RUSSIA: A new "Inquisition"
The powers of the Russian Justice Ministry's Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis were considerably widened in February 2009, allowing it to investigate the activity, doctrines, leadership decisions, literature and worship of any registered religious organisation and recommend action to the Ministry. The subsequent appointment of renowned "anti-cultists" and controversial scholars of Islam to the Council – and the choice of prominent "anti-cultist" Aleksandr Dvorkin as its chair - have led a wide range of religious representatives to liken the Council to a new "inquisition", Forum 18 News Service notes. If the Council is given free rein, it is likely to recommend harsh measures against certain religious organisations. At the Council's first meeting, Dvorkin named the Russian Bible Society as a possible target for investigation, but its executive director told Forum 18 no action has followed. Forum 18 asked the Justice Ministry how many commissions it is likely to give the Council each year, whether the Ministry will automatically accept its conclusions and, if not, who will decide. However, the Ministry has so far failed to respond.
So far, those seeking to restrict certain religious minorities through the state apparatus have mainly done so by proposing laws. Even if successful – as in part with the 1997 Religion Law – restrictions depend upon the state's willingness to implement laws in the way their lobbyists hoped. Now, for the first time on the federal level since the end of the Soviet period, such people have been directly appointed to a state religious-affairs body.
The Expert Council attached to the Justice Ministry - whose Minister Aleksandr Konovalov signed the instructions responsible for its re-organisation - first met in its newly-reconstituted state on 3 April.
Forum 18 submitted written questions about the way the Council will operate to the Ministry before the start of the working day on 22 May. These included: approximately how many commissions the Ministry intended to give the newly re-established body per year; whether the Ministry will automatically accept its conclusions and, if not, who will decide. However, the Ministry failed to respond to Forum 18's questions by the middle of the working day in Moscow on 26 May.
If the Council is given free rein, it is likely to recommend harsh measures against certain religious organisations. One appointee is the author of a leaflet linking Hare Krishna devotees with murder and child abuse that was recently declared extremist by a court in the Russian Far East. Another has urged Muslims to burn Islamic books banned as extremist – even as prominent Muslim leaders press for a review of such rulings (see F18News 27 May 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1300).
If heard, one check on the Council's activity may be the unprecedented outcry the development has provoked from a range of Russia's religious representatives – Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, Muslim, Old Believer and Pentecostal – and religious-freedom defenders. Some have likened the body to a new "inquisition" (see F18News 2 June 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1303).
What will the Council do?
Days after the Council's 3 April meeting which unanimously voted him chair, Aleksandr Dvorkin - Russia's most prominent "anti-cult" activist – was interviewed about how it would operate by another new member, religious-affairs journalist Aleksandr Shchipkov, on Radonezh, a Moscow-based Orthodox radio station.
The fears of many Russian religious communities and human rights defenders have been exacerbated by the appointment to the Council of Dvorkin, Shchipkov, and figures such as Aleksandr Kuzmin, who has written that Hare Krishna devotees "are prepared to murder on religious grounds" (see F18News 27 May 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1300).
"For a long time we've been saying that very many organisations got the status of religious organisations in the reckless nineties, but in fact are either not religious or are not doing the activity stipulated in their statutes," remarked Dvorkin. Such organisations are engaged in political and commercial activity, making extremist statements and "persistent proselytism", he maintained. Now empowered to examine a registered organisation's compliance with its own statutes, the Expert Council will be passed citizens' complaints about religious organisations at the Justice Ministry's discretion, Dvorkin suggested, and will scrutinise their activity on receipt of sufficient material.
During the Radonezh interview, Dvorkin and Shchipkov agreed that as the Council's work is unpaid, they will continue in their previous employment. Whether the work is paid and whether Council members hold the status of government officials or private specialists were among Forum 18's unanswered questions to the Justice Ministry.
Bible Society investigated
At the Council's 3 April meeting, Dvorkin named the Russian Bible Society as one organisation for possible investigation, its executive director, Anatoli Rudenko, told Forum 18 on 20 May. The Society was subject to a Justice Ministry check-up of its documentation in October 2008, mainly on suspicion that it does not exhibit the characteristics of a religious organisation. After the Society complained, however, the Ministry confirmed in writing that the check-up had uncovered no grounds for corrective action.
Since Konovalov's appointment in May 2008 – days after President Dmitry Medvedev took office - the Justice Ministry has stepped up administrative pressure on non-Orthodox centralised religious organisations. Konovalov, who previously studied theology at St Tikhon's Orthodox University in Moscow, has a strong personal loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). He has maintained publicly that state officials should remain distant from their personal preferences, however (see F18News 12 November 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1216).
The Bible Society has not experienced any problems since the 3 April Council meeting, Rudenko told Forum 18, and stressed that a Council investigation requires a commission from the Ministry, "but there isn't one". Dvorkin has attacked many other religious groups in the past, but never the Society, its executive director pointed out. This leads Rudenko to suspect that opposition originates elsewhere and is not ideological, but instead seeks to usurp the Society's property in a typical act of Russian "reiderstvo", or commercial raiding.
In a 27 April open letter, Rudenko expresses his gratitude to Justice Minister Konovalov that the Bible Society was reportedly chosen as a target at the first meeting of the "so-called" Expert Council. "I interpret that as the highest possible evaluation of our labours (..) all the more prestigious because it coincides fully with the evaluation of the Russian Bible Society's labours in distributing the Word of God in Russia and the world expressed recently on behalf of Patriarch Kirill." In a 20 February 2009 letter, Bishop Mark of Yegoryevsk informs Rudenko on behalf of the patriarch: "I highly evaluate the labours of the Russian Bible Society in distributing the Word of God in Russia and the world. I am convinced that fruitful co-operation between the Russian Church and the Society will develop further."
Re-established in 1990, the Russian Bible Society is a non-denominational Christian organisation publishing and distributing Bibles in the Russian-language Synodal version, a nineteenth-century translation widely used not only by Protestants but also Russian Orthodox for reading and study outside church services (which are in Church Slavonic). Rudenko reminded Forum 18 that, while the Society was initially founded in 1813 under the patronage of Tsar Alexander I, Tsar Nicholas I forced it to cease operations in 1826 and transferred its property – then worth some two million roubles - to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.
New powers for the Expert Council
The changes to the Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis are the result of two Justice Ministry orders:
No. 61, signed 3 March 2009, creates the Council's almost entirely new membership (see F18News 27 May 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1300).
No. 53, signed 18 February 2009, gives the Council apparently limitless scope for investigating a registered religious organisation. The only stipulated aim of its 3 June 1998 predecessor was evaluation of whether a community was indeed religious and functioning in line with its registration application.
In addition to open-ended "other questions which may arise" while conducting expert analysis or monitoring an already-registered religious organisation (Appendix 1, Article 4), the Council may now investigate other aspects of its activity. These are: a religious organisation's founding documents and leadership decisions; information concerning its doctrinal principles and corresponding practice; forms and methods of activity, worship services and other rites; internal documents reflecting its institutional structure; the religious literature, printed, audio and video material a religious organisation produces or distributes (Appendix 1, Article 3).
The Council now has the right to demand and receive documents necessary for such analysis from state bodies and any organisation (Appendix 2, Article 6). The Justice Ministry is to treat the Council's conclusions as recommendations (Appendix 1, Article 15).
The 1998 government decree made clear that such analysis could take place only when religious communities seek state registration. While it must still be commissioned by the Justice Ministry, it is now possible when the Ministry "monitors a religious organisation's conformity with its aims and activity as set out in its registered statutes", i.e. at any time. Analysis may also take place in other specific circumstances: if a religious organisation makes changes to its registered statutes; to check whether its activity corresponds with its registered statutes; if a member of the organisation is convicted of extremism; if materials it produces or distributes are ruled extremist (Appendix 1, Article 7).
An only recently exercised function, the 1997 Religion Law stipulates that the government organ which registers a religious organisation – now the Justice Ministry – is authorised to monitor compliance of its aims and activity with its registered statues. (Article 25, Part 2)
Under a July 2008 law introducing minor amendments to numerous laws - including the 1997 Law - power to determine the procedure for conducting state religious-studies expert analysis was switched from the government to "the authorised federal organ of executive power".
Growing campaign against "religious extremism"
The reconstitution of the Expert Council came against a growing official battle with "religious extremism" which has been underway for the past five years. Alongside genuinely extremist works, many Muslim writings which do not appear to advocate violence have also been added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Anyone who then distributes them is liable to be fined. Jehovah's Witnesses too have faced investigations after their literature has been examined on allegations of "extremism" (see F18News 28 April 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1288). (END)
For a personal commentary by Irina Budkina, editor of the http://www.samstar.ucoz.ru Old Believer website, about continuing denial of equality to Russia's religious minorities, see F18News 26 May 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=570.
For more background, see Forum 18's Russia religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1196.
Analysis of the background to Russian policy on "religious extremism" is available in two articles: 'How the battle with "religious extremism" began' (F18News 27 April 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1287) and 'The battle with "religious extremism" - a return to past methods?' (F18News 28 April 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1288).
Reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=10.
A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1351.
A printer-friendly map of Russia is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=russi.
28 April 2009
A turning point in the Russian authorities' drive against "religious extremism" came in 2007, when two previous unsuccessful attempts to ban Islamic literature were finally successful, as this analysis – the second part of a presentation given at a seminar at the Kennan Institute in Washington DC – notes. Also initiated that year was the Federal List of Extremist Materials, which now contains 367 items. Anyone who distributes these works can be fined. Alongside genuinely extremist material are some works Forum 18 News Service has seen which appear to contain no calls to extremism. "The Personality of a Muslim", a popular work among Russian Muslims, was deemed extremist in August 2007 and several distributors of it have since been fined. Indigenous pagans and Jehovah's Witnesses are facing accusations of extremism on the basis of their literature, even though none of it is on the banned list. The appointment of Aleksandr Dvorkin, a prominent "anti-cult" activist, to head the Justice Ministry's Expert Religious Studies Council has alarmed those who hoped officials would curb the widespread use of extremism accusations.
27 April 2009
The formation of Russia's policy towards one particular form of extremism – religious extremism – may have begun hesitantly, Forum 18 News Service notes. But the June 2002 Extremism Law eventually led to a wideranging crackdown on religious literature the authorities deemed "extremist", as this analysis – the first part of a presentation given at a seminar at the Kennan Institute in Washington DC – notes. In late 2002, literature confiscated from a mosque community in an FSB security service and Prosecutor's Office raid led to the first known warning for religious literature under the Law. Yet convictions – often handed down in secret and based on literary analyses of confiscated books – soon mounted. Mainstream Muslim works – such as Russian translations of the writings of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi – were banned outright, even though they contain no calls to commit crimes. A typical expert analysis suggested that Nursi's work – banned by a Moscow court in 2007 – is extremist because its reference to "the sword of strong faith" might lead to "defensive behaviour".
19 March 2009
State actions against freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan continue, Forum 18 News Service has found. Latest actions include the closure of a Christian-run rehabilitation centre for alcoholics and drug-addicts, and continuing prosecutions, fines and property confiscations against Baptists for holding unregistered worship services. Officials' "narrow interpretation" of the law in relation to the rehabilitation centre was condemned by Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee. "Non-commercial organisations must be social organisations, religious organisations or political parties and officials insist that all three be kept separate," she told Forum 18. "But this is absurd, as everything that is not forbidden should be allowed." Meanwhile, Elizaveta Drenicheva, a missionary for the Unification Church (commonly known as the Moonies) has been freed after two months' imprisonment. She had been sentenced to two years in jail for sharing her beliefs, and her criminal record has not been cancelled. Officials are also continuing to try to pressure the Hare Krishna commune near Almaty to leave its site.