March 25, 2002
I submit this written testimony before this Subcommittee as Vice President of and on behalf of the International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief. The Academy has a membership of approximately 100 experts in the fields of religious freedom and human rights drawn from many countries and different faiths. The Academy provides technical assistance on issues of freedom of religion and human rights, and its work has included conducting several conferences in the New Independent States and Central and Eastern Europe.
Our organization hosted a delegation from Russia under the 2000 Open World Russian Leadership Program. We also received a small grant from Open World to support alumni participation in a conference on "Freedom of Conscience and Ensuring Interreligious Understanding" that we conducted in Moscow in June 2001, and we have recently been awarded another grant from the Center for Russian Leadership Development to host fifty Open World participants in June 2002.
Since 1992 our Academy has regularly conducted seminars, conferences, and consultations in the Russian Federation, often with the Russian Academy for State Service Under the Presidency as our host. These meetings focus on problems relating to religious human rights, and the attendees are usually federal and regional officials who oversee religious matters.
We have extensive contacts with Russian religious affairs officials, the people who make the decisions that affect the decisions impacting on religious organizations present throughout the Russian Federation. Although most of these officials are conscientious in carrying out their responsibilities, because of the past they do not fully appreciate the positive benefits of religious tolerance and the right of people individually and in community with others to practice their religious beliefs without official discrimination and free from state interference. Although the Academy conferences have helped reduce the problems that foreign religious organizations operating in Russia and others face, there is always substantial resistance to change.
The experience we had with the delegation of Russians brought to the United States under the Open World Russian Leadership Program was both astonishing and gratifying. Although their visit was brief (five days in Washington, D.C., and five days in Utah), it was apparent from these officials' comments that their rigid attitudes were changed almost overnight by their experience in the United States. One participant later wrote: "The realization of the program of the Library of Congress was not only unique, but also actualized at a high level. In the process of open dialogue with our American colleagues, we, the Russian participants of the program, were able not only to exchange information and the experience of our work, but also to develop close working contacts and establish opportunities and main directions for future joint projects."
It has always been difficult to communicate the concept that the state should be neutral toward all religions and should not erect impediments to the free exercise of religion, free from bureaucratic imposition. We addressed these issues through programs and activities such as a mini-conference at George Washington University on the International Religious Freedom Act; sessions at Catholic University School of Law on key U.S. Supreme Court cases on freedom of religion and registration and tax policy; and discussions with Utah governmental officials on practical issues such as zoning, governmental regulation of religiously affiliated educational institutions, and governmental funding of religious social service activities. The Russians' visit to the United States seemed to erase many of their preconceived attitudes. I recall several of them commenting on how well the religious communities got along together, seeming to fight only about parking spaces on Sunday morning.
More importantly, even though our new Russian friends spent only a brief time here, it still allowed them and Americans with similar interests to get to know one another on a personal basis and to bond. These experiences, we found, continued to be remembered and to have an abiding, salutary effect after these participants returned to Russia to carry out their responsibilities. Now they have an altogether different attitude toward foreign religious organizations and missionaries.
Our Academy has two basic objectives in hosting the people visiting the United States through the Open World Russian Leadership Program: (1) to introduce key Russian leaders responsible for shaping and implementing religion policy in Russia to the institutions of religious freedom in the United States and to U.S. experts on these themes; and (2) to acquaint U.S. political, academic, and church leaders with Russian concepts of religious freedom. It continues to be our experience that all program participants come away with greater appreciation of: the importance of religious freedom; problems with implementing this ideal in both countries; and ways it can be better implemented in practice. We expect that our Russian guests and their counterparts in the United States will maintain the working relationships established through Open World.
In relation to the latter point, our Academy has been able to continue contacts and discuss matters of mutual concern with the alumni of the Open World Program, which extends the benefits of the visit of these Russians to the United States. In this regard, I want to express how valuable we have found the staff carrying out the Open World Program at the Embassy in Moscow to be. Allison Hawley and Alexander Khilkov multiply the benefits of the program by holding alumni meetings throughout this vast country.
Our Academy has also found the staff of the program here in the United States to be most helpful. I know the officers and members of the Board of the Academy believe that the expenditures made in connection with the Open World Program are the best dollars ever spent in American-Russian relations. We are certainly getting our money's worth in the results obtained.