New House bill targets religious persecution in Crimea

shutterstock 1553012258 United States Capitol Building - Washington DC. Via Shutterstock

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives to hold Russia accountable for what Congressmen claim is the persecution of religious groups in occupied territories of the Ukraine.

The legislation, the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act, requires the President to take account of any violations of religious freedom in areas of the Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed forces-the Crimean peninsula and "Donetsk People's Republic"-when considering a "country of particular concern" (CPC) designation for Russia. The bill was introduced on Friday.

Members of Congress who introduced the bill said that Russian forces and their proxies are guilty of imprisoning and torturing citizens in the Crimea for their religious beliefs.

"Russian officials are culpable, and this bill helps ensure they are held accountable," Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who introduced the bill along with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), stated.

"The Russian Government is violating international humanitarian law and its international commitments to respect and protect religious freedom," Rep. Cleaver stated.

According to the USCIRF report, other religious groups, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, have refused to register with the Russian authorities occupying the peninsula.

In the Donetsk region of the Ukraine, occupied by Russian-backed forces, Christian denominations other than the Russian Orthodox Church have been required to register with authorities and have seen their property confiscated and clergy prosecuted and harassed, according to USCIRF.

More than 10,000 have been killed in the Donetsk conflict, and more than two million people displaced.

The official CPC designation is reserved for those countries where the worst religious persecution takes place, either aided and abetted by governments or occurring in the absence of any government intervention.

A CPC designation carries with it the possibility of special actions that the U.S. can take against offenders, such as sanctions.

Russia has not been designated as a CPC, although last year Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed it on the "Special Watch List" of countries which are one level below CPCs. Their religious freedom violations "do not rise" to the level of CPCs, but they still "require close monitoring," according to the State Department's specifications of the designation.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan federal advisory panel on religious freedom, recommended a CPC designation for Russia in its 2019 annual report.

Along with its violations within its own borders, Russian authorities in the Crimean peninsula "continued to kidnap, torture, and imprison Crimean Tatar Muslims at will," the report stated. Religious minorities-mainly "Crimean Tartars and other Muslims"-have been targeted for harassment, imprisonment, and torture.

In July, Pope Francis met with leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and exhorted them to persevere in hope. "On the night of the conflict that you are going through, as in Gethsemane, the Lord asks his people to 'watch and pray,' not to defend oneself, let alone to attack," Pope Francis said.

A 1998 law, the International Religious Freedom Act, set up the accountability mechanisms that the U.S. could utilize against the worst violators of religious freedom, the countries of particular concern.

The measures can be lifted for certain reasons under the law, and of the 10 countries listed as CPC designees by the State Department, four of them had sanctions waived and six others had preexisting sanctions, USCIRF noted in its most recent annual report.

"USCIRF has long expressed concern that using preexisting sanctions or indefinite waivers provides little or no incentive for CPC-designated governments to reduce or halt egregious religious freedom violations," the commission said.

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