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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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RUSSIA: Orthodox becoming first among equals

Without any change in the law or Constitution to provide for them, the steady increase in concordat-style agreements between the Russian Orthodox Church and various organs of state at federal and local level has given the Orthodox Church increased power, Forum 18 News Service reports after a wide-ranging survey. These agreements give the Church special access to institutions such as prisons, the police, the FSB, the army, schools and hospitals, and emphasise Orthodoxy as the legitimate ideology of Russian state tradition. It is open to question whether they violate Russia's international human rights commitments, but in practice these mini-concordats can render illegitimate the social activity of other religious organisations in the state sphere, thus leading to discrimination on religious grounds.

RUSSIA: Supreme Court upholds Bible college closure

Today (20 May) Russia's Supreme Court ruled that the Vladivostok-based charismatic "Faith in Action" Bible College should be closed down for conducting religious education without a state licence. Afterwards, the defence lawyer told Forum 18 News Service that the college's parent church, the Church of the Living God, could now be pressurised by the regional authorities for conducting unlicensed professional education activity.

RUSSIA: Court closes down Bible College

On 21 March Primorsky Krai regional court in Russia's Far East ruled to close down the charismatic Faith in Action Bible College in Vladivostok. Speaking to Forum 18 News Service, the public prosecutor's representative in the case, Nina Saiko, defended the court-ordered closure, arguing that the college was conducting "educational activity" without a licence in violation of the education law. The college's lawyer Aleksei Kolupayev insisted to Forum 18 that it was not conducting educational activity "but simple study for religious believers, a right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Russian Constitution." Others claim that the FSB (former KGB) has been harassing the college and looking for excuses to close it down.

RUSSIA: Kalmykia's "common defence" against "non-traditional" religions

Local officials met Buddhist and Russian Orthodox leaders in Russia's southern, traditionally Buddhist republic of Kalmykia on 1 April to discuss their common "concern" about the growing influence of religious communities they deem untraditional. One official told Forum 18 News Service that officials were concerned about "incorrect trends" within Buddhism in Kalmykia, while the Orthodox were worried by the presence of Adventists, Baptists and Pentecostals. Kalmykia's Orthodox Bishop Zosima told Forum 18 that after Orthodox preaching, Adventists had been "cleared out" of the settlement of Iki-Burul and Russians in the previously Baptist-dominated settlement of Yashalta were returning to Orthodoxy.

RUSSIA: Are Kalmykia's Protestants "western spies"?

Foreign missionaries working with Protestant communities in Kalmykia, the Lord's Love evangelical church and the Salvation Army, have been barred from Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Citing the FSB (ex-KGB), they have been attacked in the local state press as "western spies" who "frequently operate within various missionary organisations, hiding behind lofty charitable ideals." Commenting on efforts by the Salvation Army, Christian Missionary Alliance and Mission Aviation Fellowship to overturn entry bans, the newspaper said this "just goes to show how greatly intelligence agencies are interested in their presence in Kalmykia." After the article described the Salvation Army as "one of the most powerful totalitarian sects in the world", it was banned from holding events for children, Forum 18 has been told. Despite this, local authorities still seek the aid of Protestants to help needy people the authorities cannot help and to assist with anti-drug programmes. Forum 18 has also learned that it is planned to change the way religious communities represent their interests to local authorities, to the disadvantage of religious communities which are not Orthodox, Muslim or Buddhist.

RUSSIA: Few complaints over Kalmykia's state support for Buddhism

Despite large state subsidies for building Buddhist temples and training Buddhist monks, while "the basics of traditional religions are taught in a historical-informational context" in schools, officials and Buddhist leaders reject suggestions that Buddhism has become Kalmykia's state religion. "In Russia the government and churches are separate, so it doesn't unite us that much," Buddhist leader Telo Tulku Rinpoche told Forum 18 News Service. Members of religious minorities voiced few complaints about this government support for Buddhism.

RUSSIA: Degree of calm in Catholic storm

While the Catholic Church's fortunes in Russia may have risen from their low point last September, when two Catholic priests were denied entry to the country in as many days, they have not yet turned decisively for the better during the first three months of 2003. Saratov-based Bishop Clemens Pickel, who is German, was granted a residency permit in January, but Bishop Jerzy Mazur of Irkutsk, who is Polish, is still being barred entry to Russia. St Petersburg-based Fr Bronislaw Czaplicki was refused an extension to his residency permit and was told to leave Russia by 12 March, though he retains the right to return to Russia on an ordinary visa. Asked by Forum 18 News Service what he thought about the fact that no Catholic clergy had been expelled for some time, chancellor of the Moscow-based diocese Fr Igor Kovalevsky remarked: "I don't think anything about it. It doesn't mean that there won't be any tomorrow."

RUSSIA: New parliamentary force for "traditional spiritual values"

Long-running attempts by Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders to consolidate their positions with state assistance have entered a new phase with the creation of a public-parliamentary commission "In Support of Traditional Spiritual and Moral Values in Russia". Unveiling the project at the Duma (parliament) on 18 March, People's Deputy Valeri Galchenko termed it a cross-party initiative in conjunction with the Interreligious Council, a consultative body founded in January 1999 which embraces representatives of Russia's so-called traditional confessions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. The new commission plans to propose draft laws to parliament and lobby the government in support of "traditional spiritual and moral values".

RUSSIA: Religion looms as electoral factor

Nine months before Russia's parliamentary elections, there are already signs that some political figures will seek to use religious leaders and institutions to help boost their popularity. At a 28 February conference devoted to the stance of Russia's so-called traditional religious confessions (Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism) towards December's parliamentary elections and the likely influence of voters' religious convictions on the results, Eurasia party leader Aleksandr Dugin maintained that the number of people responding positively to a clear confessional adherence by political leaders has more than doubled over the past four years. A Federation Council representative argued that if a political candidate is convincingly seen to appear morally upright and in favour of the spiritual values of one of Russia's so-called traditional confessions, that candidate is more likely to receive support from the voting majority who perceive themselves as adhering to that confession, regardless of whether its leadership has given that politician explicit endorsement.

RUSSIA: Pacific island keeps Protestants in check

A recent regional press campaign of "sensational and accusative" articles targeting the Sakhalin-based Victory Chapel Pentecostal church was spearheaded by the local Orthodox bishop Daniil (Dorovskikh), the church's pastor, Paris Dominguez, a United States citizen, told Forum 18 News Service. Journalist Anna Bilega, who published an article criticising the church, claimed to Forum 18 that a great many foreign missionaries were trying to foist their ideology onto Sakhalin residents and speculated that they might be working for foreign intelligence agencies, but the local authorities "don't do anything, as usual". One local official denied that the authorities shared any views the bishop might have about "sects", yet a regional justice official refused to tell Forum 18 why the Victory Chapel congregation – a member of a registered Pentecostal Union – is among Protestant churches refused registration.

RUSSIA: Moscow Baptists barred from renting public buildings

A 300-strong unregistered Baptist community is searching for a new place to worship after being informed that they can no longer rent premises at a public library near Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery where they have met after opening hours for the past six years. In January, the library's administration unexpectedly informed the Baptists that they could no longer use the premises and returned an advance rental payment. Pastor Aleksei Kalyashin told Forum 18 News Service that "pressure from above" was the only explanation given for the termination of the congregation's verbal rental agreement, about which the library's administrator would not elaborate. A city official has confirmed to Forum 18 that only legal entities can rent public facilities for religious services.

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