RUSSIA: Orthodox pressure railway into cancelling JW congress
The head of the missionary and catechism department of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye Orthodox diocese, Fr Vladimir Zaitsev, has pressured Sverdlovsk Regional Railway into cancelling a three-day congress of 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It was due to happen in a railway-administered stadium, and Fr. Zaitsev requested, in a letter publicised on local state TV and seen by Forum 18, that the congress be barred. He names Russian and foreign academics and Russian state bodies and "numerous documents issued by the traditional Christian churches of Europe [unnamed]," who, he claims, see Jehovah's Witnesses as "a destructive religious organisation (totalitarian sect, destructive cult)." Zaitsev also wrote that they offered to collaborate with Hitler and so "you will agree that in the sixtieth anniversary year [of the end of the Second World War] our compatriots will find this [allowing the congress to happen] particularly provocative." Jehovah's Witnesses were the target of intense Nazi persecution, and it is estimated that about 10,000 were imprisoned for their faith in concentration camps.
Speaking to Forum 18 News Service from near Locomotive Stadium on 8 July, Jehovah's Witness Andrei Kabalin said that the building's director, Stanislav Zagorodsky, had announced at approximately 8am that he was under orders not to admit the delegates. Explaining that the Jehovah's Witnesses have received no formal notification that their rental contract worth 90,000 Roubles (20,650 Norwegian Kroner, 2,620 Euros or 3,120 US Dollars) has been cancelled, Kabalin said that the gathering delegates then assembled on adjacent parkland until stadium staff announced via loudspeaker at around 11.30am that the building was closed for reconstruction. He added that Jehovah's Witness leaders are currently trying to contact Shevket Shaidullin, the chief of Sverdlovsk Regional Railway, which administers the stadium.
Shevket Shaidullin's telephone went unanswered when Forum 18 rang on 8 July, while his assistant, Pavel Vodoleyev, told Forum 18 to ring the railway's public information department, where there was also no response.
The sudden cancellation of the congress comes in the wake of a 4 July letter to the stadium's administration from the head of the missionary and catechism department of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye Orthodox diocese, Fr Vladimir Zaitsev. In the four-page document, of which Forum 18 has seen a copy, Fr Zaitsev requests that the congress not be permitted to take place at the stadium. As grounds, he names Russian academics and state bodies, as well as independent international researchers and "numerous documents issued by the traditional Christian churches of Europe [unnamed]," who, he claims, recognise the Jehovah's Witnesses as "a destructive religious organisation (totalitarian sect, destructive cult)." Zaitsev also states that the effects of the organisation's doctrines range from burdensome preaching obligations to child suicides.
Zaitsev also claims that the Jehovah's Witnesses offered to collaborate with Hitler in 1933: "You will agree that in the sixtieth anniversary year [since the Allied victory in the Second World War] our compatriots will find this [decision to allow the Jehovah's Witness congress to take place at Locomotive Stadium] particularly provocative." Jehovah's Witnesses were the target of intense Nazi persecution, and it is estimated that about 10,000 were imprisoned for their faith in concentration camps.
However, the letter does not refer to last year's court ban on religious activity by the Moscow community of Jehovah's Witnesses (see F18News 29 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=289 ) or the current situation in Moscow (see F18News 222 June 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=591 ).
The Yekaterinburg Jehovah's Witnesses first became concerned that their congress was in jeopardy when local state television broadcast "slanderous disinformation" about their organisation - including the contents of Fr Zaitsev's 4 July letter - on the evening of 6 July, local congregation representative Sergei Tantsura told Forum 18 late on 7 July. When attempting to clarify the situation with Shevket Shaidullin at Sverdlovsk Regional Railway offices on the morning of 7 July, he said, the congregation's representatives were told by Shaidullin's assistant Pavel Vodoleyev that he was busy and were asked to wait. After several minutes, however, the Jehovah's Witness representatives were reportedly told by several police officers to leave the building and return only once they had obtained entry passes. When they tried to do this, said Tantsura, the building's security guards informed the Jehovah's Witnesses that they were under orders not to admit them.
According to Tantsura, the two railway officials responsible for the signing and execution of the rental contract, Sergei Shvint and Sergei Karpets, told Jehovah's Witness representatives on 7 July that Shaidullin had informed them about Fr Zaitsev's letter and his decision to cancel the congress. Tantsura added that, while the representatives were also promised the return of their rental fee on 7 July, he was not aware whether it had yet been received.
Contacted on 8 July, Sergei Karpets asked why he was being questioned about the situation - "this is not within my responsibilities" - and referred Forum 18 to another number at Sverdlovsk Regional Railway where there was also no answer.
On 24 July 2004 the Yekaterinburg Jehovah's Witnesses were similarly forced to abandon their congress at a different stadium in the city (see F18News 27 July 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=377 ).
For a personal commentary by an Old Believer about continuing denial of equality to Russia's religious minorities see F18News http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=570
For more background see Forum 18's Russia religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=509
A printer-friendly map of Russia is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=russ
22 June 2005
Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that they are experiencing "escalating and more overt" obstruction as a result of the local court ban on their activities in Moscow. They state that they have experienced police harassment in their door-to-door preaching, lost meeting places and "those who still provide them are becoming fearful of the consequences". In contrast, the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army - which also faced local court moves to ban their activities in Moscow – has told Forum 18 that its problems are now resolved. "We work calmly in the city without problems and can rent property freely. We are now simply waiting patiently for the re-registration documentation to come through," the Salvation Army told Forum 18. Jehovah's Witnesses have lodged an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, which separately decided in June 2004 to hear a May 2001 complaint from the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army.
13 June 2005
Three Pentecostals have been jailed and nine fined by a court for "illegally" demonstrating against the Moscow city authorities' refusal to allow Emmanuel Pentecostal Church to build or acquire a building, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Since the demonstration, Emmanuel Church appears to be making progress, as the vice-chairman of Moscow's Department for Building Policy, Development and Reconstruction, Aleksandr Kosovan, has reportedly ordered that a plot of land be found where Emmanuel can build a church centre, with all planning work paid for by the Moscow government. The demonstration was also to protest about discrimination against Protestants in Russia. Such discrimination has had the support of the Russian Orthodox Church's St Tikhon Theological Institute, which, in a letter seen by Forum 18, wrote to the local authority complaining that "unknown persons are collecting signatures in your district in support of a prayer house" and alleging that Pentecostals use "suggestive (hypnotic) techniques, trance occult-mystic practices and methods of controlling the consciousness of its adepts which endanger their mental health."
9 June 2005
In what seems the most serious proposal in recent years to tighten up Russia's 1997 religion law, parliament's religion committee has begun to consider four draft amendments, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. These would make it impossible for unregistered religious organisations to hold large-scale religious meetings and allow only centralised religious organisations to invite foreigners for religious work. "If we invite a priest to Moscow as the centre of the diocese and he is to work in a completely different place, such as Kaliningrad, it will take a long time to explain to officials there why the invitation came from Moscow," Catholic Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz warned. Aleksandr Verkhovsky, editor at Sova Centre in Moscow, complained of another "dangerous" amendment allowing all religious communities applying for registration to have their religious doctrines analysed. "This is undesirable by its very nature in a secular society – a state should not determine which Islam (Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism and so on) is right and which is not." But religious rights lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev remains sceptical that these proposed amendments stand a chance of being adopted.