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Shaheen, Wicker Reintroduce Bill to Hold Russia Accountable for its Religious Freedom Violations in Ukraine

(Washington, DC) — U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act yesterday. Representatives Joe Wilson (SC-02) Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05) introduced companion legislation in the House, which unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this week.

“There is a bipartisan urgency in Congress to demonstrate support for Ukraine in opposition to Putin’s cruelty, including his barbaric assault against peaceful religious communities. I’m proud to work with this group of lawmakers to reaffirm that sentiment and to stand up for democratic values around the world,” said Senator Shaheen. “This legislation is an important step forward to hold Putin to account for his unlawful aggression against the Ukrainian people and the fundamental freedoms they hold dear.” 

“The Kremlin’s current repression in Ukraine mirrors an ugly chapter from Soviet times when believers were persecuted for their religious faith,” said Senator Wicker. “Vladimir Putin and his proxies should face real consequences for their brutal attempts to curtail the religious freedom of Ukrainians who suffer under this ruthless Russian occupation.”

The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize and require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and the Donbas—not just violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders—when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). The bill reaffirms that “it is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.”

Russian forces invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy and attempt to annex it. The Kremlin has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it created and commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the occupied Donbas.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, unless exercising waiver authority, and to ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018.

Senator Shaheen, a member of the Ukraine Caucus, has been a tireless advocate for Ukraine sovereignty and its defense against an adversarial Russia.  Last month, Shaheen and a bipartisan group of Senators reintroduced the Ukraine Security Partnership Act. The bipartisan legislation, which cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, would provide security assistance and strategic support to Ukraine. Senator Shaheen, also a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, supported a provision in the fiscal year (FY) 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that became law that extends the Ukraine Security Initiative through December 31, 2024, and authorizes the use of up to $250 million included in FY 2021 NDAA to provide security assistance to Ukraine.