightly that the U.S. government's previous human rights initiatives had failed to give due weight to the persecution of Christians in places such as China and Sudan. Their first version of the bill explicitly emphasized Christians, but the U.S. Congress amended this draft -- rightly -- to declare religious freedom in general as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. In theory, Washington's human rights bureaucracy is committed to defending such freedom as a universal principle, not as a favor to special-interest groups.

It still needs to be more consistent about putting that theory into practice.

Lawrence Uzzell, a freelance writer specializing in religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.