18 December 2003
After today's funeral of Beijing's last Orthodox priest, it is still unknown when the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church will have a church in the capital. Visiting Russian Orthodox priest Fr Dionisy Pozdnyayev told Forum 18 News Service that Orthodox believers "have no priest now, no church and nowhere to pray", although he said the authorities were positive about the idea of Chinese Orthodox studying for the priesthood in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has being trying to help the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church, which the Cultural Revolution decimated, without success asking to send priests to surviving Chinese parishes, Forum 18 has been told. Several parishes still survive in Inner Mongolia and in Xinjiang Province in north west China. The only surviving Chinese local clergy are in the southern city of Shanghai, where St Nicholas' church has been turned into a French restaurant. Elsewhere, Chinese Orthodox churches are also being used for other purposes, in at least one case as a night club.
16 December 2003
Moscow city's justice department has failed to explain to Forum 18 News Service why it allowed the founding document of a Methodist Church to be altered without the knowledge or consent of the church, thus facilitating the "sale" of the building to new "owners". Guards hired by these "owners" have seized the building, with the pastor and church officials remaining inside. Aleksandr Buksman, head of the local city registration department for religious organisations, has claimed to Forum 18 that the demands of Russia's religion law "were fully observed by the religious organisation". This claim is very strongly disputed by the church, which points out to Forum 18 that a "meeting" Buksman refers to was not authorised by the church, did not involve church members, and was not held on church premises. Buksman has failed to explain why his department did not check any of this with the church leadership.
15 December 2003
A Methodist church may lose its church building after the local Moscow city justice department allowed outsiders to change the building's ownership without the church's knowledge, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Guards loyal to the new "owners" have seized the building, though the pastor and church officials remain inside. The local Moscow justice department has declined to explain to Forum 18 why it allowed the "ownership change" to happen without the church's knowledge. However, Maksim Zubov, of the federal Justice Ministry has pointed out to Forum 18 that "no-one has the right to change the founding document of a religious organisation without its knowledge." Church officials suspect that the reason may be local city corruption, and Bishop Ruediger Minor, head of the United Methodist Church in Russia, has told Forum 18 that "the whole thing could only happen because of some (at least silent) support from administrative and other structures."
15 December 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Mongolia, Forum 18 News Service notes the, in regional terms, unusually high degree of religious freedom. Possibly key to this is the fact that Mongolia has only one paid official dealing solely with religious issues, instead of an extensive state bureaucracy. However, Protestants told Forum 18 of incidents in which unregistered churches were threatened or fined , as well as a widespread tendency by state authorities to demand random "fines" or "donations", but this appears to be the action of individual local council members. There is rising social concern about the activity of Christians in the country, particularly due to a belief that they advocate suicide. However, Forum 18 found that there appears to be in general less fear of new religious influences in Mongolia than is found in surrounding countries.
8 December 2003
Forum 18 News Service has found a remarkable degree of agreement amongst state officials, cultural figures, Christians and Buddhists in Mongolia with the sentiments of a Mongolian member of parliament, who told Forum 18 that "Chinghis Khan invited Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Daoists here back in the thirteenth century. Mongolians are very tolerant in the religious sphere – I've never come across anything like it anywhere else." This embraces freedom to witness and state registration of churches, which are difficult issues in surrounding countries. A Russian Buddhist source commented to Forum 18 that the Buddhist reaction to someone becoming a Christian would be "It is their karma – let them." However, some Protestants (see subsequent F18News article), have raised very serious concerns.
1 December 2003
Even though Mongolia's influential neighbours China and Russia have not recently hosted Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso XIV or Pope John Paul II, Forum 18 News Service has found that in Mongolia they are welcome guests. This appears to be because Mongolia regards the Dalai Lama as a solely religious figure, and the Pope as primarily a head of state. Discussing the exiled Tibetan religious leader's latest visit with Forum 18, Mongolian military colonel E. Batmunkh pointed out that "we are a state with equal rights now. We don't look to the Chinese - if the Dalai Lama is invited to Mongolia, he comes." Fr Anatoli Fesechko of Ulaanbaatar's Russian Orthodox church, talking to Forum 18 about a possible papal visit, said that the Moscow Patriarchate did not consider Mongolia to be a part of its canonical territory, "so there can't be interconfessional conflict between us."
28 November 2003
Arguing that Baptist missionary Takhir Talipov's activity is "extremist" and "poses a threat to the stability of the interconfessional and interethnic situation in Tatarstan", the local branch of the FSB (former KGB) recommended his residency application be turned down. The 9 October FSB statement, of which Forum 18 News Service has received a copy, also accuses Talipov's church of acting "illegally", claiming that it is unregistered. Talipov told Forum 18 he must leave Russia before his visa expires on 15 December. His next appeal hearing against the denial of a residence permit is set for 1 December. "It looks like we are returning to the 1930s – decisions concerning people's religious freedom are being determined not by a court or the law, but the FSB," Talipov's legal representative told Forum 18.
27 November 2003
Before 1921, Mongolians recognised a living Buddha as ruler, so the discovery of a legitimate successor to the last ruler has not been viewed with enthusiasm by the present-day government, Forum 18 News Service has found. An anonymous Buddhist source told Forum 18 that the government does not permit Jetsun Dhampa IX to visit Mongolia as "They are scared that he will lay claim to power here." Jetsun Dhampa has, however, maintained that he has "no interest in politics." Widely different views were expressed in Mongolia to Forum 18 of what position he should hold. In 1999 Jetsun Dhampa visited Mongolia unofficially as a tourist, meeting with an enthusiastic popular reception and recognition by some as the religious leader of Mongolia, which embarrassed the government. An official visit seems unlikely in the near future.
24 November 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Belarus, Forum 18 News Service notes the various ways in which the Belarusian state limits religious freedom. These include denial of state registration, breaking up home worship meetings, restrictions on religious events held in public, refusal of permission to build, purchase or reclaim premises, and restrictions on the right to invite foreigners for religious work. Although there is a strong Soviet-era tradition of state hostility towards religion in Belarus, government officials currently seem willing to give at least symbolic support for the Belarusian Orthodox Church if this is thought to serve the government's geopolitical interests.
24 November 2003
Under pressure from a draft UN resolution sponsored by the EU and US, the Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has defended his record with the claim that Turkmenistan has never had religious prisoners of conscience and cooperates fully with international human rights bodies. However, Forum 18 News Service knows of Jehovah's Witness prisoners and an imam in internal exile. Also imprisoned for his faith was Baptist Shagildy Atakov. Turkmenistan has both consistently failed to cooperate with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and other UN human rights agencies and also has this month introduced a harsh new religion law outlawing all unregistered religious activity, which defies international human rights agreements it has signed.
20 November 2003
Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that importing religious literature can be difficult and expensive, or even impossible, due both to obstruction from the Orthodox Patriarchate and also to corruption among officials. There is repeatedly said to be an unpublished instruction to Customs officials from Patriarch Ilya banning the religious literature imports without his permission. Giorgi Andriadze of the Patriarchate told Forum 18 that the Patriarchate only objects to large quantities of non-Orthodox literature being imported. "It's a question of proselytism. If groups bring in millions of books, that means they intend to proselytise. If they bring in enough for their own followers, it's their right." The Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities have not had any problems with literature importation.
18 November 2003
Forum 18 News Service has found indications that the influence of Soviet-era atheist ideology on Belarus remains strong. Many of the officials who worked for the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs reportedly continue to staff the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, which has a far more extensive network of officials than similar bodies in Russia. Also, texts used for instruction in state education maintain, for example, that "Religion's promises to give a person everything that he seeks in it are but illusion and deception." and that "no religion was accorded any preference or subjected to any form of oppression" in Belarus after 1918. Pentecostal Assistant Bishop Naum Sakhanchuk has told Forum 18 that the current repression of non-Orthodox confessions is much more closely connected with this atheist legacy than with state support for the Belarusian Orthodox Church. An anonymous Orthodox source agreed, commenting to Forum 18 that the 2002 religion law was not in fact designed to benefit the Patriarchate. "Now the atheists say it is against sects, but they are waiting for the day when they can persecute everybody."