Attacks on LDS groups in Russia are probed

WASHINGTON — Although Russia officially embraces religious freedom, a U.S. commission says it did little after extremists disrupted a congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, beat members and threatened U.S. missionaries.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also said Monday that some regional Russian officials continue to thwart registration of local LDS congregations required by a 1997 law. That might force their disbanding.

The commission said such problems are among reasons it chose to recommend Monday that the U.S. government keep applying pressure on Russia to protect and expand religious freedom.

However, it said religious freedom in Russia is in much better shape than most of a dozen other countries that it focused on this year. The commission was formed by Congress in 1998 to recommend steps that could help expand religious freedom.

It said Monday that such freedom now ranges from nonexistent in places like North Korea, to putting religious minorities under intense persecution places like the Sudan — where government troops help enslave and murder them.

"Russia, despite its problems, enjoys a far greater degree of religious freedom than any of them," said Commission Chairman Elliott Abrams.

Russia was the only country examined in the report, however, where specific problems facing the LDS Church were mentioned.

The report said congregations of the LDS Church, Jehovah's Witnesses and some Pentecostal groups were attacked by extremists — but little punishment or follow-up came from Russian officials. In fact, after an attack on a Pentecostal Church, it said police didn't respond for 12 hours.

The report complained specifically about Aug. 20 attacks on separate gatherings of the LDS Church and Jehovah's Witnesses in Volgograd.

A U.S. State Department statement last year about those attacks said, "In both cases, worshippers were beaten. American missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were also threatened." The State Department last year publicly called for a thorough investigation of the attacks and full prosecution of offenders.

The report Monday, however, said that according to the State Department, the Russian federal government generally has taken only limited steps to advance its promises against extremism and anti-Semitism.

"Regional officials implementing the 1997 (Russian) Religion Law have denied registration and sought the liquidation (disbanding) of unpopular religious communities," the report said.

It said groups especially targeted in some regions are "religious communities that are, or are perceived to be, new, foreign-influenced or non-Russian — such as Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, certain Pentecostals, and other Protestant groups."

It added, "It is still unclear what the policy of the Russian central government will be with regard to the liquidation of unregistered religious organizations." Because of those and other problems, the commission urged the federal government to closely monitor religious freedom in Russia, and "urge the Russian government to take effective steps to protect" it.

It also stressed continuance of the "Smith Amendment," named after Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. (who is LDS). It has been attached since 1997 to foreign aid bills to require the U.S. president to certify that Russia does not discriminate against religious groups in order to qualify for U.S. aid.

In response to the report, LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said the church appreciates "the cooperationa and assistance of the Russian national government with respect to the church's activities in Russia." In other major action, the commission urged the United States to oppose efforts by Beijing to host future Olympics until China curtails what have been worsening crack-downs on religious groups, especially the Falun Gong.

It noted that China enjoys much better trade relations with America than most countries where religious freedom is under attack. So it urged changes including requiring companies doing business in China to fully expose the nature and extent of it, so others can avoid inadvertently supporting actions leading to religious intolerance.