Representatives of the U.S. State Department and Congress co-hosted the annual Roundtable on Religious Freedom in Europe and Eurasia on Tuesday, Oct. 5. The roundtables brought together faith-based organizations, human rights groups, the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom, congressional staff, and government officials to review recent developments.
During the annual roundtable, participants highlighted partnerships involving government, non-governmental organizations and multilateral organizations. As reported by the Religious Media Agency, panelists also discussed problems in Uzbekistan related to religious expressions and registration of religious groups, and praised some recent improvements in Turkmenistan while noting that the environment still is challenging for many groups. Although no countries in Europe-Eurasia are now listed as “countries of particular concern” in the U.S. State Department’s Annual International Religious Freedom Report, both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two countries in Central Asia whose situations are being “closely monitored.”
And although conditions in Western and Central Europe are generally better for religious practice, restrictive registration rules in some countries still keep some smaller groups from receiving the same benefits that mainstream faiths are given.
In Uzbekistan, for example, the government permits the operation of what it considers mainstream religions including approved Muslim groups, Jewish groups, the Russian Orthodox Church, and various other Christian denominations, such as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Baptists, and generally registers newer religions. However, a number of minority religious groups, including congregations of a variety of Christian confessions, had difficulty satisfying the strict registration requirements set out by the law. As in previous years, Protestant groups with ethnic Uzbek members reported operating in a climate of harassment and fear.
Meanwhile, in Turkmenistan, while the constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion, in practice the government reportedly continues to monitor all forms of religious expression. Amendments to the law on religious organizations adopted in March established two categories of religious assemblies: religious groups (to comprise at least 5 and not more than 50 members of legal age) and religious organizations (to comprise at least 50 members). All groups must register in order to gain legal status with the Government. Until recently the only religions that were registered successfully were Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which are controlled by the Government.
And while most attendees at the Roundtable also agreed freedom of religion has improved in Russia, recent Russian clampdowns on media and certain non-governmental organizations have raised concerns that human rights and freedoms in general, are becoming increasingly restricted.