The Crimean Tatars have historically faced persecution firstly under the Russian Empire then under the Soviets. Now back under Russian control there are reports of increasing persecution.

Last week the U.S. State Department hosted the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom meeting in Washington DC. The turnout was impressive. More than 350 government officials, religious freedom advocates, and officials from more than 80 nations attended.

The goal of the gathering was to raise awareness of religious persecution and violations of religious freedom around the world. One group of people who have suffered greatly from religious persecution, but do not get the attention they deserve, are the Crimean Tatars.

The Tatars are a Sunni-Muslim and ethnically and linguistically Turkic indigenous people of Crimea. They once ruled over the peninsula, but today they only make up around 13% of Crimea’s population.

Their persecution has all but been ignored, or at least unknown, by much of the world. With the exception of Turkey, the Muslim world has been virtually silent on the Tatars' situation.

This is why it was so important that the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Wess Mitchell, met with the Ukrainian president’s envoy for Crimean Tatar affairs Mustafa Dzhemilev during the gathering last week. In the past, Mitchell has also raised the plight of the Tatars at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).   

The Tatars have had a rough ride throughout history.

The Crimean Khanate - a dependancy of the Ottoman Empire - survived for 300 years until Russia’s Catherine the Great took over the peninsula in 1783.

Since then Russia has had terrible record of mistreating the Tatars.

In the 1920’s Vladimir Lenin reportedly wrote about his plans for the Crimean Tatars: "We will take them, divide them, subjugate them, digest them." Not to be outdone, Joseph Stalin nearly annihilated the Tatars after claiming they were enemies of the state because some sided with Nazi Germany during World War II. 

While some fought for Germany, many fought for the Soviet Union too.  In fact, eight Crimean Tatars won the Hero of the Soviet Union - the highest distinction to be awarded. Amet-Khan Sultan, a Crimean Tatar pilot, won this prestigious award twice.

In 1944, almost 180,000 Crimean Tatars were forcibly removed by Stalin and shipped east. Many ended up in Uzbekistan, but thousands were also scattered around Siberia. During this forced removal, tens of thousands of Tatars were killed and a way of life was almost destroyed.  

Under the perestroika reforms in the 1980’s, the Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea - and many did. In 1991 Crimea became part of an independent Ukraine. While life for the Tatars in Ukraine was not always perfect, it was far better than anything they had experienced under Soviet rule. 

According to the Ukraine's Foreign Ministry, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 more than 20,000 Crimean Tatars have fled the Crimean peninsula and settled elsewhere in Ukraine. Those Tatars who remain in Crimea are subject to repression and discrimination.

As the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2017 states: “According to human rights and international organizations, occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to abductions, forced psychiatric hospitalizations, imprisonment, and detentions.”

The top leadership of the Crimean Tatars are in exile in mainland Ukraine because they are banned from entering Crimea. Russia even closed down the Crimean Mejlis, claiming it was connected to extremist activity. In the past senior leaders of the Tatar community have been jailed. Russian security services routinely raid homes and offices of prominent Crimean Tatars on dubious pretenses. 

Four years after Russia’s annexation, it has not slowed down their harassment of the Tatars. According to a report by the Crimean Tatar Resource Center during the first half of 2018 Russian authorities carried out 66 illegal raids on homes, 89 interrogations and 98 arrests in occupied Crimea.

Moscow has banned the annual ceremonies marking Stalin’s mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. Russia has also banned select pieces of Crimean Tatar literature and religious books.

Some in Moscow have even called for the “de-Turkification” of Crimea by changing the name of the peninsula and its major cities back to the names used by the ancient Greeks. For example, Crimea would become Taurida and Sevastopol would become Sevastoupoli. This attempt to write out Turkic culture from Crimea’s history is nothing short of cultural vandalism.

Due to historic and cultural reasons, Turkey has been the champion of the Tatar cause. Other than Turkey, the Muslim world has been virtually silent on the Tatars’ situation. This is unfortunate and leaders of Muslim majority countries should raise this matter with Moscow at every opportunity.

It was a step in the right direction for senior members of the U.S. State Department to meet with representatives of the Crimean Tatar community during the meeting on religious freedom last week but more can be done.

With all the religious and political persecution, taking place around the world it is easy to overlook what is taking place in Crimea.

To raise awareness, the Trump Administration should invite a delegation of Crimean Tatars to the White House. The U.S. should also work with Turkey and other Muslim-majority countries to pressure Russia about its illegal occupation of Crimea and its persecution of the Tatar community.

Not only is raising the issue of the Tatars another way to pressure Moscow over its illegal annexation of Crimea, but also helps to advance the cause of religious freedom.

Most importantly, it is simply the right thing to do.

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