In the following Milena Rampoldi’s interview with Felix Corley of the humanitarian organization Forum 18. Would like to thank him for his words about the objectives of Forum 18 and about the importance of struggling against religious discrimination to promote true freedom of religion.
Our role at Forum 18 is to provide original, reliable and detailed monitoring and analyses of threats and actions against the freedom of religion and belief of all people, whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism), in an objective, truthful and timely manner. We are totally committed to the ability of all people to exercise this human right with no exceptions.
Working since 2003, we take our name from Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the similar Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a core international human rights treaty.
We publish on the states of the former Soviet Union which are the worst violators of this fundamental human right, and also publish analyses on Turkey. While some other countries around the world violate the right to freedom of religion or belief – at times more severely than in the region we cover – this is the region we know the best and can provide accurate coverage of.
The primary goal of many of the governments of the region is to control society. This means that in addition to restricting individuals’ rights to conduct free journalism, freely form political parties or organise free trade unions, they also restrict individuals’ rights to freedom of religion or belief.
In many of the countries it is illegal to: organise religious meetings unless you have state permission; print, publish, import or distribute religious literature without undergoing state censorship; speak publicly to others about your faith; invite foreigners (and at times even local citizens) to address your religious community without state permission; and certain religious communities are arbitrarily banned from gaining state permission to function (Muslims outside the framework of the state-backed Muslim Boards, in some places Protestant Christians or Jehovah’s Witnesses). Clothing that meets individuals’ religious requirements is often banned or discouraged (for example, hijabs in Tajikistan).
Punishments for violating these restrictions include fines, imprisonment (on 10 July Kazakhstan handed down its 20th criminal conviction in 2017 for exercising freedom of religion or belief), confiscation of books or other property (even of places of worship), threats (including of rape) and deportation.
These restrictions apply to all people and religious communities within a country. Occasionally, some governments have imposed extra restrictions on one particular faith (Azerbaijan’s extra restrictions on who can lead Muslim communities, or Russia’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Forum 18 seeks to ensure that our monitoring and analyses are disseminated as effectively and widely as possible. All our news articles are posted on our website http://www.forum18.org and we are also on Twitter (@Forum_18) and Facebook @Forum18NewsService.
Our target audiences include diplomats, human rights defenders, journalists, victims of human rights violations, members of religious or belief communities, academics and people around the world. Geographically, our target audiences are those with a professional or personal strong interest involving freedom of religion and belief in the territories (almost all the former Soviet Union plus Turkey) we cover.
Because of the decline in respect for freedom of religion and belief and human rights generally by governments in the states Forum 18 monitors, people and communities who have experienced freedom of religion and belief violations are often reluctant to publicly document freedom of religion and belief and related human rights violations. This makes it more difficult and time-consuming than in earlier years to research violations, and also underlines the importance of Forum 18’s work as governments do not want their human rights violations to be publicly documented. In this regard it is noticeable and unsurprising that governments which seriously violate freedom of religion and belief also seriously violate the interconnected freedom of expression.
Every time Forum 18 investigates a violation we also attempt to question the state officials and organisations concerned. It appears that, in every country we monitor, officials involved in carrying out freedom of religion and belief violations know of and dislike Forum 18’s work. This may be judged from their angry or irritable responses when we introduce ourselves, or their refusal to answer questions. Such officials will also often put the phone down as soon as Forum 18 introduces itself. This puts such officials on notice that their repressive actions – both against individuals and communities – are being monitored.