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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

RUSSIA: Local restrictions on mission in Sakhalin region

Local religious believers in Sakhalin region sometimes face state restrictions on sharing their faith, Forum 18 News Service has found. Pentecostals have been banned from showing the 'Jesus Film', and have also encountered local state bans on open-air evangelism, whilst the Jehovah's Witnesses have faced obstacles in distributing their literature. One official told Forum 18 that unregistered religious groups "can meet in private flats but not attract other people or disturb those around them."

RUSSIA: Moscow court decision - a fair cop?

The full text, which Forum 18 News Service has seen, of the court decision banning Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow consistently accepts hostile testimony and rejects favourable testimony, including the conclusions of a previous court decision. Looking at the most recent decision, it is notable that only unproven allegations and not proven court cases are cited in the claims made about the legality of Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow. Many of the claims made about the Jehovah's Witnesses practices could also be made of other religious communities practices as well.

RUSSIA: Full Moscow court decision slams JWs

Jehovah's Witnesses expect their appeal against a total ban on their activities in Moscow to be held within the next few weeks. The full decision of the judge who imposed the ban has now been released. Forum 18 News Service has seen the verdict and although it states that there is no evidence that Jehovah's Witnesses incite religious hatred with calls for violence, it does accuse them of forcing families to disintegrate, violating the equal rights of parents in the upbringing of their children, violating the Russian Constitution and freedom of conscience, encouraging suicide, and inciting citizens to refuse both military and alternative service. It is notable that the court decision consistently accepts hostile testimony against Jehovah's Witnesses, and as consistently rejects all favourable testimony.

TRANSDNIESTER: Harsh draft religion law rejected – for now

A harsh draft new religion law in the unrecognised Transdniestr republic has been rejected, but the senior religious affairs official has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that it will be adopted, indicating that it has the support of the breakaway republic's president, Igor Smirnov. The draft gave the authorities draconian "control powers in relation to the activity of religious organisations" and attracted criticism from the Orthodox Church, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, amongst others. Orthodox Bishop Iustinian likened the proposed powers to those of Soviet times, and said that such state religious affairs offices were an anachronism. Despite this initial rejection of the draft law, plans remain to amend the Criminal Code to increase punishments for "illegal activity of sects", including youth and adult work, increasing fines 15 times and imprisoning offenders for up to a year.

RUSSIA: Sacked for being Jehovah's Witnesses

Sergei Popov and Aleksandr Takhteyev, two of three Jehovah's Witnesses sacked on 1 April by a private firm on the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin, claimed to Forum 18 News Service that there was a direct link between the decision to sack them and the ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses in the Russian capital imposed by a Moscow court several days earlier. One manager of the food distribution company told the astonished Jehovah's Witnesses that since the group constituted a "sect", the three would steal money from the firm if told to do so by their religious superiors, and could not therefore be trusted. The firm's senior manager for Sakhalin overtly referred to the Moscow ban in an e-mail justifying the dismissals. "According to the charges, this sect interprets the Bible incorrectly, violates the rights of Moscow citizens, destroys the basis of the family and incites members to commit suicide," he claimed.

ABKHAZIA: JWs still banned and Georgian Orthodox still barred

Politicians in the breakaway unrecognised republic of Abkhazia have told Forum 18 News Service that the Jehovah's Witnesses will continue to be banned. "If they won't defend their families, why should they have the freedom to practice their faith?" asked Valera Zantaria, making it clear that the ban was because of the Jehovah's Witnesses refusal of military service. Also unable to function is the Georgian Orthodox Church, whose members have to travel out of Abkhazia to the Georgian city of Zugdidi for services. Although the Catholic church can function in Abkhazia, access for priests has become difficult because Russian border guards refuse to let them through. Lutherans and unregistered Baptists are also allowed to function, one unregistered Baptist Pastor telling Forum 18 that conditions for their people are better in Abkhazia than in Georgia, with preaching permitted "once the authorities had established they were not Jehovah's Witnesses."

RUSSIA: Methodists may have fought off church stealing

A Korean Methodist church in northern Moscow appears to have fought off an attempt by a commercial firm to steal their church building. A district court ruled against the Moscow justice department on 26 March after the church challenged the justice department's acceptance of fraudulent documents which claimed to have transferred the church to the company. Galina Skakun of the justice department admitted in court the Methodists' claim to the building, and tried to defend her department even though it failed to verify the authenticity of the documents. Church administrator Svetlana Kim said the Methodists believe that coverage of their case by both Forum 18 News Service and Russian news agencies "really helped us".

RUSSIA: Spring offensive against the "Vitaliban"?

Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR - which is not part of the Moscow Patriarchate) within Russia less enthusiastic about a proposed merger with the Moscow Patriarchate have faced obstruction from the state authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. When 50 clergy and lay members held a diocesan assembly in Tula region in February, officers of the police and FSB (former KGB) questioned their legal right to meet, while elsewhere local authorities have failed to register parishes, obstruct those that meet in privately-owned buildings and even threatened to confiscate churches built with parishioners' funds. Without state registration, parishes cannot produce publications or conduct missionary activity, but some clergy argue it is better not to have registration. "It is easier for state officials to apply pressure to a community with legal status by finding fault with its documentation," one priest told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Was terrorist threat to Protestant Easter celebration genuine?

Although Russian Orthodox and Catholics celebrated Easter without problem in the Siberian city of Tyumen on 11 April, a large-scale Protestant Easter evangelistic service due to have been held in a city-owned stadium on 14 April was cancelled by the authorities, citing what they said was a "terrorist threat". Andrei Knyazhev, co-ordinator of the Protestant service, told Forum 18 News Service he is "almost 99 per cent certain" that the threat was spurious. Forum 18 has been unable to establish the authenticity or otherwise of the threat independently, though the service faced opposition from local Orthodox believers. After an explicit Chechen terrorist threat against Orthodox churches in Russia, the security agencies have stepped up their protection of Orthodox Christmas and Easter services.

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."

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, 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.

AZERBAIJAN: Is religious censorship getting worse?

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.

RUSSIA: Alternative Orthodox denied church property

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."

RUSSIA: Court bans Jehovah's Witnesses

On 26 March a local court banned the religious activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. This is the latest twist in a series of legal problems for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, which date back to June 1995. An appeal has already been made to the Moscow City Court, so the most recent verdict will not have legal force unless that appeal is rejected. It is estimated that it will take about two months for the case to be heard in court. If that appeal fails, the Jehovah's Witnesses will take their case to Russia's Constitutional Court. The European Court of Human Rights is currently reviewing the Moscow community's situation and has the authority to annul relevant court decisions in Russia at any level.

RUSSIA: Alternative Orthodox denied legal status

Although most True Orthodox communities do not register with the state, due to a lingering fear of persecution, rejection of the state and a lack of the organisational skills required to register, Forum 18 News Service has found indications that local authorities sometimes bar attempts to register by the True Orthodox, as well as other Orthodox who are opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. Without legal status, such religious groups have the right only to worship and teach existing followers on premises provided by their own members. They cannot, for example, produce or distribute literature, or engage in other activities for which a 'legal personality' is necessary.

RUSSIA: Pentecostals & Orthodox to lose buildings on Pacific coast?

Two congregations on Russia's Pacific coast – the Grace Pentecostal Church and the Orthodox parish of the Annunciation – may lose their places of worship after the Sovetskaya Gavan city council abruptly cancelled a contract it had given for the use of a state-owned building, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The cancellation of the Pentecostal's contract came after the town gained a new mayor, Valeri Shevchuk, and a council official told Forum 18 that the Orthodox parish is in the same position as the Pentecostals. "We had a 20-year contract – so why should we move?" the Grace Church's former deacon Andrei Nadtochi told Forum 18 News Service. He said officials have hinted to church members that rental payments for their building under a new "commercial" agreement would be so high that they would give it up of their own accord. The church says it does not have the money to challenge the decision in court or pay higher rent.

UZBEKISTAN: University attacks Hare Krishna followers, along with secret police

Claiming without evidence that Hare Krishna followers were terrorists, had tried to stage a putsch in Russia and are now trying to stage a coup d'etat in Uzbekistan, Razumbai Ischanov, dean of Urgench University's Natural Sciences Faculty, has reportedly said he will expel all students who are Hare Krishna followers. Since the speech by the Dean, which had the support of University authorities, rumours have been spread that female Hare Krishna students are prostitutes, causing several planned weddings to be cancelled, and a lecturer in the natural sciences faculty forced a student Krishna devotee, against their religion, to eat meat and drink vodka. The NSS secret police have also started monitoring Hare Krishna students since the speech.

NORTH KOREA: Mystery of the last "Hermit Kingdom"

Although some things are known about North Korea's control over all aspects of its citizens' lives and about its chemical and biological experiments on prisoners, less is known about the country's religious life. Although religious freedom does not exist, there is dispute about how genuine religious practice is at the handful of "show churches" in the capital Pyongyang. Dusty pews suggest that they are not well used. Buddhist temples are mere cultural relics. Parents are reportedly afraid to pass on their faith to their children, as sporadic refugee accounts suggest believers are still punished for practising their faith in secret. It is often as refugees in China that North Koreans first encounter religious life. Refugees repatriated from China have reported that they are interrogated about their contacts with mainly Protestant South Korean missionaries, while the North Koreans have reportedly set up a fake Protestant church in China to lure back defectors. Evidence suggests that any religious revival in North Korea is a recent phenomenon resulting from repatriates sharing their faith. This might prove a challenge to the regime.

RUSSIA: Old Believers summoned by ex-KGB before church leadership election

Some 12 years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, an Old Believer representative has told Forum 18 News Service that he believes ex-KGB officials were acting "out of inertia" when they voiced preference for one of two candidates on the eve of his Church's 9 February leadership election. Romil Khrustalev added, however, that the energetic Andrian (Chetvergov) was elected metropolitan even though the Russian secret service apparently favoured the other candidate. Both Khrustalev and a Moscow Patriarchate representative told Forum 18 that a report claiming that Metropolitan Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church had acted similarly to the ex-KGB was false. Accounting for only a few per cent of the Russian population at most, the Old Believers say that they have "no idea" why the state should take an interest in the identity of their leader.

RUSSIA: Tula Baptist & Orthodox churches under attack?

Pastors of one of the largest unregistered Baptist churches in Russia, in Tula, have told Forum 18 News Service that they believe their prayer house was the victim of a deliberate attack in January, when two powerful explosions ripped through the building's interior. However, Viktor Orlov and Aleksandr Lakhtikov told Forum 18 that they do not know who caused the explosions. The timing of the incident - just before a major conference at the church to be attended by Baptist leaders from all over Russia - is thought to be particularly suspicious. Also in Tula, two Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox churches have suffered arson attacks in recent months. One of the Orthodox parish priests referred Forum 18 to "that inexplicable explosion" at the Baptist prayer house, and described both it and the arson attacks as "links in the same chain."

BELARUS: Krishna devotees under pressure

Authorities in Belarus have been briefly detaining Krishna devotees two or three times a week for distributing religious literature, as well as obstructing literature distribution in other ways, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Separately, the Society for Krishna Consciousness in Belarus has asked the UN Human Rights Committee to investigate the legality of the states' refusal to register the organisation under the previous religion law. Vasili Marchenko, the official in charge of religious affairs in Brest region, told Forum 18 that a local Hare Krishna community had not been denied re-registration under the new religion law, and that he had not received any such application. This is disputed by a devotee, who told Forum 18 that the community's re-registration documents had been returned without explanation. In October 1997, the Belarusian State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs' Expert Council described the Minsk Society for Krishna Consciousness as a "destructive totalitarian sect infringing personality, health, citizens' rights and national security."

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards religious minorities in Central Asia

State policies in Central Asia towards religious minorities present a varied picture. Orthodox Christians say they have almost no problems at all, which is in stark contrast to the situation of other religious minorities such as Protestant Christians, and to the situation of Islam, the most widespread religion in the region. Throughout the region both Islamic radicalism and proselytism by non-Islamic faiths are viewed very seriously indeed by governments, which frequently seek to control and/or severely repress both Islam and proselytism. This is partially due to fear of religious diversity, and partially due to fear of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

RUSSIA: Missionary's activity is "extremist", agrees court

In the wake of a 1 December district court ruling in Tatarstan's capital Kazan that a decision denying Baptist church-planter Takhir Talipov a further residency permit should be upheld, Talipov's legal representative told Forum 18 News Service he sees little hope in having the verdict overturned. Fyodor Dzyuba said he had not even bothered to attend a hearing at the Tatarstan supreme court on 10 January. "I knew in advance we had very little chance." The supreme court is due to announce its decision by 20 January. A Kazan district court had accepted an assessment by the local FSB (former KGB) that the missionary work by Talipov, a Russian-born ethnic Tatar, was "extremist" and liable to threaten stability in the mainly Muslim republic.

KOSOVO: No peace for Orthodox Christmas

The Orthodox Christmas season this month has been marred in Kosovo by a series of violent incidents, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A church was broken into and several items and some money were stolen, and a bus was attacked by local Albanians at the Decani monastery after the Christmas service. The attack on the church follows an earlier attack in November 2003. Officials of the United Nations administration (UNMIK) have condemned the attacks, the latest in a series since 1999 for which no arrests have ever been made. Speaking to Forum 18 about the attack on the bus, Fr Sava Janjic of the Decani monastery described it as a "demonstration of utmost religious intolerance" on Christmas "a holiday of peace and forgiveness". "What a paradox, that the attack was made at a moment when the head of UNMIK, only a hundred metres away, was speaking with the local Decani assembly president and appealed to him to show tolerance and understanding towards Decani monastery."

RUSSIA: Evicted Moscow Methodists given temporary access

After six freezing nights on the street outside their stolen building, members of the Korean Kwan Lim Methodist church in northern Moscow were allowed temporary access by police on 29 December. "Nothing has changed legally," United Methodist Church superintendent for northern Moscow Pastor Valeri He told Forum 18 News Service, acknowledging that church members are now "at least able to await a court verdict in the warm". A local court is due to set a date soon after 7 January to hear the church's complaint that the Moscow justice department accepted the fraudulently-amended church charter which allowed a commercial firm to seize the Methodists' building. The justice department has claimed to Forum 18 that the changes to the charter were made in accordance with the law.

RUSSIA: Church stolen at Christmas

Just before western Christmas, on 23 December, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that the new "owners" of a Methodist church in Moscow "violently and with the use of force" evicted Pastor Kim-Jun-Kyu, his family including two young children, and a range of other church officials, without even giving them time to dress before throwing them onto the cold street at 7 am. Church members immediately contacted the police, who have now sealed the building against both the new "owners" and church members. The church held a Christmas service on the street outside the church, and will be holding another street service this coming Sunday. Pastor Mikhail Kuznetsov, of the Moscow Interconfessional Pastors' Council, has told Forum 18 that "the violence was accompanied by nationalistic expressions and crude insults towards the Protestants," and has called for a special night of prayer for the church on 2 to 3 January 2004.

CHINA: When will Beijing's Orthodox have church?

After today's funeral of Beijing's last Orthodox priest, it is still unknown when the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church will have a church in the capital. Visiting Russian Orthodox priest Fr Dionisy Pozdnyayev told Forum 18 News Service that Orthodox believers "have no priest now, no church and nowhere to pray", although he said the authorities were positive about the idea of Chinese Orthodox studying for the priesthood in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has being trying to help the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church, which the Cultural Revolution decimated, without success asking to send priests to surviving Chinese parishes, Forum 18 has been told. Several parishes still survive in Inner Mongolia and in Xinjiang Province in north west China. The only surviving Chinese local clergy are in the southern city of Shanghai, where St Nicholas' church has been turned into a French restaurant. Elsewhere, Chinese Orthodox churches are also being used for other purposes, in at least one case as a night club.

RUSSIA: City justice dept claims church stealing was conducted legally

Moscow city's justice department has failed to explain to Forum 18 News Service why it allowed the founding document of a Methodist Church to be altered without the knowledge or consent of the church, thus facilitating the "sale" of the building to new "owners". Guards hired by these "owners" have seized the building, with the pastor and church officials remaining inside. Aleksandr Buksman, head of the local city registration department for religious organisations, has claimed to Forum 18 that the demands of Russia's religion law "were fully observed by the religious organisation". This claim is very strongly disputed by the church, which points out to Forum 18 that a "meeting" Buksman refers to was not authorised by the church, did not involve church members, and was not held on church premises. Buksman has failed to explain why his department did not check any of this with the church leadership.

RUSSIA: Methodist church building to be stolen?

A Methodist church may lose its church building after the local Moscow city justice department allowed outsiders to change the building's ownership without the church's knowledge, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Guards loyal to the new "owners" have seized the building, though the pastor and church officials remain inside. The local Moscow justice department has declined to explain to Forum 18 why it allowed the "ownership change" to happen without the church's knowledge. However, Maksim Zubov, of the federal Justice Ministry has pointed out to Forum 18 that "no-one has the right to change the founding document of a religious organisation without its knowledge." Church officials suspect that the reason may be local city corruption, and Bishop Ruediger Minor, head of the United Methodist Church in Russia, has told Forum 18 that "the whole thing could only happen because of some (at least silent) support from administrative and other structures."

MONGOLIA: Religious freedom survey, December 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Mongolia, Forum 18 News Service notes the, in regional terms, unusually high degree of religious freedom. Possibly key to this is the fact that Mongolia has only one paid official dealing solely with religious issues, instead of an extensive state bureaucracy. However, Protestants told Forum 18 of incidents in which unregistered churches were threatened or fined , as well as a widespread tendency by state authorities to demand random "fines" or "donations", but this appears to be the action of individual local council members. There is rising social concern about the activity of Christians in the country, particularly due to a belief that they advocate suicide. However, Forum 18 found that there appears to be in general less fear of new religious influences in Mongolia than is found in surrounding countries.

MONGOLIA: Religious freedom oasis? (Part 1 of 2)

Forum 18 News Service has found a remarkable degree of agreement amongst state officials, cultural figures, Christians and Buddhists in Mongolia with the sentiments of a Mongolian member of parliament, who told Forum 18 that "Chinghis Khan invited Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Daoists here back in the thirteenth century. Mongolians are very tolerant in the religious sphere – I've never come across anything like it anywhere else." This embraces freedom to witness and state registration of churches, which are difficult issues in surrounding countries. A Russian Buddhist source commented to Forum 18 that the Buddhist reaction to someone becoming a Christian would be "It is their karma – let them." However, some Protestants (see subsequent F18News article), have raised very serious concerns.

MONGOLIA: Authorities don't follow neighbours' exclusion of religious leaders

Even though Mongolia's influential neighbours China and Russia have not recently hosted Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso XIV or Pope John Paul II, Forum 18 News Service has found that in Mongolia they are welcome guests. This appears to be because Mongolia regards the Dalai Lama as a solely religious figure, and the Pope as primarily a head of state. Discussing the exiled Tibetan religious leader's latest visit with Forum 18, Mongolian military colonel E. Batmunkh pointed out that "we are a state with equal rights now. We don't look to the Chinese - if the Dalai Lama is invited to Mongolia, he comes." Fr Anatoli Fesechko of Ulaanbaatar's Russian Orthodox church, talking to Forum 18 about a possible papal visit, said that the Moscow Patriarchate did not consider Mongolia to be a part of its canonical territory, "so there can't be interconfessional conflict between us."

RUSSIA: Tatar FSB says missionary's activity is "extremist"

Arguing that Baptist missionary Takhir Talipov's activity is "extremist" and "poses a threat to the stability of the interconfessional and interethnic situation in Tatarstan", the local branch of the FSB (former KGB) recommended his residency application be turned down. The 9 October FSB statement, of which Forum 18 News Service has received a copy, also accuses Talipov's church of acting "illegally", claiming that it is unregistered. Talipov told Forum 18 he must leave Russia before his visa expires on 15 December. His next appeal hearing against the denial of a residence permit is set for 1 December. "It looks like we are returning to the 1930s – decisions concerning people's religious freedom are being determined not by a court or the law, but the FSB," Talipov's legal representative told Forum 18.

MONGOLIA: Authorities thwart the return of Buddhist King

Before 1921, Mongolians recognised a living Buddha as ruler, so the discovery of a legitimate successor to the last ruler has not been viewed with enthusiasm by the present-day government, Forum 18 News Service has found. An anonymous Buddhist source told Forum 18 that the government does not permit Jetsun Dhampa IX to visit Mongolia as "They are scared that he will lay claim to power here." Jetsun Dhampa has, however, maintained that he has "no interest in politics." Widely different views were expressed in Mongolia to Forum 18 of what position he should hold. In 1999 Jetsun Dhampa visited Mongolia unofficially as a tourist, meeting with an enthusiastic popular reception and recognition by some as the religious leader of Mongolia, which embarrassed the government. An official visit seems unlikely in the near future.

BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, November 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Belarus, Forum 18 News Service notes the various ways in which the Belarusian state limits religious freedom. These include denial of state registration, breaking up home worship meetings, restrictions on religious events held in public, refusal of permission to build, purchase or reclaim premises, and restrictions on the right to invite foreigners for religious work. Although there is a strong Soviet-era tradition of state hostility towards religion in Belarus, government officials currently seem willing to give at least symbolic support for the Belarusian Orthodox Church if this is thought to serve the government's geopolitical interests.

TURKMENISTAN: President falsely claims no religious prisoners

Under pressure from a draft UN resolution sponsored by the EU and US, the Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has defended his record with the claim that Turkmenistan has never had religious prisoners of conscience and cooperates fully with international human rights bodies. However, Forum 18 News Service knows of Jehovah's Witness prisoners and an imam in internal exile. Also imprisoned for his faith was Baptist Shagildy Atakov. Turkmenistan has both consistently failed to cooperate with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and other UN human rights agencies and also has this month introduced a harsh new religion law outlawing all unregistered religious activity, which defies international human rights agreements it has signed.

GEORGIA: Orthodox permission needed for religious literature imports

Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that importing religious literature can be difficult and expensive, or even impossible, due both to obstruction from the Orthodox Patriarchate and also to corruption among officials. There is repeatedly said to be an unpublished instruction to Customs officials from Patriarch Ilya banning the religious literature imports without his permission. Giorgi Andriadze of the Patriarchate told Forum 18 that the Patriarchate only objects to large quantities of non-Orthodox literature being imported. "It's a question of proselytism. If groups bring in millions of books, that means they intend to proselytise. If they bring in enough for their own followers, it's their right." The Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities have not had any problems with literature importation.

BELARUS: Lingering legacy of militant atheism

Forum 18 News Service has found indications that the influence of Soviet-era atheist ideology on Belarus remains strong. Many of the officials who worked for the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs reportedly continue to staff the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, which has a far more extensive network of officials than similar bodies in Russia. Also, texts used for instruction in state education maintain, for example, that "Religion's promises to give a person everything that he seeks in it are but illusion and deception." and that "no religion was accorded any preference or subjected to any form of oppression" in Belarus after 1918. Pentecostal Assistant Bishop Naum Sakhanchuk has told Forum 18 that the current repression of non-Orthodox confessions is much more closely connected with this atheist legacy than with state support for the Belarusian Orthodox Church. An anonymous Orthodox source agreed, commenting to Forum 18 that the 2002 religion law was not in fact designed to benefit the Patriarchate. "Now the atheists say it is against sects, but they are waiting for the day when they can persecute everybody."

BELARUS: An Orthodox Nation?

President Aleksandr Lukashenko has implied that Belarus is an Orthodox nation. However this is strongly disputed by those who point to the long history and present existence on Belarusian territory of other confessions. It has been suggested to Forum 18 News Service by an anonymous Orthodox source that the reason for the President's claim is that he "can't reject religion outright as it is too significant, so he needs to be able to rely on it." So, "he takes the first thing which comes to hand and is the largest – the Orthodox Church – not because he is Orthodox or because he cares about the Church but only because of that." An anonymous Protestant source agreed that politicians in Belarus were trying to use the Orthodox Church for political purposes.

BELARUS: Ahmadiyya Muslims among banned religious organisations

Forum 18 News Service has learnt that a Belarusian government list of 16 banned religious organisations includes the British-based Ahmadiyya, who are generally considered to a sect of Islam. State officials reportedly "do not register sects of Christianity or Islam as there will be conflicts between them," Forum 18 was told. Even if a group has state registration, it can still encounter state opposition such as that experienced by the charismatic Full Gospel Association. The Association has been officially classed as a "neo-mystical religious-political destructive sect" whose growth poses "a significant threat to the individual, society and state" of Belarus.

RUSSIA: Moscow Baptist street service broken up

After police broke up an open air Baptist evangelistic service in southern Moscow, a court ruled on 11 August that the singing and praying "disturbed public order and the peace of those relaxing nearby". One Baptist was fined 16 US dollars after police claim he swore at them, a charge denied by local Baptists. "Believers don't swear," Veniamin Khorev told Forum 18 News Service. He described the breaking up of the service as "part of the normal life of our church". As the Baptists refuse to register with the authorities they have no legal status and in practice cannot rent buildings for worship. Their evangelistic events have been disrupted across Russia this summer, with books confiscated, tents taken down, six church members detained for five days and four fined.

RUSSIA: Do Sunday school children need written parental permission?

Fr Sergi Golovanov, who teaches religion to five children in his Eastern-rite Catholic parish in the Siberian city of Omsk with permission from their parents, could be fined up to 66 US dollars for failing to supply such parental permission in writing. The local justice department demanded he present such written permission by 15 August, but Fr Sergi refused, arguing that the country's religion law nowhere declares that parental permission must be in writing. However, local religious affairs official Vasili Tkach insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the authorities were acting in accordance with the law.

RUSSIA: Religious Freedom Survey, July 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Russia, Forum 18 News Service reports on the extensive variations of religious freedom policy in Russia, noting that when decisions are made which violate believers' rights, they are largely informed by the political agendas and personal loyalties of local politicians. The particular nature of a religious belief seems to play little role in restrictions – such as visa bars being imposed - groups being far more likely to be targeted if they are dynamic and visible, whatever their beliefs. Centrally, the state is not so much concerned about actual control over the legitimate activity of citizens as in having potential control over activity, so violations of religious freedom may not appear as dramatic as in many other states in the region. The trend of low-level discrimination looks set to continue unchallenged.

RUSSIA: Allegations against Komi Moscow Patriarchate diocese ignored, allegations against non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox investigated

Local state officials in Komi are said to be assisting the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese in its dispute with the local Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR - which is not part of the Moscow Patriarchate) community, according to the abbot of the Votcha ROCOR monastic community, Fr Stefan (Babayev). Forum 18 News Service has confirmed that neither the monastery nor its associated parish have received state registration. Claims have also been made that, in contrast to local state authorities investigation of allegations against both the ROCOR and Baptist (See F18News 22 July 2003) communities, allegations of criminal practices within a local Moscow Patriarchate monastery have not been investigated.

RUSSIA: State interrogations of Komi non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox

State interrogations of members of the non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox community at Komi and those associated with them are claimed to have continued, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, including attempts to intimidate teenage school children, as well as municipal employees, who attend services at the monastery. This has taken place even after an apparently conclusive court ruling in the monastery's favour.

RUSSIA: Komi non-Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox fight to retain Church building

An Orthodox monastery and parishioners have been harassed by local state authorities since they broke from the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese of Syktyvkar and Vorkuta to join the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR - which is not part of the Moscow Patriarchate). Forum 18 News Service has seen a video of the local Moscow Patriarchate bishop trying with a police escort to go to the monstery, and of the bishop accusing the non-Patriarchate Orthodox clergy of theft and of being "American fascists". Both the Moscow Patriarchate diocese and local state authorities then launched failed law suits against the monastery, aimed at seizing a wooden church built after the breakaway took place.

RUSSIA: Last of 31 court cases for Komi Baptists?

For the past six years the local administration of Komi in north-east European Russia has banned completion of both Russia's largest Baptist Church and a nearby centre for the physically disabled. Forum 18 News Service has discovered that the Baptist's problems started after a visit by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II. The latest obstacle placed by authorities in the way of completion of the church is a sales tax demand for three million roubles (approximately 100,000 US dollars, 730,000 Norwegian Kroner or 88,000 Euros) - even though the church has never been sold. Although local authorities are also preventing completion of the centre for the physically disabled, which the Baptists have now decided to give to the local authority, the local religious affairs adviser had high praise for the Baptists' charitable work.

OSCE COMMITMENTS: OSCE MEETING ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION - A REGIONAL SURVEY

Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration.

RUSSIA: Is Kostroma missionary black spot?

At the same time as five US citizens working with the evangelical Kostroma Christian Church were denied Russian visas last summer, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that another US citizen working in the city with the Christian humanitarian aid organisation Children's HopeChest was denied a visa. And US preacher Bill Norton, who used to visit Kostroma's Family of God church twice a year, has been barred from entry three times since last summer, making Kostroma – with seven visa denials - the location in Russia associated with the greatest number of known foreign church worker expulsions. Pastor Andrei Danilov told Forum 18 that the Russian Foreign Ministry had barred Norton "in connection with a threat to national security".

RUSSIA: State opposition to Kostroma Pentecostals continues

In the latest incident of what Pastor Andrei Danilov regards as continuing state pressure, the regional justice department in Kostroma near Moscow ordered a "check-up" on the Family of God Pentecostal church in June. The church was given just days – three of which were public holidays – to provide documentation on church funds, church activity, congregation membership records and minutes of meetings. "Other churches haven't been asked," Danilov pointed out to Forum 18 News Service. But local religious affairs official Marina Smirnova defended such action against the church, which included a failed court case on accusations of conducting hypnosis. "This concerns the lives of OUR people... hopefully we caused Danilov to think twice, I call that a result."