RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness rental contracts cancelled
In the wake of the recent Moscow court decision prohibiting all Jehovah's Witness religious activities in the city, some local congregations across Russia have this month had rental contracts either cancelled or threatened with cancellation by landlords, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The congregations known to be affected are in St Petersburg, Moscow, Vladimir, Yekaterinburg in the Urals, Krasnoyarsk, and Khabarovsk in the far east of Russia. The landlords' decisions appear to be related to misunderstandings of the nature of the Moscow court decision. In the Vladimir case, the Jehovah's Witnesses were told that they could use a venue "as long as they had the approval of a local Orthodox priest."
Speaking to Forum 18 on 8 April, Presber reported that one Moscow congregation had arranged to hold its 4 April service in commemoration of Christ's death at the premises of a Russian-Dutch hotel in the city, but that the concern's administration cancelled the agreement due to the Moscow ban. He pointed out, however, that the community was able to use the Jehovah's Witnesses' own Kingdom Hall complex in the Russian capital, where 38 other congregations gathered in shifts in five worship halls.
Even prior to 4 April, Urals regional news website "Novy Region" ("New Region") warned of a possible scandal should 700 members of the "banned sect" of Jehovah's Witnesses gather for worship on that date at a house of culture in Yekaterinburg (approximately 1400km east of Moscow). On 31 March the website reported that the house of culture's administrator had already tried to annul the congregation's contract following the 26 March Moscow court decision, adding that "representatives of the security services strongly advised him to avoid the possibility of a scandal."
On 3 April the same website announced that the house of culture's administrative staff had cancelled the Jehovah's Witnesses' 4 April arrangements "in connection with a court decision banning the activity of this religious organisation in Russia and in order to avoid a massive scandal." On 7 April Dmitri Bykov of the Jehovah's Witnesses' Russian administrative centre in St Petersburg told Forum 18 that the Yekaterinburg congregation was able to find an alternative hall in the city for its meeting, but "with difficulty."
The local religious studies specialist in Krasnoyarsk (approximately 3200 km east of Moscow) who spoke with an administrator who threatened to cancel a similar rental agreement with local Jehovah's Witnesses, Lyudmila Grigoryeva told Forum 18 on 9 April that the situation had been resolved relatively easily. "People who rent out halls aren't specialists," she explained. "They just heard about the Moscow ban and didn't look into what sort of court decision it was or whether it had legal force." Grigoryeva added that she is currently setting up "Tolerance," a consultation centre which will deal primarily with religious freedom issues in the region, "precisely so that we can avoid this kind of situation."
Christian Presber told Forum 18 that in each of the recent instances where Jehovah's Witnesses had their contracts cancelled, they had already paid rental fees, "but these were returned." He also maintained that in every case local state officials pressurised administrators into cancelling agreements on the basis of the Moscow court decision, even though this relates only to the Russian capital and is not in force pending the Jehovah's Witnesses' municipal court appeal. Speaking to Forum 18 on 9 April, the press secretary of Moscow City's Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, Konstantin Blazhenov, remarked that the Moscow ban was not in force as far as he knew.
In St Petersburg, Dmitri Bykov told Forum 18 that several groups of Jehovah's Witnesses had similarly been forced to find alternative premises for their 4 April services. According to Christian Presber, a local congregation staging a religious convention in Vladimir (approximately 200km east of Moscow) in two weeks' time has also had a rental agreement annulled by stadium administrative staff. "When they went to a second venue, the administrator told them that they could use it," he remarked, "as long as they had the approval of a local Orthodox priest."
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7 April 2004
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baha'i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy. Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow religious faiths to be practiced freely.
6 April 2004
Baptists, Muslims, Adventists, Hare Krishna devotees, Baha'i and human rights activists have all noticed the problems caused by the censorship of religious literature in Azerbaijan, the head of the Baptist Union telling Forum 18 News Service that censorship is "getting worse". "We even have to ask for permission for one book sent to us through the post," Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. "Formally, censorship was abolished in Azerbaijan by presidential decree in August 1998, but it still exists," Eldar Zeynalov, of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointed out, telling Forum 18 that "If Rafik Aliev [chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations] had existed in Mecca at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he wouldn't have allowed him to produce any books as his views would have been regarded as heresy." Zeynalov also noted that prisoners are sometimes banned from seeing religious literature.
29 March 2004
Although True Orthodox communities can normally gather in private homes and do not require a worship building, Forum 18 News Service has found indications that local authorities sometimes bar attempts to acquire or maintain worship buildings by the True Orthodox, as well as other Orthodox groups opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. In Moscow, this problem has existed since the early 1990s, when the City Council decided that pre-revolutionary Orthodox church buildings may be returned only to the Moscow Patriarchate. A spokesman for the City Council has claimed to Forum 18 that, before 1990, alternative Orthodox groups "did not exist."