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20 January 2014

RUSSIA: Religion, schools and the right to choose

Russian state schools offer sharply different interpretations of the religion and ethics course introduced in September 2012, Forum 18 News Service notes in a comprehensive analysis of the current situation. In one Siberian school, only the Orthodox Culture module was offered as a headteacher claimed "we live in an Orthodox country". Yet a teacher in a different school tried to convey to pupils that "we may believe in different religions but we should respect one another". This inconsistency on the ground could result in violations of freedom of religion or belief anywhere in Russia. Unlike the initial version proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), pupils may choose one module from six on Secular Ethics, Foundations of World Religious Cultures, Foundations of Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish or Buddhist Culture. Most parents and pupils do not favour instruction in the Russian Orthodoxy of the Patriarchate in state schools. (Orthodox Old Believer churches have recommended either Secular Ethics or Foundations of World Religious Cultures.) The most common module choice is Secular Ethics.

2 December 2013

RUSSIA: Alternatives to "extremism" charges to punish freedom of religion or belief

"Extremism" accusations are not at present routinely turning into "extremism" prosecutions against members of most religious communities exercising freedom of religion or belief. (Such charges continue to be used against Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works.) But other charges continue. Taganrog's Exodus Pentecostal Church has been forced to stop drug and alcohol rehabilitation work due to alleged fire and sanitation violations. In 2010 the church it is affiliated with was given a warning for "extremism". But this does not seem to feature in the current case, although Taganrog is a focus of a key "extremism" trial against Jehovah's Witnesses. Baptists continue to be prosecuted and fined for meeting without state permission. Forum 18 News Service has found state hostility to be highly localised, with some officials supportive of Protestants exercising freedom of religion or belief. In contrast, newly emerged documents from the Jewish Autonomous Region suggest co-ordination with Moscow during local officials' preparation of an "extremism" case against Jehovah's Witnesses.

25 November 2013

RUSSIA: Catholic and Protestant "extremism"?

Russia has ruled as "extremist" a sermon given in 1900 by Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Unlike the 15 other Ukrainian texts (not written by Sheptytsky) simultaneously ruled "extremist" the sermon focuses on the Catholic faith. Officials have refused to reveal to Forum 18 why the sermon was ruled "extremist". The Metropolitan has recently been posthumously honoured for saving Jews from the Holocaust. Blog entries by Pentecostal Petr Tkalich also form the basis of an "extremism" investigation in Asbest. He criticised what he describes as "Soviet Orthodox". Official pursuit of religious "extremism" may continue widening beyond the Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works now routinely facing prosecution. Possession of "extremist" texts renders the possessor liable to criminal prosecution.

25 October 2013

RUSSIA: Incoherence persists in counter-"extremism" policy

As the Russian state continues its campaign to brand as "extremist" readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi and Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has found strikingly different levels of support for the campaign among law enforcement and other officials - even in the same locality. In Siberia's Krasnoyarsk Region, criminal cases have been brought against Nursi readers and courts have ruled his books "extremist". Yet when Forum 18 suggested that Nursi texts had been banned without foundation, the region's religious affairs official replied: "Something needs to be done about this, we agree." After a local court found four Jehovah's Witness texts "extremist", two of the findings were overturned on appeal. Prosecutors dropped four further cases, even though all eight cases were "as alike as peas in a pod", a local Jehovah's Witness involved in the hearings told Forum 18.

21 October 2013

RUSSIA: Muslims "fed up" with "not being allowed to read these texts"

After two separate raids on 8 August on the homes of Muslims in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, an "extremism" criminal case has been opened against a 48-year-old Muslim woman who state officials refuse to name. The woman is alleged to be involved in an organisation called "'Nurdzhular" which Russian readers of theologian Said Nursi's works deny exists. The same day, another raid lasting 5 hours took place on the home of Yelena Gerasimova. Gerasimova, a professional lawyer, noted numerous procedural violations in the raid, including an invalid search warrant the authorities unlawfully refused to give her. She also told Forum 18 News Service that, for fear of a similar raid, she did not this year host a party to celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha on 15 October. "We're fed up with this whole thing – not being allowed to read these texts – but we don't read them", Gerasimova told Forum 18. Other trials of alleged readers of Nursi's works continue, as well as of 16 people in Taganrog allegedly involved in the local Jehovah's Witnesses community. This has been banned as allegedly "extremist".

1 October 2013

RUSSIA: What's wrong with "extremist" Koran translation?

While many Muslims in Russia are outraged by a 17 September Novorossiisk court ruling banning as "extremist" a widely-used Russian translation of the Koran by Azerbaijani scholar Elmir Kuliyev, some Muslim organisations have welcomed the ruling. Their objections to Kuliyev's text – equally applicable to another translation they accept – suggest to Forum 18 News Service that long-standing rivalries between Russian Muslim organisations may lie beneath state moves against Kuliyev's work. Critics of the translation highlight his rendering of several ayats (Koranic verses), but Forum 18 notes that his rendering of them differs little from those of other widely-available Russian translations. Ravil Tugushev - a Muslim lawyer who has lodged an appeal against the Novorossiisk ruling - told Forum 18 he also compared Kuliyev's text with four other translations and found "no special differences between them".

27 September 2013

RUSSIA: Muslims rush to challenge Koran "extremism" ruling

"It is a provocational decision – to destroy, and not just confiscate, the Holy Book of Muslims (..) and the court case and decision took ten minutes?!" Mufti Ravil Gainutdin of Russia's Council of Muftis wrote to President Vladimir Putin after a Novorossiisk court banned as "extremist" and ordered destroyed a widely-used Russian translation of the Koran. "Muslims are angered by this lawlessness." The secretary of Judge Gennady Chanov who issued the ban told Forum 18 he "does not give comments". Stressing that the copy of the Koran translation had not yet been destroyed, she refused to say who might destroy it, or how. Lawyer Ravil Tugushev has lodged an appeal. "Muslims' rights are being violated," he complained to Forum 18. Many Muslim, Jehovah's Witness and Falun Gong works have been banned as "extremist", with punishments for those who distribute them.

11 September 2013

RUSSIA: Moscow Krishna devotees face eviction

Boxes of property at Moscow's only Hare Krishna temple are packed and labelled in order of priority, so that the congregation's most treasured items can be removed "within 15 minutes if the bulldozers come", the congregation's lawyer, Mikhail Frolov, told Forum 18 News Service. In November 2012, a court ruling ordering the Krishna devotees' eviction from the site came into force. Meanwhile, in May 2013 a Moscow city agency told them that building a new temple at an alternative site they had been allocated in 2007 would be "inexpedient" taking into account the opinions of local residents. Muslims and some Protestants have met similar difficulties acquiring or retaining property in the Russian capital. Pentecostals whose church was bulldozed in September 2012 now have to meet at three separate venues, the pastor told Forum 18. A Moscow city official dealing with religious issues declined to discuss these problems with Forum 18.

6 September 2013

RUSSIA: Six-month "extremism" sentence for St Petersburg Nursi reader

After nearly six months in prison and a psychiatric examination, Shirazi Bekirov was sentenced in St Petersburg to six months in an open-regime prison. He is the thirteenth Muslim in Russia known to have received a criminal sentence for reading the works of Islamic theologian Said Nursi, many of which have been controversially banned in Russia as "extremist". A court official was unable to say exactly how Bekirov's activity was "extremist". However, she told Forum 18 News Service that Bekirov was freed on 2 September as he had already spent nearly the whole sentence in detention since his March arrest. A similar Nursi-related criminal case against three women in Chelyabinsk Region was halted after no conviction was reached within the required two-year period. Travel bans on them have now been lifted. However, Bekirov, the three women and other Nursi readers who have faced prosecution – whether or not they were convicted of any "crime" – appear on a Russian government "list of terrorists and extremists (current)".

19 August 2013

RUSSIA: Parliamentary Religion Committee back in action

The increase in Russian legislative initiatives affecting freedom of religion or belief since President Vladimir Putin's May 2012 return appears partly due to renewed activism by the Committee on Social Associations and Religious Organisations of the Duma (parliament), Forum 18 News Service notes. The Duma is a rubber-stamp parliament endorsing any idea coming from Putin's Presidential Administration, Boris Falikov of the Centre for the Study of Religions at the Russian State University for the Humanities told Forum 18. "But initiatives in the religious sphere mostly conform to the personal convictions of the Committee's members". Alexander Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis noted in relation to "astoundingly nonsensical laws" that: "the 'anti-opposition' campaign begun since Putin's return to the Kremlin involves a kind of 'competition between initiatives', and basic technical control over these initiatives is much weaker than before".

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