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Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act: we need this law

Among the human rights to freedom of expression, religious rights hold a special place, and their violation is always an object of regard of both leading international organizations, such as the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and many others, for which the human value system means the possibility of not only to think, but also to proclaim one’s thoughts if they do not pose a danger to others.
Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act: we need this law

Unfortunately, Ukraine had to encounter such a problem. Thus, after the annexation of Crimea, the lives of believers of a number of faiths have changed in an instant – the new legislation, according to which religious organizations began to live, in many respects fundamentally differed from the Ukrainian legislation in force on the peninsula before the annexation. In particular, the Muslim communities of Hizb-ut-Tahrir adherents, of which there were about 15 thousand, found themselves outlawed. The reason is simple – the Russian legislation prohibits the activities of this association, and the very involvement in it may be a reason for criminal prosecution.

The life of the Crimean Orthodox Christians who belong to the Kyivan Patriarchate (now the Orthodox Church of Ukraine) also became more complicated. The work of the diocese is actually blocked.

Believers of several Protestant denominations in the uncontrolled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions had to experience many difficulties. Life also follows the Russian legislation patterns there, prohibiting the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses, which has made hundreds of Ukrainians living there marginalized. However, other Christians also had to face injustice and oppression. The “new authorities” representatives took away prayer houses from Baptists and Pentecostals, their activists, suspected of “subversive activities”, were summoned for questionings, there were cases of pastors disappearance.

In short, believers, who were quite loyal citizens before the events of 2014, instantly turn out to be terrible lawbreakers.

The international community, of course, responded and still responds to the religious lawlessness in the occupied territories of Ukraine. On the UN, OSCE, and Council of Europe platforms, the facts, confirming the complaints of believers, have been presented more than once. Although the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent bipartisan structure of the Federal government created by the US Congress to monitor, analyse and report on threats to freedom of religion or belief abroad has come to grips with this issue perhaps most consistently.

Every year, the Commission publishes Reports on Religious Freedom in various countries, focusing on those responsible for the violations. It is worth noting that such reports are quite effective ways of influencing violating countries, since after the disclosure of information to the Commission, the US government often resorts to sanctions against opponents of freedom.

In the 2018 Report, Russia run into heavy fire for its actions in the occupied territories of Ukraine. For the first time in the post-Soviet period, the RF was included on the list of “countries of particular concern”, which automatically made its policy in the field of religious rights an object of deliberate attention by human rights organizations.

Even more, the Commission issued an open statement to the US government with a call to impose additional sanctions on the Russian Federation.
Together with the Commission, the US Department of State also published the International Religious Freedom Report, which criticized Russia for its policies towards various religious groups in the occupied territories. In July 2019, the presentation of the Report was made by Secretary of State M. Pompeo, who devoted part of his speech to this very issue.

In 2019, tough claims made against Russia were repeated – both the Commission and the Department of State published regular annual reports on monitoring the observance of religious rights in the world, where the RF was met with derision again. This consistency in the actions of American officials suggested the inevitability of a serious punishment of the RF. And these predictions proved to be right.

At the end of December 2019, the American Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe initiated the introduction to the US Congress of a draft law entitled “Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act”, aimed at holding Russia accountable for religious persecution in Donbas and Crimea. The document was directly presented by the Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, along with several other Congressmen, among whom were the representatives of both US parties.

The significance of this step can hardly be overestimated. After all, we are talking about the prospect of adopting a law that will operate regardless of who takes the presidency in the White House. Let's remember the Magnitsky Act. This is a weapon that is used, and is going to be long used by the Americans to achieve their goals since neither the head of state nor the government will be able to overturn it. It is impossible to imagine that Congress would simply repeal the adopted law.

In a word, this is a very important document for Ukraine, since the interests of the American side with ours completely coincide. However, its consideration for reasons not at all clear began to be withheld. Since January this year, the bill has been in the US House of Representatives Committee, where it was considered and appears to have been approved in general at the meeting in March this year. However, there is still no information about its follow-up and advocacy. One can certainly refer to quarantine and protests in the USA, but there is no doubt that the early adoption of this law may have a deterrent effect on the aggressor nation, which is for the benefit of the entire international community.

Let us hope that the US Congress understands our concern.

Viktor Stoian,
specially for “Vector News”
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