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NEWS STORY: Religious Freedom Monitory Group Closes Over Policy Dispute

c. 2003 Religion News Service MOSCOW _ The Keston News Service, a religious freedom watchdog known for its loud bark and incisive bite, is no longer operating, leaving a large part of the former Communist world unmonitored. “They were the ones reporting on the frontlines,” said John Burns, a Canadian religious freedom lawyer, who recalled […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

MOSCOW _ The Keston News Service, a religious freedom watchdog known for its loud bark and incisive bite, is no longer operating, leaving a large part of the former Communist world unmonitored.

“They were the ones reporting on the frontlines,” said John Burns, a Canadian religious freedom lawyer, who recalled the impact a KNS reporter had on the recent trial of a Jehovah’s Witness believer facing 18 years of prison in the Central Asian dictatorship of Uzbekistan. “His presence had an effect on the process. He brought the human rights dimension into the court. The judge took notice.”

The demise _ apparently the result of a policy dispute _ of the Oxford, England-based news service came quietly Dec. 18 with the resignation of its dynamic director and the three principal reporters who had covered a region stretching from the Balkans to Siberia.

The service’s 3,000 e-mail subscribers, who included journalists, religious leaders and government officials worldwide, were never informed of the stoppage. But it slowly became apparent that something was amiss, as KNS remained silent when militant Orthodox Christians recently attacked a Baptist church in Tbilisi and a pro-Kremlin youth movement picketed Scientologists in St. Petersburg.

The apparent schism over whether the parent Keston Institute, based in Oxford, England, should focus on exposing religious persecution through KNS or content itself with maintaining Soviet-era archives eventually widened to the point where eight of the Keston Institute’s 10 full-time employees resigned.

In January, trustees of the parent Keston Institute who had supported the news service stepped down, sealing the fate of KNS.

One of those trustees, Leonid Finkelstein, laid the blame for the demise of KNS at the feet of its founder, Michael Bourdeaux, an Anglican priest who started what became the Keston Institute in 1969.

“He stopped the Keston News Service although this was the most viable and important product of Keston Institute. Without KNS, the value of Keston is nil,” said Finkelstein, a Soviet-born broadcaster with the BBC Russian service, who was a trustee for 25 years.

Finkelstein took issue with the official reason for stoppage of the news service _ a lack of money _ and said a personality clash between Bourdeaux and Lawrence Uzzell, the recently resigned director, was the problem. Through the sale last year of a valuable piece of real estate in Oxford, the Keston Institute has the money to fund the news service, Finkelstein maintained in a telephone interview from London.

In a Feb. 14 interview from his home in Oxford, Bourdeaux countered that any personal differences were “completely irrelevant,” adding, “the reason why we could not continue was financial. If we had continued, we would have been bankrupt. That was the sole reason.”

From his new home in Dallas, Uzzell alluded to the split over the future of KNS but declined to discuss the details in an e-mail exchange.

“I resigned from Keston after reluctantly concluding that there were irreconcilable disagreements between me and several key members of the Keston Council, who thought that I was giving too high a priority to monitoring current threats to religious freedom,” Uzzell wrote, referring to the board of trustees.

Others associated with the Keston Insitute confirmed that the mass resignations were sparked by Uzzell’s departure and the realization that the news service had no future under Bourdeaux, who was elected president for life at a trustees meeting earlier in February.

On March 22, the Keston Institute will hold an Extraordinary General Meeting in Oxford, at which Bourdeaux said “excellent plans” for the future will be unveiled. He declined to elaborate, but vowed KNS will continue with a narrower focus on just Russia and with less attention paid to news and more to providing “background.”

Whatever happens, it appears quite unlikely that KNS will resume its past role. That, former KNS subscribers say, is a harsh blow to oppressed religious minorities, especially in former Soviet republics like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan where being on the wrong side of government religion policy can be a matter of life and death.

“After Keston was closed down I can’t see any other agency taking on that role,” said Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the 15,000 Baptists in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, who noted that local media often ignored religious freedom issues. “Some of our people, especially in the government, would find out what was happening in Georgia from Keston.”

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

KNS’ vital role in fighting for religious freedom in the region dates back to the early 1970s when it became a key player in publicizing the plight of believers arrested, tortured and imprisoned for defying the atheist regimes of Soviet bloc countries. That was also when Keston Institute began amassing a world-class collection of underground religious material from the Soviet Union.

After the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, KNS was, for several years, dormant until Uzzell opened a permanent office in Moscow in 1995. KNS reporting in the post-Soviet period often documented the efforts of the politically powerful Russian Orthodox Church to win back some of the influence, property and privileges it enjoyed before the 1917 Russian Revolution.

DEA END BROWN