U.S. Congressional hearing: Can Azerbaijan be deprived of U.S. assistance amid religious crackdown?

A former top Obama administration official on Wednesday called on the Trump administration to review U.S. government security-focused policies and assistance to foreign governments with poor religious freedom records, given that they frequently justify their crackdowns on the basis of countering terrorism, which in turn can fuel alienation and violence.

"As we have seen from countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Tajikistan, to name but a few, governments are increasingly conflating peaceful religious expression with terrorist activity in order to justify repression," Human Rights First's Rob Berschinski, director for security and human rights policy at the National Security Council, said in his testimony before the House Subcommittee on National Security.

"The effect of this trend is two-fold," he added. "Not only do such policies regularly threaten religious communities and other peaceful civic organizations directly,they often have the effect of advancing the very radicalization that they are ostensibly meant to confront"

For Berschinski, repressive governments tend to seek control over any organized body of individuals, and to view those outside the government"s direct control as a threat to their power. Thus, attacks on religion and belief often relate to, and sometimes stand in for, attacks on political opposition, human rights lawyers and activists, women, LGBT people, and ethnic minorities.

"Countries including Azerbaijan, China, and Tajikistan "have moved aggressively against members of peaceful political opposition groups and religious communities, often justifying their actions on dubious counter-terrorism grounds. These actions in turn risk promoting the views of the most radical actors within these communities," he noted.

Today, he added, the greatest threat to religious freedom is increasingly governments acting in the name of countering terrorism to repress their citizens and curtail human rights."

Berschinski also urged the administration to increase diplomatic engagement with European allies backsliding on democracy and human rights, including with respect to religious freedom and tolerance, and to consider increasing foreign assistance to fund civil society groups, including those promoting religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, and combating antisemitism, in central and eastern Europe.

In his testimony, ambassador Michael Kozak, a State Department official, said that while the moral imperative to promote religious freedom around the world is clear, "our efforts to defend freedom of religion or belief for all people is directly in our national interest."

International religious freedom issues "have always had strong bipartisan support," he said, adding the the administration "wants to work closely with Congress to help persecuted religious minorities."

Berschinski's speech comes just weeks after Congressman Chris Smith along with lead Democrat co-Sponsor Jim McGovern introduced H. Res. 537 in light of continued human rights abuses by the Azerbaijani regime.

"The Azeri regime continues to use torture, politically motivated criminal charges, harassment, international kidnapping, and other forms of intimidation to silence human rights defenders, independent journalists, and religious leaders," noted Smith, who chairs the House panel on global human rights. "It is evident that there are important security and economic ties between our countries; however, these violations cannot be ignored."


Washington, D.C.

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