19 August 2008
A sustained crackdown on Muslims by the local authorities in the traditionally Muslim North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria preceded the bloody uprising three years ago in the capital, Nalchik, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Local Muslims report mosque closures, arbitrary detentions and police brutality. "The police would keep rounding them up, beating them up, then throwing them out again," the mother of two young Muslims killed in the 2005 attack told Forum 18. State representatives have denied to Forum 18 that this was the case, while admitting that, "maybe some police spoke roughly, but it was interrogation, and interrogation isn't dancing." Contrary to the state's claims, local Muslims insist that mosques were not centres for extremist activity.
18 August 2008
Some young Muslims facing trial for a militant attack on the state security services in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria three years ago were in fact arrested due to their active faith, Forum 18 News Service has been told. As frequent mosque-goers, they and relatives say they were already listed as Islamic extremists by police, who used torture to extract confessions. These claims are "lies" and "rubbish", Forum 18 was told at the detention centre in Nalchik where they are currently held by that institution's assistant head. Unproven suspicions of Islamic militancy resulted in the arrest of one detainee, former Guantanamo Bay inmate Rasul Kudayev, his mother told Forum 18.
22 July 2008
The authorities have prevented about eight Jehovah's Witness congresses from taking place so far this summer while about thirty have gone ahead despite official attempts to obstruct them, Marina Topuriya of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. The FSB security service, local administrations and Prosecutor's Offices have all been involved. Congresses in Kemerovo and Kirov due to have begun on 25 July are the latest to be abruptly cancelled. "We suspect it's co-ordinated, because everywhere the methods are the same," she noted. "It's difficult to say where the wind is blowing from. But we can see the results." The FSB security service in Moscow refused to discuss with Forum 18 their role in the cancellations, but an officer in Vladikavkaz denied that the FSB had obstructed the local Jehovah's Witness congress. A pending legal case in Sverdlovsk Region could see many Jehovah's Witness books and magazines – including "Watchtower" – declared extremist and banned. Acting Public Prosecutor Aleksei Almayev denied that this was a "witch hunt" and dismissed Jehovah's Witness fears that the magazine could be banned in its entirety. Religious freedom lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev shares the Jehovah's Witnesses' concerns. "I feel [the authorities] want to close down the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, though of course they physically couldn't do this."
17 July 2008
The recently-released Buguruslan City Court decision banning 16 Islamic publications fails to identify which parts of the texts are extremist, Forum 18 News Service has found. The local ruling resulted in the titles being added to the national Federal List of Extremist Materials. Under the Extremism Law, the Criminal Code can be invoked so that anyone carrying out mass distribution, preparation or storage with the aim of mass distribution of the texts risks a five-year prison term. Handed a list of the titles and asked if any support terrorism, leading Islam specialist Aleksei Malashenko told Forum 18: "If you say this, then every book, including the Bible, may be called pro-terrorist. The problem is not the books, but one of commentary – how they are used." Forum 18 has read one of the banned publications, Muhammad Ali al-Hashimi's "The Personality of a Muslim". The book's sole emphasis is on kindness and generosity, including towards non-Muslims – but a criminal case has now been opened against the head of Moscow Islamic University's publishing department for distributing it. The chairman of Buguruslan City Court has declined to answer Forum 18's questions about his court's ruling.
14 July 2008
The court in the Urals town of Asbest chose not to consider a lawsuit accusing the Jehovah's Witnesses of distributing "extremist" religious literature, as an assessment by FSB security service specialists did not qualify as evidence, the town's acting Public Prosecutor Aleksei Almayev told Forum 18 News Service. However, he said a criminal investigation is continuing and an analysis of several Jehovah's Witness publications – including their magazine "Watchtower" - is being conducted by a local university. "And when we file suit again, we think the court will be more sympathetic." The Prosecutor's Office warning to Asbest's Jehovah's Witnesses claims the publications are "overtly, clearly and directly aimed at inciting hatred, propaganda of exclusivity and humiliation of human dignity on account of a person's attitude towards religion". It claims that the Jehovah's Witnesses' "aggression" will incite others to react to "blasphemous pronouncements on things they consider sacred". If found "extremist" by Asbest court, the publications will be added to the ever-lengthening Federal List of Extremist Materials, which already includes traditional Mari pagan and Muslim literature. Those distributing literature on this list anywhere in Russia risk a five-year prison term.
30 June 2008
In a crucial development for religious organisations, Russia's Supreme Court on 10 June ruled that a Smolensk Regional Court decision dissolving a local Methodist church was "unlawful and without foundation". The Regional Court had dissolved the church for running a Sunday school without an education licence. Had the Supreme Court not overturned the earlier decision, "every religious organisation in Russia would have to be shut down for operating such schools," the church's lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky told Forum 18 News Service. The Supreme Court noted that the Sunday school falls outside both the 1992 Education Law and state education regulations, so does not require a state licence. But confusion persists over what type of religious educational activity requires a state licence, and some adult Bible schools are fighting liquidation on similar grounds. One such case has been sent to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but no admissibility decision has yet been made.
29 May 2008
Tatar-Turkish lycees, traditional Mari paganism, and Jehovah's Witnesses are all being officially accused of religious extremism in Russia, Forum 18 News Service has found. Tatarstan Public Prosecutor's Office has warned a Tatar-Turkish Lycee that Turkish teachers – who make up one quarter of the staff - are holding secret discussions with pupils about religion. Marat Fattiyev, the headteacher, insisted that "there is no basis whatsoever for these accusations." Fattiyev told Forum 18 that "the lycees are secular institutions – there isn't even any tuition about religion here." The case is linked to the earlier ban on works by moderate Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Traditional pagan beliefs in Mari-El also face religious extremism allegations, as well as a media ban on advertising centuries-old ploughing festival worship. Also suspecting extremist activity, the Public Prosecutor's Office in Rostov-on-Don has ordered its local offices "to investigate local communities of Jehovah's Witnesses and to consider filing applications for their liquidation." Levelling religious extremism charges against such disfavoured religious - and non-religious – groupings undermines the charges' reliability.
22 May 2008
Concern is growing across Europe about the deterioration of freedom of conscience in Belarus. Few are aware, however, that Belarus was once a haven of religious freedom for people fleeing persecution in Western Europe. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Antoni Bokun, pastor of Minsk's John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, describes how Belarusians' historical experience has taught them that "religious freedom elevates our nation, whereas religious un-freedom leads to the darkest and most tragic consequences." In 1573 - almost 400 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Belarusians adopted one of Europe's first legal declarations upholding religious freedom for all, when many other European states executed people for their faith. Pastor Antoni maintains that it is this deep-rooted experience which lies behind today's campaign against religious freedom restrictions. "Inspired by our long history of freedom of conscience, Belarusians continue to work and hope for the day that our country will reclaim its heritage as a land of religious freedom." In 2007 Pastor Bokun spent three days in prison and was heavily fined for leading worship services.
24 April 2008
Visa rules introduced in October 2007 allow foreigners with a business or humanitarian visa – which includes religious work – to spend only 90 out of any 180 days in Russia. While not targeted at religious communities, they are having a harsh impact on many that depend upon foreigners. "Our priests are really, really suffering from this," one Russian Catholic told Forum 18 News Service. Many of the over 90 per cent of Catholic priests who are foreign citizens are now forced to spend long periods abroad or even commute into Russia for Sunday Mass. One foreign Protestant told Forum 18 that he and others are in three-month "exile" in Georgia as they have used up their time in Russia. Religious communities now need to get work permits for their foreign workers, but complain that these are subject to general regional quotas for all foreigners. "These criteria aren't acceptable for religious work," religious rights lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky told Forum 18. "The state shouldn't say who the leaders of a religious community should be; it's their internal decision." Government religious affairs official Andrei Sebentsov agrees. But, he told Forum 18, "There would need to be a change in the law for anything to happen."
23 April 2008
The internationally unrecognised entity of Abkhazia has expelled a Georgian Orthodox priest, Fr Pimen Kardava, after a "special decree" of the canonically unrecognised Abkhaz Orthodox Church. Independent sources who preferred not to be identified have told Forum 18 News Service that the expulsion was carried out by the entity's SSS security police. Fr Kardava's expulsion, just before the Orthodox celebration of Easter, leaves the entity's Georgian Orthodox believers without any priests. Yuri Ashuba, head of the SSS security police, declined to speak to Forum 18, but a subordinate stated that "You should speak to Fr Vissarion Aplia of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church." He admitted that Fr Aplia is not a state official but would not say why he was the appropriate person to answer questions. The Abkhaz diocesan administration's telephone was not answered. Also, Batal Kobakhia, chair of the entity's parliamentary Human Rights Committee, told Forum 18 that a Religion Law is being prepared.
26 March 2008
Because a United Methodist congregation in the western city of Smolensk has a Sunday school, which is attended by four children, the Regional Court dissolved the Church on 24 March, the church's pastor Aleksandr Vtorov told Forum 18 News Service. The court agreed with the Regional Organised Crime Police that the Methodists were breaking the law by conducting "educational activity in a Sunday school without a corresponding licence". Investigation into the congregation began after a complaint from local Russian Orthodox bishop Ignati (Punin). It originally focused on a planned missionary college, before switching to the Sunday school. Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice fears the Methodist congregation's liquidation increases the threat to other religious education. "Almost every religious organisation has a Sunday school," he told Forum 18. "I don't know of one that has a separate education licence. Do they intend to liquidate them all?" Elsewhere, adult religious education without a licence has already led to raids and enforced closures.
10 March 2008
A regional court in Russia has dissolved a functioning Methodist congregation because it did not file a report about its annual activities on time, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Deprived of legal personality status, the church may now only gather for worship at premises provided by its existing members and give them religious instruction. Methodist Pastor Vladimir Pakhomov told Forum 18 News Service that the Belgorod branch of the Federal Registration Service "even told me there was no point in attending court, as the church would be closed in any case." The court did not – contrary to a Constitutional Court decision - attempt to find out whether the church operates or not. "They could close us and others down in exactly the same way - many registered communities don't submit this information in time as they see it as a formality," a local Baptist pastor commented. The Methodists did not submit their report on time due to the near impossibility of Protestants finding a suitable legal address in Belgorod Region. "We sent them letters, two official warnings," a local official told Forum 18. "When we got no response we had no choice but to take them to court."