18 May 2006
Two southern Catholic parishes are unable to obtain official permission to use their new church buildings, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Priests in both parishes stressed, however, that worship has so far been unaffected, and that they do not believe Catholic ownership of the churches to be at stake. Religious organisations very often find it difficult to obtain official confirmation that their de facto complete houses of worship are fit for use, Natalya Gavrishova, a lawyer at the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice told Forum 18. Another problem for both Catholic parishes - in Rostov-on-Don and Sochi - is that changes to the Land Code have resulted in huge financial demands, which are a considerable burden for the parishes. Vitali Brezhnev, state Chief Specialist for Relations with Religious Organisations in Rostov-on-Don region, emphasised to Forum 18 that the authorities "bear no evil intent" towards Catholics and that bureaucracy has become more complicated: "Building my own house was an eight-month nightmare – and I'm a bureaucrat myself!"
18 May 2006
In the Black Sea town of Sochi, close to the Georgian border, the authorities have persistently denied the Yasin Muslim community permission to construct a mosque, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The community has been trying to find a suitable site for 10 years but, "whenever I find somewhere, the [city] architectural department says that it's already sold, obstructed by pipes, or something else," Ravza Ramazanova, the organisation's chair, told Forum 18. The community's roughly 70 worshippers currently use three cramped cellar rooms – which Forum 18 has seen – to pray and study. Similarly, local Catholic priest Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski hopes that Sochi's bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 will assist plans for the construction of a Catholic chapel in the nearby town of Adler. This, he explained to Forum 18, was how the Catholic church in Sochi was built from 1995-97: "They were hoping to hold the Winter Olympics here in 2002." Forum 18 noted that the Russian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews and the New Apostolic Church all have prominent houses of worship in the Sochi area.
17 May 2006
The Salvation Army's Russian national registration has been restored, but its Moscow city branch is still unregistered. "We're waiting on [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg," Territorial Commander Colonel Barry Pobjie told Forum 18 News Service. However, the Salvation Army does not face obstruction to its day-to-day Moscow activities, unlike Jehovah's Witnesses in the city, who sometimes face obstruction and are under a local court ban. In contrast, in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the Salvation Army has told Forum 18 that it has not had the registration difficulties faced in Moscow. "That didn't affect us at all," Captain Vladimir Tatiosov said, noting that the authorities support the Salvation Army's various social projects. Pentecostal Pastor Viktor Shvedov told Forum 18 that his church can provide social assistance to prisoners, but is unofficially barred from both helping local children's homes and conducting a March for Jesus through Rostov-on-Don city centre. Before 2005, Rostov-on-Don Pentecostals were able to provide clothes, toys and building materials to children's homes.
9 May 2006
Russian lawyer Kirill Kulikov has been barred from entering Uzbekistan to help local Jehovah's Witnesses with the numerous prosecutions and denial of registration to their communities they face, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Held at passport control on arrival at Tashkent airport early on 26 April, Kulikov was denied access to anyone, including the Russian Embassy, and forced to board a Moscow-bound flight that evening. "Entry to the Republic of Uzbekistan is closed," is the statement on his deportation document - the same wording used when Forum 18's correspondent was deported in 2005. "I am sure the reason for my deportation was the fact that I was defending believers' rights," Kulikov told Forum 18. He was deported a few days after three Turkmen Protestants, held when police raided a Protestant pastor's home in Urgench, were deported back to Turkmenistan, with stamps in their passports barring them also from future visits.
3 May 2006
Catholics in southern Russia have told Forum 18 News Service it is getting easier for foreign Catholic priests to gain visas, citing the return to Russia of one of the eight Catholic clergy (including a bishop) barred since 1998. After being denied a visa in October 2004, Fr Janusz Blaut returned to his parish in Vladikavkaz last autumn, thanks to an invitation not from the parish but from the diocese in Saratov. Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski told Forum 18 in Sochi that Catholic priests in Krasnodar region – previously issued only three-month visas at a time – are now given one-year visas as elsewhere in southern Russia. Russia's Catholic Church, which was allowed no seminary in Soviet times, depends heavily on foreign clergy. Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and a Jew are also among the 55 known religious workers barred since 1998, though a handful have been allowed to return. A Pentecostal pastor in Rostov-on-Don told Forum 18 that far fewer foreign Protestant missionaries are now working locally than in the 1990s and they have to keep a low profile.
24 April 2006
Mufti Ismagil Shangareyev, who heads the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Orenburg Region and the Moscow-based Islamic Human Rights Centre, has accused police of planting Hizb ut-Tahrir documents on him, after a search of his former Al-Furkan madrassah. "There's not even any sense in saying that they were planted – it's as clear as daylight," Shangareyev told Forum 18 News Service. His lawyer is Anatoli Pchelintsev of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, which stated that "the situation surrounding Ismagil Shangareyev "is a characteristic example of how the organs of the Interior Ministry and public prosecutors in various Russian regions subject Muslims to humiliation and undermine religious believers' trust in the authorities and the law." No formal charges have been brought against Shangareyev, who maintains that he does not and has never had any prohibited item in his apartment, car or office. He remains a witness in the criminal investigation opened after the discovery of the leaflets.
20 April 2006
Analyses of publications has been a key element in criminal prosecutions brought against alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members, some of whom have been jailed, Forum 18 News Service has found. These have been conducted by Russian academics, including a former scientific atheism lecturer. Vitali Ponomarev of the human rights group Memorial has closely followed many of the trials, and he commented to Forum 18 that "if someone speaks about the caliphate or has the organisation's literature, that would automatically be considered proof of membership. (..) in most cases this isn't examined – normally there is just a witness who says that the accused gave them literature and asked them to join, or talked about the caliphate." However Georgi Engelhardt, who researches militant Islam at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18 that, for him, dissemination of Hizb ut-Tahrir literature was sufficient proof of membership. "It demands a certain sharing of views – the person is not a paid postman. You need to be quite motivated to be connected with Hizb ut-Tahrir."
18 April 2006
Many of the 46 Muslims convicted of membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir – a party which claims to reject violence, but which is banned in Russia – have denied that they are members of the organisation, Forum 18 News Service has noted. Mars Gayanov, for example, maintains that an official account of a police conversation, which he signed, "was substituted for one in which I said I belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir." He stated that his family was targeted simply because "we are serious Muslims – our women wear the hijab, we don't drink alcohol, we are trying to live in accordance with Islam." Vitali Ponomarev of human rights group Memorial told Forum 18 that after the Beslan school siege "there was a need to find terrorists" and that, as the only large Muslim political organisation with a definable membership, Hizb ut-Tahrir "filled a vacuum." However, Georgi Engelhardt, a researcher into militant Islam at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18 that it was not possible to say whether evidence was planted: "The rumours about the reputation of the police remain rumours."
10 April 2006
Following Russia's ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organisation, a Moscow-based human rights organisation has been given an official warning, for publishing a Muslim leader's statement questioning the ban's soundness, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to reject violence – though the sincerity of this rejection has been strongly questioned – and those charged in Russia with membership claim that they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Following appeals from Muslims charged with membership, the Memorial Human Rights Centre published an analysis of Hizb ut-Tahrir's brochures by Sheikh Nafigulla Ashirov, head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Asiatic Russia. Ashirov wrote that the brochures contained nothing that "could be viewed as calls to violence," but rather contained "a theoretical point of view about a path towards creating an Islamic society." The Moscow Public Prosecutor's Office then demanded the removal of Ashirov's analysis from Memorial's website. Memorial has complied with the demand, and has since filed a legal challenge against it.
10 April 2006
In Russia, there is much disagreement over how to respond to Hizb ut-Tahrir, Forum 18 News Service has found. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned as antisemitic in Germany, and its Danish spokesman was given a suspended jail sentence for distributing racist propaganda. Rejecting democracy and core human rights such as religious freedom and purporting to reject violence, it has made violently antisemitic statements but not publicly called for specific terrorist acts. In Russia, 29 alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been given jail terms, following a Supreme Court decision banning the organisation as terrorist. Some, such as Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the Sova Centre, think that monitoring and targeted prosecution of concrete cases of incitement to violence or hatred would be a more effective response. Mukaddas Bibarsov, co-chairman of Russia's Council of Muftis, told Forum 18 that he had only met three sympathisers, suggesting that, instead of prison terms, the Muslim community should challenge such people, but lamented that "there is no [Muslim] intellectual force to explain that (..) everyone must live by the Constitution here."
20 March 2006
A Muslim community in southern Russia has been told to demolish its mosque by 1 May, or it will be demolished by the local authority, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The dispute in the city of Astrakhan revolves around the renovation of a disused silage tower and two-storey annexe for use as a mosque – which a regional court has described along with the municipal administration as "unauthorised construction" – and the construction of a new mosque on the site. Approval for the mosque construction was given in 2001, but construction only started in 2005 after sufficient funds had been collected; this too must now be removed. The Muslims claim that there was a sudden change in attitude by the local authority following a visit by President Vladimir Putin. Hare Krishna and Buddhist religious communities in Moscow have also recently complained to Forum 18 about attempts to block their acquisition of places of worship. Permission to build a Hare Krishna temple was withdrawn amid hostility from a Russian Orthodox Archbishop, and a Tibetan Buddhist group lost their city centre premises due to a municipal construction project.
20 February 2006
Due to begin today (20 February) in Moscow Arbitration Court is a case challenging the 1997 purchase by the charismatic Kingdom of God Church of a factory's social club to use as a church. The Federal Property Agency is seeking the return of its "illegally occupied" property, although as church lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky pointed out to Forum 18 News Service the church has a valid ownership certificate and the deadline for legal challenges runs out after three years. Elsewhere local officials have refused to register Protestant churches' ownership of land, arbitrarily rejected approved construction plans and refused to redesignate property for religious use. This suggests that local authorities deliberately use bureaucratic and/or unofficial methods to challenge Protestant property ownership. Mikhail Odintsov of Russia's human rights ombudsperson's office noted in early February that while in the past complaints about religious freedom violations came from foreign organisations, "now it is ours, our Protestants", with the number of complaints rising. "The percentage of complaints resolved is miserable, and attempts to do so stop, start and go on for years."