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5 January 2016

CRIMEA: Paying fines "would be to admit that they did something wrong"

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Three of eight Baptists from Saki in western Crimea who refused to pay fines for holding a public religious meeting were sentenced to 20 hours' community service each in October 2015. Five fines were imposed by Judge Irina Shevchenko without a formal court hearing. A fine of about six weeks' average local wages has been ordered to be automatically deducted from the wages of another Baptist. Items from the homes of four others have been identified for possible seizure. Council of Churches Baptists refuse to pay fines imposed for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. "They didn't pay the fines as to do so would be to admit that they did something wrong," a church member told Forum 18 News Service. However, Crimea's Supreme Court has overturned September 2015 fines imposed on two Jehovah's Witnesses distributing religious literature. Meanwhile, after the deadline for all religious communities to re-register with the Russian Justice Ministry expired on 1 January 2016, only about 400 religious organisations have been re-registered. Over 1,100 religious communities which had legal status under Ukrainian law no longer have legal status under Russian law.

16 September 2015

CRIMEA: Madrassahs closed – for one year or for ever?

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

As the 2015-6 academic year begins, at least five of Crimea's madrassahs (Islamic colleges) have been forced to remain closed, Forum 18 News Service has learned. One of those unable to re-open was the madrassah in Kolchugino, dramatically raided by armed security forces in June 2014. Also forced to remain closed are four of the five madrassahs run by the Crimean Muftiate. "Of course the Muftiate wants all five of the madrassahs to function so that children can get appropriate religious education," the Muftiate told Forum 18. "But we hope we will be able to re-open them for religious education in September 2016 for the next academic year." Valentina Boiko of Crimea's Education Ministry told Forum 18 that no religious organisations of any faith have sought the licences they require under Russian law to run religious education colleges. Although licences are not compulsory until September 2016, she refused to say why the madrassahs cannot function in the 2015-6 academic year. Boiko also claimed that "all religious education must have a licence", even in Sunday schools, otherwise it would be illegal.

26 June 2015

CRIMEA: "Expert conclusions" force structure and activity changes

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

"Expert conclusions" by Russia's Justice Ministry Expert Council have led to some Crimean religious organisations having to make changes to get re-registration under Russian law, Forum 18 News Service notes. The Crimean Muftiate had to cut its ties to the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (a political organisation). The nine Catholic parishes had to formally cut ties with their Diocese of Odessa-Simferopol in southern Ukraine and are now in a Pastoral District of Crimea and Simferopol. Yalta's Augsburg Lutheran congregation had to remove a reference to pilgrimages in its statute. It is unclear what may happen if a pilgrimage is organised. "Observations" in the "expert conclusion" on the Tavrida Muftiate – the smaller of the two Crimean Muftiates – have so far blocked its re-registration. Of the 15 communities which have undergone "expert analyses" in Moscow so far in 2015, the Tavrida Muftiate is the only one which has so far failed to gain re-registration after receiving an "expert conclusion".

24 June 2015

CRIMEA: Fined for books that "have absolutely nothing to do with the mufti"

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Ruslan Saitvaliyev, mufti of the Tavrida Muftiate, has insisted that his fine of nearly a week's average local wage for "extremist" literature is unjust. He says books police and Prosecutor's Office officials claim to have seized during a raid on an independent mosque in the Crimean capital Simferopol have nothing to do with him, a Muslim familiar with the case told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecutor's Office official Anna Ober – who led the raid – refused to discuss it with Forum 18. The warden of a hostel for medical academy students has been fined over two Muslim books found in a prayer room which Russian authorities deem "extremist". And an eighth Baptist has been fined the equivalent of three weeks' average local wages for participating in an open-air religious meeting. However, State Council deputies have dropped a proposed new administrative offence of "religious agitation in public places" in Crimea.

3 June 2015

CRIMEA: New punishments for "religious agitation in public places"?

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

A new draft Law on Administrative Offences in the Republic of Crimea would, if adopted in current form, prescribe fines for the undefined "offence" of "religious agitation in public places". The draft passed its first reading in the State Council (Crimea's parliament) in May. Although fines would be relatively small, they would rise for repeated "offences", Forum 18 News Service notes. "I don't understand what they envisage" by the term "religious agitation in public places", Chair of the State Council's Culture Committee Svetlana Savchenko told Forum 18. Asked if Orthodox Easter processions around churches might be punishable, she responded: "Processions are not agitation – giving out books or leaflets is." Meanwhile, a senior Crimean Muslim official was twice fined in April for failing to pay earlier fines because institutions under his authority had religious books the Russian authorities claim are "extremist".

2 June 2015

CRIMEA: Interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted, fined

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Seven of nine Baptists who conducted an outdoor religious meeting in a village in central Crimea were fined in May, Forum 18 News Service notes. An eighth is due in court on 15 June. All rejected police and court insistence that their event required prior notification under Russia's Demonstrations Law. "This event did not disturb public order and did not threaten the safety of the participants themselves or of other citizens," church members insisted to Forum 18. The chair of the village council who halted the event, Aleksei Rusanov, and the head of the District Police, Colonel Aleksandr Venikov, both refused to discuss their actions with Forum 18. Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, some religious communities have complained of state restrictions on public activities they had previously conducted when the peninsula was under Ukrainian rule. The fines came as proposed new punishments for "religious agitation in public places" are in Crimea's State Council (parliament). The United Nations has expressed concern about the consequences of a re-registration requirement on Crimea's religious communities.

27 March 2015

CRIMEA: Religious freedom survey, March 2015

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

One year after Russia's March 2014 annexation of Crimea, Forum 18 News Service notes the forced imposition of Russian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief. Individuals and religious communities have faced raids, fines, religious literature seizures, government surveillance, expulsions of invited foreign religious leaders, unilateral cancellation of property rental contracts and obstructions to regaining places of worship confiscated in the Soviet period. Only one percent of communities which had state registration under Ukrainian law have succeeded in gaining the compulsory Russian re-registration. Members of a wide range of religious communities are highly cautious about discussing anything that could be interpreted as criticism of Russian rule for fear of possible reprisals. This includes a reluctance to discuss restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.

26 March 2015

CRIMEA: Only one percent of religious organisations re-registered

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

All 150 re-registration applications submitted to Crimea's Justice Department ahead of the original 31 December 2014 deadline were initially rejected as they were "very bad", Irina Demetskaya of the Justice Department in the Crimean capital Simferopol told Forum 18 News Service. Even after the extended 1 March deadline, only two centralised religious organisations (one of the Orthodox dioceses and the Muftiate) have been re-registered and only 12 local communities. This represents about one percent of the number that had Ukrainian registration, Forum 18 notes. Two more are awaiting approval from the tax authorities, while 13 are being considered in Moscow. Her office is still considering about 150 more. Without registration under Russian law, religious communities can meet, but cannot enter into contracts to rent property, employ people or invite foreigners. Meanwhile, the Sevastopol authorities have reaffirmed their refusal to return the confiscated St Clement's Catholic Church. The parish has been seeking its return since the 1990s. Vladimir Ryabykh of Sevastopol's Culture Department claimed to Forum 18 that it cannot be returned as the parish has not asked for it back.

26 January 2015

CRIMEA: "Subject to action by the law-enforcement agencies"

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Crimea's Russian-backed head of government Sergei Aksyonov "gave people the opportunity" to hand in religious and other literature the Russian authorities regard as "extremist" during a moratorium on prosecutions which expired at the end of 2014. "Those who didn't will be subject to action by the law-enforcement agencies," Aksyonov's spokesperson Yekaterina Polonchuk told Forum 18 News Service. Although raids, literature seizures and administrative fines for religious books the Russian authorities regard as "extremist" seem to have reduced during the moratorium, they did not stop. A mosque leader was fined, while administrative cases against two Jehovah's Witness communities in Dzhankoi began in court during the moratorium. Muslims and librarians are particular targets of administrative fines, while an attempt to fine Simferopol's Jehovah's Witness community was sent back in November 2014.

20 January 2015

CRIMEA: Convent closed following nuns' enforced departure

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Nearly 18 years after the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary established a small convent in the Crimean capital Simferopol to help in pastoral work in the city's Roman Catholic parish, it has had to close. The three nuns – who are from elsewhere in Ukraine and Poland – were refused extensions to their residence permits and had to leave in November 2014, a month after the parish priest was similarly forced to leave. "Just one priest remains in Simferopol to serve the Catholic parish," diocesan chancellor Fr Krzysztof Kontek lamented to Forum 18 News Service. "He has to do everything now by himself." December 2014 saw the last of the 23 Turkish imams and religious teachers forced to leave Crimea, bringing to an end a 20-year-old programme. Officials of Russia's Federal Migration Service insisted to Forum 18 that only registered religious communities are able to invite foreign citizens. No religious organisations in Crimea currently have legal status under Russian law and thus none are able to invite foreign citizens.

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