China and Turkmenistan Fail to Sponsor UN Religious Sites Resolution.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 8 June 2001

Two of the countries that conspicuously failed to sponsor a United Nations resolution calling on states to protect religious sites were China and Turkmenistan, both of which have destroyed places of worship in the past few years in campaigns to suppress the religious activity of non-registered communities whose activities the government regards as illegal. Officials of the Chinese mission to the UN told Keston News Service that China backed the resolution, despite failing to sponsor it, but declined to say if religious sites of communities outside the framework of the five state-sponsored faiths would be protected from further raids, attacks and destruction. Officials of Turkmenistan's mission to the UN have failed to respond to Keston's questions as to whether Turkmenistan supports the resolution and, if so, whether it will abandon its policies of raiding unregistered places of worship and on at least five occasions bulldozing unregistered places of worship.

Originally sponsored by Austria and Hungary, the final resolution (A/RES/55/254), adopted without a vote by the General Assembly in New York on 31 May, was co-sponsored by 115 countries out of 189. The resolution condemned all acts or threats of violence, destruction, damage or endangerment directed against religious sites, calling on all states to respect and protect such sites in conformity with international standards and national legislation. It also encouraged promotion, through education, of a culture of tolerance and respect for the diversity of religions and for religious sites.

Officials of the Chinese mission rejected suggestions their country was lukewarm in its support for the resolution. `Not sponsoring it does not mean not supporting it,' Mr Yu (who declined to give his full name) told Keston by telephone from New York on 7 June. `China does support it.' Asked why his country had not sponsored the resolution, given that more than 100 other countries had, he responded: `So many countries had sponsored it that we knew it would be passed. It is not necessary for China to sponsor every resolution.' Asked whether China's destruction of unapproved places of worship - as in Wenzhou last year (see KNS 1 June 2001) - might have contributed to the decision not to sponsor the resolution, Yu replied: `There are no destructions. As a national policy, China does not destroy religious sites of places of worship. According to the constitution, the government respects and protects freedom of religion and protects people's right to worship.' Asked how this assertion matches the destruction of non-approved Buddhist, Daoist and Christian places of worship - including Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet – Yu repeated his earlier answers.

Keston repeatedly asked Yu whether the resolution protects places of worship not subject to the five state-sponsored religious communities, such as Catholic churches loyal to the Vatican (which are banned in mainland China). He pointedly and repeatedly declined to say, repeating only: `The government will protect religious sites in accordance with international and domestic law, as set out in the resolution.' He refused to say if this extended to religious sites outside the framework of the state-sponsored religious faiths. `I'm not an expert.'

Likewise the spokeswoman for the mission, Ms Meng (who also declined to give her full name) refused to say whether places of worship of non-government approved faiths would be protected. She denied that the places of worship destroyed in Wenzhou last year had been religious sites. `Maybe they were destroyed because they were illegal,' she asserted. `Maybe people did illegal things there - maybe they were evil cults.'

Also on 7 June, Keston tried to find out the views of Turkmenistan's mission to the UN on the resolution. Keston spoke briefly by telephone to an official who gave his name as Pagas Atpadev, who declared: `The resolution was approved by consensus, which means that all countries agreed it.' However, he declined to elaborate, merely noting Keston's questions and promising to let Keston know the mission's response. When Keston phoned later in the day, a woman said there was no official at the mission named Atpadev, and asked Keston to fax the questions to mission official Essen Aidogdyev.

Keston immediately sent a fax, asking whether Turkmenistan supported the resolution; why Turkmenistan was not among the co-sponsors; if Turkmenistan does support the resolution, what steps the government would be taking to protect places of worship of all faiths, given that many have been raided by the KNB during religious services, and a number have been destroyed (including two mosques, two Hare Krishna temples and the Adventist church in Ashgabad); what steps would be taken to return places of worship confiscated during the Soviet period (such as the Armenian Apostolic church in Turkmenbashi) and allow them to reopen; and what steps would be taken to allow all religious communities to operate places of worship openly (including Protestant Christians, Armenian Apostolic Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Lutherans, Jews and Bahais). Keston has so far received no response.

Paruir Hovanisyan, second secretary of the Armenian mission to the UN, told Keston on 7 June that Armenia had `definitely' decided to co-sponsor the resolution, declaring that there were `significant violations of Armenian religious sites in Turkey and Azerbaijan' (where many Armenian churches and monasteries have been left to rot or have been destroyed in the wake of the flight of Armenians). Hovanisyan claimed Armenia was `very tolerant' of religious groups. Asked whether this meant that raids by National Security Ministry officers on places of worship of minority communities - as in the April 1995 raids on Evangelical, Pentecostal, Adventist, Hare Krishna, Bahai and Jehovah's Witnesses places of worship and similar raids on Jehovah's Witness places of worship in April 2000 (see KNS 31 May 2000) - would not recur, he declared: `Definitely.' Asked about the vandalism on the mosque in the Azerbaijani town of Agdam (which is under the control of Karabakh Armenians), involving arson, graffiti and the use of the mosque to house cattle, Hovanisyan said he was not familiar with this. `There are specific facts - this was a result of war. You can't find such a violation in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh.'

By contrast, governments of countries that have seen places of worship destroyed by individuals or non-state entities strongly backed the resolution. `We had very clear instructions from the Foreign Ministry to co-sponsor, fully support and participate actively in this resolution,' a diplomat from the mission of Bosnia Herzegovina (who preferred not to be named) told Keston by telephone from New York on 7 June. `We would hope that the resolution would contribute to reconciliation among the peoples of the four major religions living in Bosnia Herzegovina.'

As proof of the need of such reconciliation, the official pointed to the recent riots in Banja Luka and Trebinje (both in the Bosnian Serb entity) that prevented the laying of foundation stones to rebuild the mosques destroyed by Serbian nationalists during the Bosnian war (see KNS 8 May 2001). `Unfortunately, some people still do not want to see such sites rebuilt.' Asked whether the resolution would be conveyed to officials on the ground in the two entities of Bosnia, the official declared that both the draft and final resolutions had been forwarded to the Foreign Ministry in Sarajevo, which would pass on the text to the entities. `I've seen no comments yet on the resolution from the entity level.'

Among other co-sponsors was Yugoslavia, which has been keen to highlight the attacks on Serbian Orthodox religious sites by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. (END)