Ex-Soviet Region Reneging on Religious Liberties?

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WASHINGTON - Representatives from all over the former Soviet Union gathered on Capitol Hill this week to brief the public on what's happening to religious liberty in that Eurasian region.

Many had thought once the yoke of Communism and atheism was thrown off from the former U.S.S.R., there might be a chance for religious believers to flourish in freedom.

For many, those newfound liberties were short-lived. Government continues to punish and persecute believers in much of the ex-Soviet Union.

Pastors have been tossed in prison in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, some churches have been closed, some destroyed, and Christian literature has been confiscated.

Dr. John Berbaum, president of the Russian-American Institute, talked to CBN News about the dire realities in Russia. He said it appears President Vladimir Putin is set on cracking down after years when it once looked like he was on the side of religious liberty.

"We call it Putin 1 and Putin 2. When Putin first came to power, he was a positive influence. But after his second term he began to roll back a lot of the religious freedom issues, human rights issues," Berbaum explained.

"Simply put, it's been a very difficult direction we've been going in right now," he said.

Dr. Mikhail Cherenkov, with Associate for Spiritual Renewal, was also pessimistic as he looked at the lack of liberty across the many former Soviet states.

"We have new restrictions from government and also from society. I mean the Islamic society and nominal Orthodox societies. So these are huge challenges for the evangelical church and for civil society as well," Cherenkov said.

Bernbaum was quick to point out the immensity of the former U.S.S.R., saying it's really hard to generalize. But he warned that what he's seeing in Eurasia is not very hopeful.

"These leaders in these Eurasian republics are copying the Russian model: eliminating opposition, eliminating a free press, eliminating a right for opposition candidates to form political parties. So it makes it very, very difficult," he said.

Russian Ministries sponsored the briefing with Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., on Capitol Hill. Several lawmakers, including one of Congress' leading fighters for religious freedoms internationally, stopped by to encourage the Eurasian religious leaders who had gathered.

"I want you to know my heart is with you and I don't think you could be doing a greater work. Religious freedom is the foundation of all human freedom," Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Caucus, said.

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.