WASHINGTON, May 6, 2017 — President Trump has had some complimentary words for men who are eroding democracy in their own countries. In both Turkey and the Philippines, trends are moving away from Western-style concern for human rights and religious freedom.
Trump seems to embrace the men leading this retreat, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has called him not only a “strong leader,” but claims he is far superior to our former President Obama.
If our government will not speak out on behalf of individual rights and religious freedom, others are stepping forward. This month, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel took the opportunity of a rare visit to Russia to raise human rights issues with Putin. She spoke with Putin about the persecution of gay men, a new ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the arrests of anti-Kremlin, pro-democracy protestors.
Merkel has led efforts among European leaders to maintain Western sanctions on Russia, imposed in 2014 after Russia seized Crimea and promoted an insurgency in the southeast part of Ukraine. The twin issues of Crimea and Ukraine now block any improvement in relations.
Merkel’s spokesman, Steffens Siebert, said, “These are burdensome circumstances, which cannot just be talked away.”
In April, Russia’s Supreme Court declared Jehovah’s Witnesses, a U.S.-based Christian group that rejects violence, an extremist organization. They banned the religious organization from operating on Russian territory and put its more than 170,000 Russian adherents in the same category as Islamic State militants.
The ruling confirmed a March order by the Russian Justice Ministry that the denomination be “liquidated.” Viktor Zhenkov, a lawyer for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said, “We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissible in contemporary Russia. We will, of course, appeal.”
Members of Russia’s dominant faith, the Russian Orthodox Church, have lobbied for years to have Jehovah’s Witnesses outlawed, or at least curbed as a heretical sect. During the Cold War, the Orthodox church was not outlawed as were other Christian groups, but became an arm of the Soviet state, co-opted by the KGB. No one became a priest without KGB endorsement.
As a member of the World Council of Churches, the Russian Orthodox Church, attended international religious conferences and used that platform to advance Soviet interests. It was active in promoting the lie that the U.S. used germ warfare during the Korean War.
Now the Church is firmly in the hands of Putin’s regime.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been active in Russia for more than a century. Founded in the U.S. in the 19th century, its worldwide headquarters are in Brooklyn. Along with all groups outside of the control of the Russian state, it is viewed with suspicion by Russia’s post-Soviet version of the KGB, the Federal Security Service.
Jehovah’s Witnesses shun political activity. The church has no record of opposition, peaceful or violent, to the Russian authorities.
The denomination suffered repression and persecution by the KGB during the Soviet era. After a decade of relative peace after the Communist collapse in 1991, it again became a target for official harassment under a 2002 anti-extremism law. The law makes it illegal for any group other than the Orthodox Church and other traditional religious institutions, to proclaim itself a true path to religious salvation.
According to The Economist, the outlawing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses
“… is a testament to the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially of a radical wing who see the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a dangerous sect that deviates from the official version of Christianity. The court’s decision marks the culmination of a long and concerted campaign. Experts trace the latest wave of troubles back to 2009, when Orthodox activists and local authorities began aggressively pursuing members and congregations. Regional courts steadily added Jehovah’s Witnesses literature to lists of banned extremist works, often on absurd premises. (One pamphlet was flagged for a line criticizing the Russian Orthodox Church. It was a citation from Tolstoy, whose works are not exactly banned in Russia). The group’s refusal to participate in militaristic state rituals further fueled suspicion.”
Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued in Moscow, condemned the court ruling as “a serious breach of Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom.” Rachel Denber, the human rights group’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said the decision delivered “a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.”
If Russia is not a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, it certainly appears to be headed in that direction. Moscow’s alliance with Syria, its apparent complicity in the use of deadly chemicals against civilians, and its alliance with Iran is an indication of the kinds of regimes it embraces. Moscow’s interference in our presidential election, and in elections in Germany, France and other countries demonstrates that its goal is to elect candidates who will weaken NATO and the EU.
In February, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron said that his aides had detected more than 2,000 attempts to hack his campaign, most thought to have originated in Russia. Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-NATO, anti-American and anti-EU candidate, visited Putin in Moscow and was financed by Russian banks.
This month, Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, said that a doctor told him he had lost 80 percent of the sight in one eye after suffering a chemical burn when an assailant threw a green liquid in his face. Navalny, who has declared his intention to run in Russia’s presidential election next year, had already been splashed in the face with green dye once this spring.
The Moscow police have opened an investigation of the attack but, Navalny reports, no witnesses have been interviewed, no surveillance videos sought, and no arrests made.
Attacks on Russian opposition politicians are rarely solved. In 2015, assailants shot and killed Boris Y. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, on a sidewalk near the Kremlin. The authorities have put a man suspected of being the gunman, along with his accomplices, on trial, but they have made no headway in finding who ordered the assassination.
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who enjoys Putin’s support, has allegedly had his security forces kidnap and torture gay men. When information about the assaults was reported in the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, reporters were threatened, denounced and forced to flee Russia.
On April 1, the paper published an expose showing that Kadyrov’s security services were detaining and executing gay men. More than 100 are believed to have been seized and held in a prison near the town of Argun.
The purge has been confirmed by Human Rights Watch, which quoted one victim as saying, “They treated us like animals.”
Russia put down secessionist rebels in Chechnya in two wars. Today, Kadyrov rules by brute force, with backing from Moscow. On April 15, Chechnya’s press and information minister called the newspaper report about the attacks on gay men “a filthy provocation.”
On April 19, Kadyrov appeared in a photo op with Putin at the Kremlin and denounced the article as a “provocation.” Putin was impassive. Kadyrov apparently has Putin’s support, whatever he does.
A leader of the free world would speak out about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other human rights abuses in Russia, and would also have something to say about human rights in Turkey, the Philippines and other places. President Trump has either remained silent, or has praised the perpetrators of abuse.
Chancellor Merkel went to Moscow and upheld Western values. It would be nice to see President Trump do the same. He can do no less if he wants America to remain the leader of the free world.