By Shane McNary
Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) was barely mentioned during meetings at the United Nations in Geneva in April. The pre-session was in preparation for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Session 30 which took place in May 2018. What makes this striking is that four countries have serious FORB concerns: Azerbaijan, Russian Federation, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
What are the specific issues?
One of them is the forced registration of religious groups; yet applications are delayed or denied and when the religious groups meet, they face harassment, arrest or prolonged detention. Take for example the case against Baptist pastors Hamid Shabanov and Mehman Agamammadov in northern Azerbaijan. They have attempted registration since 1994 and still Azerbaijani officials refuse to register the congregation, making their meetings illegal.
Just days before I left for Geneva, a letter from the All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptist Churches was forwarded to me. It points out “the systemic religious freedom violations in the territory of the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic.”
Of specific concern are the impending re-registration requirements of all religious organizations, restrictions on where religious groups can meet to practice their religion or distribute religious materials, and scrutiny of funds received from foreign sources. It is likely that most churches in the Union would be unable to meet all the requirements and would be forced to close or continue to meet illegally.
Similar crackdowns across the Russian Federation against minority religions — including Muslims, Protestant Christians, and especially Jehovah Witnesses — have drawn the attention of the European Baptist Federation (EBF) and the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) who spoke to the FORB situation in resolutions approved during their annual meetings last year. Solidarity with persecuted religious minorities (in the case of the Russian Federation it is Jehovah Witnesses) is a clear signal that Baptists’ commitment to freedom of religious belief for ALL.
How is the best way to engage in FORB advocacy?
By collaborating. Situations in various countries are too complex and, to be candid, too costly for any one organization to fully research and bring recommendations for consideration within the United Nation’s UPR processes. A single voice is not likely to be heard in these deliberations whereas a coordinated effort by a cluster of organizations with a similar focus on FORB will gain the attention of state actors and other stakeholders.
Baptist organizations like CBF, EBF and BWA are well-positioned to play a more active collaborative role on FORB for All. Joining with the regional and transnational partners with whom we can and should collaborate calls for investment in personal and organizational, empowering relationships.
How can a local church or an individual be engaged? “Transnational NGOs and networks can monitor, inform and advocate all they want; but without serious investments of time and effort by local human rights champions, nothing much will change on the ground.”
This is, I believe, where the future work of FORB advocacy intersects with local congregations and individuals. An individual representative travelling to meetings in Geneva or New York or Nairobi with the United Nations does not have nearly the impact of positive collaboration with members of our own Global Baptist Family and others who must engage locally on a daily basis with FORB issues. To that end, I felt hopeful when Christians from several Central Asian countries gathered last fall for training on what FORB means and how to engage in the UPR process.
Investing in theses local leaders is a catalyst for greater collaboration and action. Also, the investment by CBF Global Missions and CBF Advocacy for a Student.Go intern, Kieryn Wurts, who did a tremendous amount of data gathering for both the fall training conference and the spring visit to Geneva. Her work will continue to benefit the global cause of FORB for years to come.
Future engagement in FORB will be about more collaboration among transnational and regional organizations as well as with local churches and individuals who are engaged in transforming their own countries. The situation of FORB for the global church is likely to become more precarious as the trend is toward more restrictions and violations outpaces the expansion and protection of this basic human right.
Shane McNary is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel serving alongside his wife, Dianne, in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Learn more about and support their ministry at www.cbf.net/mcnary.