The Catholic University of America


Religious Freedom in the Former USSR


Religion is undoubtedly among the most potent forces in the world, shaping the destinies of nations, cultures and societies. 
Since the epic breakup of the former Soviet Union and its communist empire 20 years ago, relatively little has been reported in the West about the role of religion today in that vast region of the world.
Leading experts shed light on the topic at a half-day symposium at the Columbus School of Law on April 12, a discussion co-sponsored by the Center for International Social Development and the International Center for Civil Society Law.
“Religious Freedom in the Former USSR” brought together eight specialists to examine how the relationship between government and religion has evolved in the Central Asian nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, and also in Russia itself.
In Muslim-dominated nations such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, that achieved independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, religious tolerance has been in retreat, according to Knox Thames, director of policy and research at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Thames noted that Kazakhstan’s president recently said his country was becoming “a garbage heap” of new religious beliefs.
Jeff Goldstein (above) senior policy analyst for Eurasia at the Open Society Institute, observed that government control of Islam has grown steadily more rigid, with bureaucrats in direct control of Imams, their sermons and their services.
“There is no legitimate or moderate Islamic clergy left in those countries,” said Goldstein. “The control-and-suppress strategies of these governments actually contribute to religious extremism in the area.”
In Russia itself, things have evolved with a different twist. The second panel, moderated by CUA Law Professor Karla Simon, who also serves as co-director of the Center for International Social Development, charted the rise in religious belief among Russians. Religious worship was officially banned during the decades of communist rule, but today more than 60 percent of its citizens profess to believe in God.
“It becomes clear that atheism was not as ingrained as we thought,” said Christopher Marsh (above left) director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. Marsh, who speaks Russian and Chinese and has conducted field research across Eurasia, noted that as open belief in religion has risen, so has intolerance along with it. According to recent polls, self-identified followers of the Russian Orthodox Church show high levels of suspicion of people from other faiths and cultures.