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24 January 2005

RUSSIA: Church, mosque and synagogue kept by southern authorities

In southern Russia, three confessions regarded as "traditional" – the Greek Orthodox, Muslims and Jews – have all failed to win back places of worship confiscated by the state in Communist times, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Greek Orthodox community in the city of Krasnodar is part of the Moscow Patriarchate and has the support of its local Russian Orthodox bishop. Yet it has failed to get the authorities to return a church it can prove belonged to it, which now houses a state sanitation and disease control department. The city's Progressive Jewish community has now abandoned its nine year struggle to win back a pre-revolutionary synagogue in the city centre the community once used, which is now a government trade department. In the neighbouring region of Stavropol, the local Muslim community has similarly fought in vain for over ten years for the restitution of a pre-revolutionary city mosque, now used as the Stavropol city museum.

21 January 2005

UZBEKISTAN: Prisoner's wife on trial to show "who is boss here"

Halima Boltobayeva, a Muslim whose husband is in jail, was told by prison staff when visiting her husband that she dressed like a female Muslim terrorist, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Boltobayeva, who for religious reasons wears the hijab headscarf and a long garment that covers her entire body, retorted that she would dress as she believed was fitting. According to a local human rights activist, prison staff then decided to show her "who is boss here." She is now on trial accused of being a member of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, even though she has stated that "she hated Hizb ut-Tahrir as her husband had ended up in prison because of the organisation."

7 December 2004

RUSSIA: Southern Protestants' mixed fortunes

Protestants in the southern Krasnodar and Stavropol regions have all told Forum 18 News Service that their situation has improved since the 1990s, but several church leaders reported local obstructions in obtaining and using property for worship, similar to the problems faced by a local Christian university in conducting religious education. In early 2004, President Vladimir Putin's then representative in southern Russia praised Protestant social initiatives - especially alcoholism and drug addiction rehabilitation programmes - and one church leader told Forum 18 that his churches encounter no substantial state opposition to their activity. Cossack influence in southern Russia appears to be waning, after sometimes violent attacks in against Protestants during the 1990s. Local leaders of the (Nestorian) Assyrian Church of the East, Mountain Jews, and Yasin Muslims also reported variations in state policy towards their attempts to secure worship premises and provide religious education.

29 November 2004

RUSSIA: Governor links Jehovah's Witnesses and Islamic militants as "destructive cults"

Stavropol regional governor Aleksandr Chernogorov has linked Jehovah's Witnesses and Islamic militants as "destructive cults" at a major local conference on "Totalitarian Sects – the Path to the Destabilisation of the North Caucasus". Chernogorov maintained that "Wahhabism" and "Jehovism" [a Soviet-era term for the Jehovah's Witnesses' faith] had infiltrated into southern Russia and were now "attacking those confessions which provide the foundation of civil peace" – Orthodoxy and "traditional" Islam. Jehovah's Witnesses "think that this might be the beginning of something," local Jehovah's Witness representative Ivan Borshchevsky has told Forum 18 News Service. Recently, Jehovah's Witnesses have had increasing difficulties with the authorities. The Stavropol regional religious affairs official has declined to discuss these matters with Forum 18.

23 November 2004

RUSSIA: Mixed visa fortunes for foreign Catholic clergy

The visa situation for foreign Catholic clergy in Russia is mixed, Forum 18 News Service has found, with the length of visas granted varying from region to region. Some regions have a positive attitude to Catholic clergy, with others having a decidedly negative attitude, head of the Catholic Church in Russia Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz citing differing visa restrictions as being among the main problems faced by Catholic clergy in Russia. Foreign clergy are important for the Catholic Church in Russia, as there are only a relatively small number of ordained Russian nationals. This is because only two Catholic parishes and no seminaries were allowed to function in Soviet times. Priests in different regions have told Forum 18 that what they describe as "the human factor," rather than the law, is important in determining the length of visa they receive. None of the seven Catholic clergy denied entry to Russia since the beginning of 2001 have been able to return, but no more have been expelled.

18 November 2004

RUSSIA: Pressure on Tatarstan Protestants

The head of the FSB security service in Aznakayevo, a town in mainly Muslim-populated Tatarstan, has strongly denied to Forum 18 News Service that his officers have tried to expel Rafis Nabiullin, the pastor of a small Evangelical church, from the town. "We have made no threats to drive Nabiullin out," the FSB officer told Forum 18. Pastor Nabiullin told Forum 18 that an FSB officer had visited his flat, and "told me he had come 'unofficially', but that the FSB authorities in the town didn't want us there and intended to drive us out." Nabiullin commented that "it seems to have been a private initiative." Other Protestants have told Forum 18 that such pressure is widespread in Tatarstan, Nabiullin telling Forum 18 that "the authorities are Muslim and don't want Christianity, though they can tolerate Orthodoxy. They want to stop our activity."

9 November 2004

RUSSIA: Are Stavropol regional authorities interfering in Muslim affairs?

The head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Karachai-Cherkessia and Stavropol Region has claimed to Forum 18 News Service that the Stavropol regional authorities' are supporting the creation of a local muftiate separate from the Spritual Directorate. This is said to be due to the latter's insistence on the return of Stavropol city's historical mosque, which currently houses a museum. Apparent confirmation of the authorities' displeasure is their failure to invite the Spiritual Directorate to a major regional conference, addressed by Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov and other key officials, which was also attended by representatives of the muftiates of both Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Stavropol regional religious affairs official Vasili Shnyukov declined to respond to Forum 18's questions by telephone.

9 November 2004

RUSSIA: State restrictions on Mosques in south's minority Muslim areas

Only eight out of 47 Muslim communities in the southern Stavropol region have obtained state registration so far. The head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Karachai-Cherkessia and Stavropol Region, Mufti Ismail Berdiyev, told Forum 18 News Service that "the authorities don't want to register them because they think that if they don't, a problem will disappear." But he argued that "if you register communities then you can monitor them, but the authorities haven't grasped this yet." Mufti Berdiyev's assistant, Abubekir Kurdzhiyev, suggested to Forum 18 that the 39 unregistered Muslim communities in the region could not obtain registration because some of their members had fought with Chechen separatists: "When their corpses returned, the mosques came under suspicion." But he estimated that no one from about 60 per cent of these communities had fought in Chechnya, and rejected the idea that a whole mosque could be held responsible for one person's decision.

2 November 2004

RUSSIA: Is State's treatment of southern Muslims unjust?

Mufti Ismail Berdiyev, who belongs to the presidential Council for Co-operation with Religious Organisations, has told Forum 18 News Service that he supports "the general idea of attacking Wahhabism and terrorism," but cannot fully endorse every anti-terrorist measure. "Some state officials don't know the first thing about religion and go too far," he remarked, "we don't accept their mistakes." In the area he comes from, the authorities compile lists of suspected "Wahhabis". "I'm opposed to that," he told Forum 18, "if people are conducting terrorist activity then they should be prosecuted." Local imams state that there is an Islamic militant problem, but imam Magomed Erkenov told Forum 18 that the problem's scale did not warrant negative treatment of the entire Muslim community. Commenting on those fighting in Chechnya, he told Forum 18 that "They may have said that they were fighting against Russia, but if paid they would have fought against Muslims, or their own relatives. There is nothing holy about that war."

1 November 2004

RUSSIA: Southern Muslims complain of fall-out from anti-terrorist moves

Since the start of the second Chechen conflict, Islamic representatives maintain to Forum 18 News Service that a "negative policy towards all Muslims" in parts of the northern Caucasus has intensified. Imam Magomed Erkenov, who oversees 15 mosques in the southern Karachai-Cherkessia republic, told Forum 18 that since 1999 it has become "much harder" to register new Muslim communities. Officials visit mosques about twice a month to conduct interrogations of worshippers, Erkenov stated, on one occasion accusing a worshipper of being a Wahhabi and arresting him. An imam in a neighbouring mosque, speaking of visits by officials, told Forum 18 that "people are afraid to be seen to be Muslim now." Regional religious affairs official Yevgeni Kratov insisted to Forum 18 that mosque check-ups take place "entirely within the framework of the law" and entail neither searches nor abuses of any kind. "A police officer might drop by and take an interest, especially following a terrorist attack," he explained.

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