BY JON CRONIN
In an effort to promote religious freedom around the world, U.S. Rep. Jeffrey Meeks (D-Jamaica) and Assemblyman David Weprin (D- Fresh Meadows) wrote to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to investigate a commission that hinders the practice of Hinduism in Russia.
In a joint letter to Dr. Daniel Mark, the chairman of USCIRF, Meeks and Weprin wrote, “Vladimir Putin’s Russia has consistently missed the mark on religious freedom, and I am concerned that in the wake of systematic persecution of religious minorities—for instance, the Jehovah’s Witness ban last year—Putin and the Putin-aligned Orthodox Church have now set their sights on Hinduism.”
Weprin and Meeks said they felt that as representatives of large Hindu communities in Queens, which is the most diverse county in the nation, it was their duty to highlight injustices abroad.
The two legislators pointed to a Newsweek story about Shri Prakash Ji, a Hindu leader in Moscow who has lived there with his family for more than 30 years. In the past few years, he and his family have suffered attacks on their home and property.
Meeks and Weprin wrote that such attacks were allegedly prompted by Alexander Dvorkin, who is the chairman of the Expert Religious Studies Council in Russia, which is associated with the Orthodox Church-affiliated commission and has the authority to investigate religious organizations. The USCIRF had singled out the commission in a 2009 annual report.
Shri told Newsweek that the attacks have worsened in the past three years. In November 2017, police raided the spiritual center that he leads and his home.
“They searched the center, and they searched my home, where my family was. They are sending fake journalists to my office. People come to me, they pretend to be a follower, and then they film me. Every week, they are doing something,” he told Newsweek.
Weprin and Meeks noted that the attacks on Prakash have increased as the Russian Orthodox Church has expressed more far-right sentiments. According to Meeks and Weprin, behavior such as this is becoming more commonplace in Russia under the Putin regime. To create a more singular religious voice in Russia, the administration has targeted religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Buddhists and Scientologists.
“USCIRF has been very clear about the nature of Russia’s efforts to brand common religious practice and faith as ‘extremist.’ A report last month detailed several instances of derogatory rhetoric towards Hindus, including a case in which prosecutors attempted to paint a seminal commentary on the Bhagavad Gita as extremist. I believe that the actions detailed in the aforementioned case are continuations of this alarming trend,” Meeks and Weprin wrote.
The legislators noted in their letter that it is the duty of the USCIRF to examine religious freedoms, and then make policy recommendations to the president, Congress and the State Department. They asked for an investigation of Dvorkin and his associates to be launched that would look into his use of his government post to attack religious practices, and “ensure that the country’s religious minorities can practice their faith in peace.”
Reach reporter Jon Cronin via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 357-7400, ext. 125.