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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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TURKMENISTAN: Government changes Islamic leadership again

Turkmenistan's government has changed the entire leadership of the country's officially permitted Muslim administration, Forum 18 News Service notes. Turkmenistan has not announced whether the new Chief Mufti and regional imams also have the usual second role as officials of the Gengesh (Council) for Religious Affairs, whose task is to restrict freedom of religion and belief. However, a regional Gengesh official confirmed to Forum 18 that this was happening in their region. The latest appointments came as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, complained of the difficulties of recovering Soviet-confiscated Orthodox churches. The Armenian Apostolic Church is hoping promises of being allowed to resume its activity among Turkmenistan's ethnic Armenian minority will eventually be fulfilled. And Turkmen students studying in Ukraine have been pressured not to attend non-Muslim religious communities. "The idea that we had instructions from our Foreign Ministry is stupidity," an official of Turkmenistan's Embassy in Ukraine told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: China-led restrictions on Falun Gong

Russia's small community of followers of the Chinese spiritual practice of Falun Gong face increasing state pressure, Forum 18 News Service notes. In 2005, officials refused to register a newspaper, citing provisions of the 2001 China-Russia treaty "On Neighbourly Relations, Friendship and Co-operation". The movement's core spiritual text "Zhuan Falun" has been included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials and courts have blocked access to websites containing the text. Four practitioners were detained in Vladivostok in July, while "anti-extremism" police summoned three local leaders in southern European Russia. In the latest deportations, two Ukrainian Falun Gong practitioners were barred from Russia in September when they tried to attend the movement's annual conference near Moscow. One had to move his wedding from Russia to Ukraine, as he told Forum 18. A similar Russian desire not to alienate the Chinese lies behind repeated denials of a Russian visa to the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

BELARUS: Foreign pastor banned from preaching, church warned it may be closed

Belarus has warned a church in the capital Minsk that it could be closed after a foreign pastor preached at a worship service, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Pastor Boris Grisenko, a Ukrainian, was also fined. Alla Ryabitseva, head of the city's Department of Religious and Ethnic Affairs, claimed to Forum 18 that "I have been to the United States. Visitors to the country can't just go and speak at a religious service without permission." District police chief Viktor Pravilo refused to say how he had found out that a foreigner was preaching in the New Testament Pentecostal Church, religious communities having long complained to Forum 18 of KGB secret police surveillance. Asked whether the police did not have more important matters to deal with than a foreigner preaching at a religious service, Pravilo put the phone down. Foreigners engaged in religious activity have long been a target of state hostility, along with their Belarusian co-religionists. Catholic priests and nuns have regularly been expelled, but the authorities today (15 July) announced that they had completed the draft text of a Concordat. It is unknown whether this will address violations of freedom of religion or belief.

KAZAKHSTAN: Alarm at state-backed planned new Religion Law

Kazakhstan is planning more restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Human rights activists and some religious communities have expressed alarm at a planned new Religion Law penalising "unapproved" religious activities. The proposals include banning missionary activity by people who do not both represent registered religious communities and have state accreditation, and banning small religious communities from maintaining public places of worship or publishing religious literature. Prime Minister Karim Masimov has backed the latest draft, writing that "perfecting" legislation at the "contemporary phase of state-confessional relations" is "timely and necessary." Fr Aleksandr Ievlev of the Russian Orthodox Church vigorously defended the proposals, telling Forum 18 that "the current Law has allowed sectarians to spread in the country." He complained that "the proposed amendments do not at all restrict the rights and freedoms of religious organisations – those that say otherwise are lying." Accompanying the draft Law, the mass media is being used by officials and parliamentary deputies to promote intolerance of religious communitioes they dislike.

RUSSIA: Charismatics targeted as would-be Orange Revolutionaries?

In the run-up to Russia's 2 March presidential election, a Ukrainian-based church involved in that country's 2004 "Orange Revolution" has twice been the object of hostile attention by the Russian authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Ukrainian founder of the Embassy of God's Moscow community was turned back from the Russian capital's Sheremetyevo Airport on 3 February. Pastor Aleksandyr Dzyuba believes he was barred for religious reasons. "For a long time Russia has been afraid of the Orange Revolution, and they connect me with it because I am a pastor of that church." FSB security service officers broke up an Embassy of God Bible school graduation ceremony in the Volga city of Tolyatti on Sunday 20 January. They interrogated all the church leaders present. "They asked us everything – where I'm from, what I teach, my link with the school, with the Orange Revolution," the church's Kiev-based bishop, Anatoli Belonozhko told Forum 18. The Orange Revolution was the issue which most interested the FSB officers according to another of those questioned, Pastor Ivan Semenets.

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed, Jehovah's Witness threatened with new sentence

Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been freed after being amnestied from a three year labour camp sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "My wife Valentina wrote an official statement that I will not violate the law," he told Forum 18. "I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me and my family during my imprisonment." Asked about his health in the wake of his eight months in prison, Kalataevsky responded: "God strengthened me physically." Two Jehovah's Witnesses, who are serving suspended sentences have not been amnestied. Begench Shakhmuradov received a two year sentence in September 2007, and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev was given an 18 month sentence in July 2007. Ashirgeldyyev has been threatened with a new sentence, even though he is still serving his current suspended sentence. He has been barred from work unless he receives a stamp from the Military Commissariat, which refuses to give him this. Another Jehovah's Witness, Ashirgeldy Taganov, also faces prosecution for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

RUSSIA: Are Sakha Protestants' concerns "baseless and contrived"?

A Russian Christian musical festival in the Siberian republic of Sakha (Yakutia) had to abruptly move from Yakutia State University after a contract was cancelled, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The university's Prorector stated that this was due to a telephone call "from above." This is the latest of a series of disputes between local Protestant organisations and the local authorities. One official, Afanasy Nikolayev, claimed that disputes were caused by some religious organisations "pursuing a policy in the republic aimed at dividing the population along religious lines (..) in practice they are realising the directive given by Adolf Hitler in his time (..) to encourage any form of disunity and facilitate the appearance of the most varied kinds of religious sects in every little village." Following earlier Protestant concern at the high degree of state involvement in what was described as a Russian Orthodox conference, at which delegates questioned Russian constitutional rights, another official described Protestant concerns as "baseless and contrived" and wrote that "by your tactless actions you violate the right and freedom of believers of other confessions."

MOLDOVA: Why does the government violate religious freedom?

Despite the latest judgement by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg against the Moldovan government, for refusing to grant legal status to the True Orthodox Church, Moldovan human rights activists have told Forum 18 News Service that they are sceptical that the situation will improve. Vladislav Gribincea, of Lawyers for Human Rights, told Forum 18 that the State Service for Religious Denominations "doesn't want to" register any other religious communities. "It needs political will to change this, and I don't think it is there." Sergei Ostaf, of the Resource Centre for Human Rights, insisted that "the system needs urgent reform to bring it into line with international standards." The Bessarabian Church – which won an ECtHR judgement in its favour in 2001 – has written to the ECtHR to complain about continued refusal to register individual parishes, as well as lodging two separate ECtHR cases about continued state violations of its right to religious freedom.

TRANSDNIESTER: Why are authorities summoning Orthodox priests?

The Russian Orthodox bishop responsible for the unrecognised Transdniester Republic, in eastern Moldova, is not allowing priests of his diocese to attend meetings called by the unrecognised entity's senior religious affairs official, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pyotr Zalozhkov, who reports to Transdniester's President Igor Smirnov, has in recent weeks ordered priests to bring to meetings copies of the parish statute, the document from the bishop appointing them to their position, their certificate as a priest and their personal identity document. Religious affairs official Tamara Kovalchuk, Zalozhkov's assistant, has dismissed Orthodox concerns. "We've had these meetings last year and this," she told Forum 18. "All religious leaders must be accredited. We need to know who the leader of any religious organisation is." Other faiths too, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, also face obstruction from the Transdniester authorities.

RUSSIA: One Nation, one Orthodox Church?

Despite Russia's constitutional guarantee of equality before the law for all religious associations, some regional state officials support the Moscow Patriarchate against other Orthodox organisations, Forum 18 News Service has found. Orthodox groups can experience unfair treatment in seeking state registration or in property disputes. Another example is the description of a Russian Orthodox Church of the New Martyrs priest, Fr Aleksandr Ganzinin, as a "common swindler," in a press release by a regional authority. This was after Fr Ganzinin had given the required notification of the church's intent to preach, distribute icons and candles and collect donations at a town's markets, and the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese's "confirmation" of Fr Ganzinin as an "impostor" not found among its clergy. An example of property problems is the transfer by a local authority of a church, in Zheleznovodsk, from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) to the Moscow Patriarchate. Local officials are often reluctant, in Forum 18's experience, to discuss favouritism of one Orthodox church over another.

RUSSIA: Whose side are the police on?

Pentecostals, Catholics and Baptists are among religious communities to complain recently of police failure to protect them from attacks or other unwarranted intrusions during services or of police raids to prevent them conducting religious activity – such as giving out religious literature – which they regard as legitimate, Forum 18 News Service notes. Police failed to respond when 300 Pentecostals in Spassk in Siberia were terrorised by 20 drunken youths who attacked their service in April or when a Catholic service in St Petersburg was disrupted by intruders in late May. Only when church leaders complained did the authorities take belated action. In Ivanovo near Moscow, the FSB security service initiated a raid on a 14 May Baptist evangelisation event at a rented cinema and an investigation is underway over the fact that copies of the New Testament being handed out did not include the name of the publisher. "We are still trying to find out what will happen," Pastor Aleksandr Miskevich told Forum 18. "I can't imagine how they are going to check the authenticity and authorship of the Gospels!"

UKRAINE: "Uncanonical and diabolical schismatics shouldn't exist"

Fr Anatol Curtev, a priest of the Bessarabian Metropolitanate of the Romanian Orthodox Church, is sceptical that the authorities will protect him and his parish in the village of Kamyshovka in the far south-west of Ukraine from violence. He and his parishioners claimed to Forum 18 News Service that the village's Russian Orthodox priest Fr Aleksei Grecu hit him on the head just before they started their separate liturgies on 12 March to mark the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and that Fr Grecu organised a brutal attack on him in the station of the nearby town of Izmail on 12 April. "It's a complete lie – I didn't hit him [Fr Curtev] or organise the attack," Fr Grecu told Forum 18, but admitted he was interviewed by police. "But if he's doing evil, what are we supposed to do? They're uncanonical and diabolical schismatics who shouldn't exist on Ukrainian territory." Fr Grecu dismissed any idea that the Bessarabian parish has any religious freedom rights. "We're not for democracy – we're Orthodox."

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