Vienna, June 4 – It is critically important, Russia’s human rights ombudsman says, that “the struggle with extremism” does not become the occasion for government interference “in the convictions and faiths of millions” of Russians lest that lead to “real violations of their rights” and provoke “social-religious conflicts” in that country.
Indeed, Vladimir Lukin says in an interview with NG-Religii published today, Russians “must not forget the lessons of Russian and Soviet history” and are obligated to “avoid a repetition of the practice of banning and persecuting those with different faiths and views that is characteristic of undemocratic and totalitarian states.”
Timed to follow the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Russian Federation law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,” Lukin’s 3500-word interview covered a large number of issues, of which only several of the most important can be discussed here (religion.ng.ru/politic/2008-06-04/4_lukin.html?mthree=3).
First of all, he argues, Russians must take seriously the criticisms of human and religious rights that are included in the annual U.S. Department of State report on religious freedom and that are behind the decisions of the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg rather than view them as unwarranged interference in “’our internal affairs.’”
“To no small extent,” Lukin notes, what these reports and decisions reflect is “not something dreamed up by someone but rather real facts which must be dealt with,” as any one who keeps track of what is going on around the Russian Federation such as himself knows beyond any doubt.
But unfortunately, he continues, “there is no federal government agency in Russia or all-Russian public organization which is capable of monitoring across the entire country violatins of the rights of citizens in the area of freedom of conscience, tracking the extremely countradictory processes which occur in this area, and giving us objective information.”
That in turn means, like it or nor, that Russians who are concerned about religious liberty have to rely on the work of outsiders.
As far as the Strasbourg court is concerned, Lukin says that Russians “have already learned to pay the monetary compensation to the ‘victims’ of official arbitrariness set by the court. No it is time to learn to fulfill its decisions in essence, first of all by developing a legal mechanism for their realization.”
Second, as he has many times in the past, Lukin uses this interview to denounce the practice of Russian courts of relying on unconstitutional ideas, inappropriate reasoning, and inadequate expertise to ban books, something that is inherently dangerous and that can, if it continues into the future, anger and alienate law-abiding believers.
Lukin cites as Exhibit A the ban a Russian court has issued against the work of Turkish theologian Said Nursi. The Russian ombudsman says that, in his opinion, Nursi’s works are simply “an explanation and interpretation of the meaning and content of the sacral obligations of a Muslim before Allah as laid out in the Koran.”
Such a decision, he continues, “cannot but have a negative impact on the feelings of the many millions of Muslims” in Russia, leading them to have less confidence in their government especially if as seems likely their appeal to the European Human Rights Court results in the reversal of the Russian decision.
But until that happens, Lukin says, “we are obligated to follow” the decision of the court, even though many questions remain open. “For example,” he asks rhetorically, “why out of all the possible expertise and reviews did the court accept only the negative conclusions” offered by linguists and psychologists with no religious knowledge?
Why, he continues, did a secular court “assume the right to reach a verdict relative to the content of canonical and religious-apologetic literature” in a court which has proclaimed the separation of church and state? And what guarantees are there that such a court that is today banning an interpretation of the Koran might tomorrow ban the Koran itself – or even the Bible?
Recently, Lukin adds, this situation was compounded when on April 10, the Russian Supreme Court in closed session banned what it called “the international religious organization ‘Nurjilar,’” a group none of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) or leading Russian Islamicists have any knowledge of.
And third, Lukin argues, most of the problems with the government’s fight against extremism will be overcome if the authorities will focus on actions rather than beliefs and if the government recognizes that getting involved in internal activities of religious groups in almost every case is not only unconstitutional but subversive of the rights of believers and citizens.
Worse, such violations affect not only those whose rights are violated directly but also “hundreds and thousands of Russians” who share the beliefs of those being mistreated and thus come to view the government not as a set of institutions that respects their rights but as one that is quite prepared to violate them. That “cannot fail to elicit concern,” Lukin says.
The ombudsman concludes with an appeal for tolerance. But he notes that with regard to that, the situation is “completely in order” only in one regard: In Russia today, he says, there is “the most complete tolerance in relationship to our own intolerance,” an attitude that makes the fight for religious liberty there not only more difficult but more important.