A New Partnership for Religious Freedom

The global community may have a new advocate for international religious freedom-- Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel declared before a Protestant parliamentary working group in June that protection of religious freedom is an important part of its foreign policy and human rights efforts and stated that Germany "must act on behalf of human rights in all parts of the world." She also noted that, "We have no right to sit down after our own dignity has been protected and to no longer care what happens to the dignity of others."

While the Chancellor's remarks focused largely on the persecution of only one religious group, Christians, the principles she laid down can have universal reach, with applicability to the many, diverse religious communities around the globe. Her remarks present the possibility of sparking a growing partnership between the United States and Germany to work together to promote freedom of religion or belief for all.

To date, there has been a strong U.S.-German partnership on a range of issues - combating anti-Semitism in Europe and Eurasia and working against the flawed "defamation of religions" concept at the United Nations. In light of Chancellor Merkel's stated commitment to religious freedom, there are concrete ways in which the partnership between our two nations could be elevated and strengthened.

Central Asia would be a good place to consider cooperation to promote religious freedom, as both nations have multiple interests there. Since 9/11, the United States has increased its security- and energy-related engagement throughout the region. Germany maintains a military base in southern Uzbekistan, a country that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the U.S. government have labeled as one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom. Germany also has strong historical connections to Kazakhstan. During World War II, Stalin forcibly exiled several millions of ethnic Germans from Russia to Central Asia, particularly to Kazakhstan. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, less than 400,000 ethnic Germans remained in Kazakhstan, some of whom are Baptists who belong to unregistered religious communities and thus face particular difficulties with Kazakh officials.

Indeed, it is in Kazakhstan that German and U.S. policy coordination on religious freedom and related human rights could make a difference. Kazakhstan currently holds the 2010 annual chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the preeminent human rights and security body that spans North America, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan has over 100 ethnic and religious groups, and the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev has actively touted its record of tolerance. While Kazakhstan does have a claim to ethnic tolerance, the same cannot be said of religious tolerance in a country where some religions are more equal than others. Police have raided and the courts have fined Baptists and other small religious communities for the "crime" of not registering with the government. Moreover, one of the best known human rights advocates in Kazakhstan and the director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Yevgeny Zhovtis, last year was sentenced to four years in a labor colony in an overtly political case.

The OSCE recently announced that it will hold a 56-nation summit in the Kazakh capital of Astana later this year. This summit is quite a 70th birthday present for President Nazarbayev, as the OSCE has not held a summit in almost a decade and Kazakhstan's record on religious freedom and related human rights falls far short of international standards.

A possible first step for a coordinated German-American policy initiative would be for Washington and Berlin to urge Kazakhstan to enact some specific policies before the OSCE summit. Such steps should include the unconditional release of Mr. Zhovtis from a labor colony, repealing strict legal limits on religious freedom, and withdrawing a recently issued textbook that is highly intolerant of various minority religions.

Germany and the United States also should make promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief in Central Asia a serious foreign-policy priority. In July, Mr. Zhovtis told a Commission representative that people in Central Asia have lost faith in their governments. Recent ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan--with hundreds of deaths and many thousands of refugees--has shown that the crowded Ferghana Valley at the heart of Central Asia is a powder keg. Similarly, repressive religion laws enacted throughout Central Asia that mainly target majority Muslim communities may contribute to regional instability. "No longer car[ing] what happens to the dignity of others," as Chancellor Merkel said, could lead to long-term security threats.

There are other ways in which Germany could collaborate with the United States: there is urgent need for close cooperation by working together in Sudan for full and fair implementation of the Sudanese peace agreement to help avert another bloody sectarian civil war; Germany can leverage its global leadership to address impunity in countries such as Nigeria; stepping up pressure on Turkey to revise its human rights laws to protect endangered religious minorities; and by increasing pressure on countries such as China to fully integrate human rights standards into their domestic policies.

Chancellor Merkel's recent reminder about the importance of religious freedom as a human right should be most welcome to the human rights community because it could pave the way to new policy initiatives as part of a growing coalition to defend vulnerable communities against state repression as well as impunity. Joint advocacy by Germany and the United States could lead to more effective public and private advocacy on freedom of religion or belief and related human rights, including in the lead-up to the OSCE summit. Hopefully, the United States and Germany will recognize that religious freedom abuses are the "canary in the coal mine" for other human rights violations and take action.

Leonard A. Leo, Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies, is chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a federally mandated independent bipartisan agency that advises the White House, the State Department and Congress on international religious Freedom.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, vice chair of USCIRF, is Asst. Professor in the Department of International Relations at Boston University, where she is also the Coordinator of the M.A. Program in International Relations and Religion.