Robert A. Seiple
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
Remarks, Media Roundtable, American Embassy
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, May 24, 2000
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: Thank you for coming. My name is Bob Seiple and I'm Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom. Let me make a couple of introductory remarks and then entertain any and all of your questions.
In 1998, two religious laws were enacted: one in the United States and the other in Uzbekistan. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 in the United States created my office and position. It was not the first legislation on this issue. Religious freedom was guaranteed in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and in a host of international covenants since then.
Certainly, the United States did not invent this idea, but wanted to put its shoulder to the considerable international wheel. My office is designed to promote religious freedom internationally; to promote reconciliation where religious conflicts are implemented along religious lines; and to make sure that all of this is woven into the foreign policy of the United States. We monitor, record, respond and once every September put out a 190-country report on religious freedom.
Also in 1998, Uzbekistan came out with a religion law. It was geared to the registration of religious minorities. It also had the unfortunate effect of criminalizing non-legal, or non-registered, religions. So, from the beginning, we have had issues between our two pieces of legislation that have brought us together.
I was here last May, and so this is my second visit to Uzbekistan. We have met with government officials and members of all of the various faiths of Uzbekistan and with human rights groups. Again, our hope is that we can work with the government of Uzbekistan for the promotion of religious freedom.
We have had good talks, candid talks, straightforward talks, both here and in the United States on these issues. And we have made progress. We still have a long way to go in some areas, but the relationship of trust has been established. Let me end with that introductory comment and ask for your specific questions. Hopefully, I will be able to answer them.
BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION (BBC): You mentioned that there had been progress. What specific sort of progress were you referring to?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: Let me mention a number of areas in which we have worked on in a fruitful way. Last August, we had a number of individuals who were in prison, we think primarily because of their religious affiliations and we were able to get them out of prison. I think specifically there are three in Nukus, one in Bukhara and one in Tashkent. Secondly, we have been working on the liberalization of (Uzbekistan's) Religion Law of 1998. This is a liberalization to let more religious groups be registered. The government of Uzbekistan did create an appeals process. This has been very effective. During this past year we have seen a great many more religious groups -- churches, synagogues etc. -- of all kinds registered. By effecting these kinds of specific solutions, we were also able to build relationships of good will and trust. We certainly hope that these kinds of relationships will lead to progress in the future.
UPI UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL (UPI): What will you report when you go back to Washington, and what do you consider the results of your visit?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: We continue to see a mixed result of the progress that we have made. As I said, in some areas we have been very gratified especially regarding minority religions, in terms of the registration numbers and the appeals that we have made on behalf of certain individuals. The major issue, of course, surrounds the Muslim faith. Here we look at this from two different perspectives. While we may see religious freedom, I think it is also fair to say that the Uzbek authorities see a lot of the same issues through the prism of security.
Now this is a difficult issue. We have been very clear that religion does not give license to hide terrorist activities behind its face. There is also no question that terrorism has been a reality in this part of the world. The bombing here on February 16 makes that abundantly clear. The issue is that as the government tries legitimately to crack down on terrorism, the potential for an overreaction and the radicalization for moderates is very real. As you might imagine, this is a difficult issue to resolve, but we have talked very candidly, one with another. We understand each other. And we will continue to talk, although the issue is far from resolved.
I mentioned already the religion law as a major issue that we would like to see revisited. Specifically in the implementation of the law, the reality has been better than the written law itself. We are encouraging the Uzbek government to incorporate that reality, which will have the effect of liberalizing what we think, is a very restrictive law. As you may know, the Uzbek government has already had one roundtable on this issue, and plans to have another one, hopefully, in the near future.
A final large issue that I would mention is the potential problem of missionary activity. Missionary activity is permitted under international covenants and the OSCE Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) regulations. It is a fundamental right in virtually all of the human rights documents. But there are groups and minority faiths inside of Uzbekistan that traditionally practice missionary activity. And yet, presently, there is a law against it. This has not yet been a major problem, but given the potential for it in the future, it is an issue that we want to talk about and come back to.
RADIO FREE EUROPE (RFE): In your speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and I'm quoting here from the Russian translation of the Report on Religious Freedom, you said that each person chooses his or her way to God and that governments should not create obstacles in this regard. Speaking from this perspective, how do you evaluate the harsh policy of the Uzbek government towards religious groups?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: Well, let me put that comment within the context of Uzbek reality. The Uzbek government is all of nine years old. I think it is a fair statement to say that much positive has happened in the first nine years of this government. The United States has two hundred and thirty four years to work under democracy, and we're still working. In other words, no country has all of the answers, and no country has it absolutely perfect. What I think is fair to state unequivocally are the universal rights of man and women relative to religious freedom. We believe these rights are universal, which is to say that they transcend national borders.
They also become an international standard, and they become very much a part of international law. Virtually all of the countries of the world in some way, shape or form follow these, or sign onto or are signatories to these legislative or treaty sort of instruments. Now there is no question in our mind that Uzbekistan has a long way to go. And I would stand by the remarks that I made at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the role of government toward these rights, and allowing for the rights to be incorporated as part of the citizenship of that country.
You can always tell a great deal about a country by how it chooses to protect its minority populations. Again, I think that there is progress on the part of the Uzbek government in that regard, as it relates to religious freedom. But again, they also have a long way to go. The end of that journey is framed by the comments that come out of the international instruments.
VOICE OF AMERICA (VOA): Let me ask you this question, not as a VOA stringer, but rather as a member of a women's organization. I think that this is a biased report (Annual Report on International Religious Freedom), because some of the individuals described in the report as victims used Islam to put pressure on women. For example, during 1994-1995, Imam Abidkhon Nazarov had circulated videotapes with his preaching, part of which was about how women must behave. After this preaching, women began wearing veils and hijab and distancing themselves from society. Also, the report tries to defend members of the banned "Hezbut-Tahrir" religious movement. I read one of their leaflets in which they call upon Uzbeks not to buy apartments from Russians, because soon Uzbeks will drive Russians away from the country and get their apartments for free. Don't you think that in compiling this report, multiple sources should be used such as non-government organizations (NGOs), ethnic minorities, intelligentsia?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: Well, thank you for bringing all those things to our attention. Let me say a couple of things about the report, as your question is about its preparation. The report is the first one. It covers 194 countries and is 1,100 pages long. We think it is a good report; we would not say it is a perfect report. The beauty of an annual report is that you get a chance to correct it. You have the opportunity to increase the sources of information that come to you. The legislation that mandates the report also mandates that we talk to the NGO community, to the human rights community and to the faith-based community. We try to say that when something is merely reported, that it comes as a report and do not try to ascribe absolute truth to it. In all cases we would try to have more than one reporting element for everything that appears in the report. Over time, these sources for reporting will become better and better.
The first report covers the time-period from January of 1998 to June of 1999. The next report will cover simply twelve months. But if you feel that there is a bias in the writing or problems with the facts, we humbly ask you to point them out to us. Let us know so that we can look into it, and if we feel there are compelling reasons for change, we will certainly make changes.
UPI: Which meetings did you have in Uzbekistan during your -- this trip. Did you meet with President Karimov?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: Last May we met with President Karimov, but not this time. Let me simply say, because I don't think it is appropriate to mention specific names -- and I would have trouble with pronunciations -- that we met with all the minority and majority faiths in Uzbekistan; we met with human rights organizations; we met with the Religion Affairs Bureau of the Government, and we met with representatives of the Foreign Ministry.
TURKISTON-PRESS: What is the official reaction of the Uzbek Government to this report?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: There are parts of the report that they agree with, there are parts of the report that they have not commented on. I am sure that there are parts of the report where they would have disagreements either in tone, or in emphasis, or perhaps in facts.
TURKISTON-PRESS: So they didn't like the report?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: I can't comment on that specifically because there was never a word or a phrase in my conversations with them that would capture whether they liked it or didn't like it. They accepted it. I am sure there are parts of it that they did not like to see in print.
RADIO LIBERTY: I quote a passage from the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom on Uzbekistan: "The most serious abuses of the right to religious freedom were committed against Muslim believers. While benevolent toward moderate Muslims, the Government seeks to control the Islamic hierarchy and is intolerant of Islamic groups that attempt to operate outside the state-controlled system." Having met the officials, and NGOs and human rights activists, how do you comment on this?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: First of all, we stand by the report that you've just read. And as you might imagine this is one of the areas of disagreement. We feel that there are devout Muslims who perhaps have studied abroad, who perhaps have brought literature from that study back into the country, who are now under suspicion in government eyes because of that. And this is a very difficult issue between a legitimate crackdown on terrorism and the disproportional response that begins to negatively impact innocent people.
UZBEK RADIO: Were there any differences in views on the report between the Government of Uzbekistan and non-government organizations?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: I think it is fair to say that there are differences, but let me also say that in most countries there would be a difference between a non-governmental voice and the governmental voice. Where the government may see security, the non-governmental organization may see harassment on the basis of religious faith. And I would add that there is an enormous amount of courage on the part of the human rights community and the faith-based community to speak out in the midst of this difference. At the same time the NGO community and the government are doing more talking together. We obviously would want to encourage that, because this is a way to deal with the void between the two institutions.
VOA: Don't you think that there needs to be even more courage on the part of the NGOs to support government actions against extremists?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: I've made this point before. There is nothing in our position that would condone the kind of extremism that hurts other people. Nor is there anything in the U.S. governmental position that would approve of the Uzbek government harming innocent people.
Again, the challenge is to find that right balance where you can have your response against terrorism without inflicting unnecessary pain on innocent people.
BVV [sic]: Has your government given political asylum to any Uzbeks harassed on a religious basis by their government?
AMBASSADOR SEIPLE: First of all, the U.S. Government has given political asylum on the basis of religious persecution or discrimination. That's one of the ways it comes about. But I don't know specifically in the giving of such asylum whether we've had cases of Uzbek citizens. So, I don't know specific cases, but I do know that conceptually this opportunity exists. Thank you once again for coming.
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