26 March 2008
Because a United Methodist congregation in the western city of Smolensk has a Sunday school, which is attended by four children, the Regional Court dissolved the Church on 24 March, the church's pastor Aleksandr Vtorov told Forum 18 News Service. The court agreed with the Regional Organised Crime Police that the Methodists were breaking the law by conducting "educational activity in a Sunday school without a corresponding licence". Investigation into the congregation began after a complaint from local Russian Orthodox bishop Ignati (Punin). It originally focused on a planned missionary college, before switching to the Sunday school. Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice fears the Methodist congregation's liquidation increases the threat to other religious education. "Almost every religious organisation has a Sunday school," he told Forum 18. "I don't know of one that has a separate education licence. Do they intend to liquidate them all?" Elsewhere, adult religious education without a licence has already led to raids and enforced closures.
10 March 2008
A regional court in Russia has dissolved a functioning Methodist congregation because it did not file a report about its annual activities on time, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Deprived of legal personality status, the church may now only gather for worship at premises provided by its existing members and give them religious instruction. Methodist Pastor Vladimir Pakhomov told Forum 18 News Service that the Belgorod branch of the Federal Registration Service "even told me there was no point in attending court, as the church would be closed in any case." The court did not – contrary to a Constitutional Court decision - attempt to find out whether the church operates or not. "They could close us and others down in exactly the same way - many registered communities don't submit this information in time as they see it as a formality," a local Baptist pastor commented. The Methodists did not submit their report on time due to the near impossibility of Protestants finding a suitable legal address in Belgorod Region. "We sent them letters, two official warnings," a local official told Forum 18. "When we got no response we had no choice but to take them to court."
28 February 2008
At the request of a Russian Orthodox bishop, the regional Public Prosecutor's Office, Organised Crime Police, Department for the Affairs of Minors, Education Department and ordinary police in Smolensk have made a series of check-ups on a local Methodist church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. They also forced the church to remove missionary college plans from its website. Bishop Ignati (Punin) of Vyazma claimed the college "aims not to bring about the rebirth of the spiritual-moral foundations of the life of our people, but its spiritual destruction." He then asked the Regional Public Prosecutor "to take the measures necessary in this situation to defend the inhabitants of our city, particularly youth, from this pseudo-religious organisation." Even though the Bishop's appeal contained no legal argument, the Public Prosecutor's Office explained to Forum 18 that it reacted because: "Any citizen or organisation may appeal to us." If a citizen suggests an organisation is harmful, but not in breach of the law, "we'll check the legality of its activity," Forum 18 was told. Methodist Pastor Aleksandr Vtorov has filed suit for moral damages against Bishop Ignati. Intimidated by the unprecedented wave of check-ups, only five Methodists attended last Sunday's worship service, instead of the usual 36.
14 February 2008
In the run-up to Russia's 2 March presidential election, a Ukrainian-based church involved in that country's 2004 "Orange Revolution" has twice been the object of hostile attention by the Russian authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Ukrainian founder of the Embassy of God's Moscow community was turned back from the Russian capital's Sheremetyevo Airport on 3 February. Pastor Aleksandyr Dzyuba believes he was barred for religious reasons. "For a long time Russia has been afraid of the Orange Revolution, and they connect me with it because I am a pastor of that church." FSB security service officers broke up an Embassy of God Bible school graduation ceremony in the Volga city of Tolyatti on Sunday 20 January. They interrogated all the church leaders present. "They asked us everything – where I'm from, what I teach, my link with the school, with the Orange Revolution," the church's Kiev-based bishop, Anatoli Belonozhko told Forum 18. The Orange Revolution was the issue which most interested the FSB officers according to another of those questioned, Pastor Ivan Semenets.
1 February 2008
Russia has outlawed another moderate Islamic theological text, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, following a similar ban on works by the moderate Turkish Muslim theologian, Said Nursi. Muhammad Ali al-Hashimi's "The Personality of a Muslim" - which Forum 18 has read - is a staple religious text for tens of thousands of Muslims across Russia. Its sole emphasis is on kindness and generosity, including towards non-Muslims. Under the Extremism Law the Criminal Code can be invoked, so that mass distribution, preparation or storage with the aim of mass distribution of the book could now result in a five-year prison term. The City Court which ruled the work extremist has refused to provide Forum 18 with copies of its verdict or related expert analyses. Shortly before the ban was announced, a Muslim was nearly detained after he handed out a copy of "The Personality of a Muslim" outside St Petersburg's historic mosque. "If Islamic books are banned today, tomorrow they will be Jewish, the day after tomorrow Catholic, the day after that Orthodox," Mufti Mukadas Bibarsov, Council of Muftis co-chairman and head of the Volga Spiritual Directorate, commented to Forum 18.
21 January 2008
Old Believers are among the many religious communities which have been unable to get back places of worship confiscated during the Soviet period, despite a 1993 presidential decree ordering their return. As Forum 18 News Service has found, Old Believer communities of the Moscow-based Belokrinitsa concord are increasingly turning to the internet to raise these and other religious freedom concerns. They told Forum 18 that internet coverage and associated lobbying saved one of their parishes in Yaroslavl Region from being stripped of legal status in 2007. Yet in Tolyatti in Samara Region the parish does not yet know if publicity will prevent their half-built church's building permission from being removed. "If the church is declared illegal, they'll have to knock it down," Old Believer website editor Irina Budkina told Forum 18. "That would be an act of sacrilege." In Morshansk in Tambov Region, a parish briefly recovered a historical church in 2002, only to see it re-confiscated. Asked by Forum 18 why the building could not function as a church again, the head of the town's Cultural Department insisted that it was impossible for residents to live so close to "such an institution".
19 December 2007
5,000 people from Uzbekistan have travelled to Mecca for this year's haj pilgrimage, but Forum 18 News Service notes that the number of pilgrims allowed to travel from Uzbekistan is significantly less than from other countries with a similar Muslim population. Uzbekistan has a record of restricting the numbers of pilgrims and strictly controlling their selection. All pilgrims need approval from local authorities, the NSS secret police and the Haj Commission, which is controlled by the state Religious Affairs Committee and state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims (the Muftiate). Also, all pilgrimages can only be made using the state-run airline, Uzbekistan Airways. The amount demanded by the state for the pilgrimage is about 200 times the minimum monthly wage. "Not everyone can go. The list of those banned from going includes everyone the government regards as suspicious," opposition activist Vasila Inoyatova told Forum 18.
13 December 2007
Officials from regional public prosecutors' offices and the FSB security service searched homes of Said Nursi readers across Russia over the weekend of 8-9 December, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raids follow a ban on some works by the moderate Turkish Muslim theologian. The flat of Marat Tamimdarov, Russian translator of a number of Nursi's works, was one place searched. The search warrant claimed that Nurdzhular (a russification of the Turkish for "Nursi followers") is an organisation banned in Turkey and not registered in Russia. Tamimdarov denied this, insisting to Forum 18 that there is no such organisation and that "it isn't true that there's a ban in Turkey – there was even a symposium on Nursi there recently, attended by international scholars. There isn't a drop of extremism in his works." Akhmed Makhmedov of the Volga Spiritual Directorate of Muslims told Forum 18 that "we don't approve of the practice of having secular academics label theological works extremist – that can be done with any holy book." As a "bad precedent" he singled out a petition calling for a ban on all Jewish religious and national organisations in Russia, on the basis of allegedly extremist sentiments in a sixteenth-century Jewish law code. Makhmedov also criticised the ban on Said Nursi's works as "against common sense".
3 December 2007
Moscow's Emmanuel Pentecostal Church had its building plans rejected in 2000 as officials cited popular opposition. In June 2005 a city construction official ordered a swift resolution to their building problems. Yet, as church administrator Bakur Azaryan told Forum 18 News Service, within a week of their acceptance of a new building plot this summer, the plot was hastily withdrawn: "they said it had already been sold, so we understood that they either don't want to solve the issue or are dragging out time." Muslims have complained of eleven cases of building obstruction in Moscow Region. However, the Russian-American Christian University has told Forum 18 of progress on its building after earlier opposition, while the city's Hare Krishna community appears finally to have a plot for a new temple. City officials often cite alleged opposition by local residents to obstruct non-Orthodox communities from building places of worship. Back in 2000, Moscow's then chief architect wrote: "Going by experience, the staunch objection of residents, the location of prayer houses of other confessions (..) in the vicinity of Orthodox Churches is impossible."
29 November 2007
In what Russia's Ombudsman for Human Rights has called "a scandalous case," plans by Moscow's Molokan community to build a prayer house have met persistent obstruction. "There was no constitution or religion law back in 1805, but then it took the tsar just ten days to sort out our problem. Now we have all that, but we're nowhere after ten years!" Yakov Yevdokimov, of Moscow's Molokan community, remarked to Forum 18 News Service. The Molokans are an indigenous Russian Christian confession closely resembling Protestants. Moscow's Molokans first requested land in December 1996. The first active – and initially positive - response by the city authorities came in November 2000, but since then some city officials have blocked plans, citing various reasons. One reason cited has been a survey of 1,142 out of 1,829 local residents that found public opinion to be opposed to the prayer house. Russia's Ombudsman for Human Rights found that only 297 people took part in the survey, and that some of those recorded as opposed did not participate at all. The Ombudsman suggests that the poll - "in any case only recommendatory" - was "probably crudely falsified."
15 November 2007
Among the commonest reasons for religious organisations losing legal status is unlicensed educational activity, or the late submission of a tax return, Viktor Korolev, the official in charge of religious organisations at the Federal Registration Service has told Forum 18 News Service. Liquidated organisations known to Forum 18 include both Pentecostal and Muslim organisations. An official who heads the department responsible for registration at a regional branch of the Federal Registration Service, Rumiya Bagautdinova, told Forum 18 that religious organisations must provide information about their activity every year. Check-ups take place every two years at most, she said. Two such check-ups of the now liquidated Bible Centre in Novocheboksarsk took place in April. They involved the Public Prosecutor's Office, local police and the FSB security service. "Their first question," Fyodor Matlash told Forum 18 "was whether we were publishing extremist literature! We explained that we don't publish literature of any kind; we don't have the equipment." Particularly since the Federal Registration Service was allocated wider monitoring powers, religious communities have complained of a marked increase in state scrutiny and bureaucracy.
8 November 2007
Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been freed after being amnestied from a three year labour camp sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "My wife Valentina wrote an official statement that I will not violate the law," he told Forum 18. "I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me and my family during my imprisonment." Asked about his health in the wake of his eight months in prison, Kalataevsky responded: "God strengthened me physically." Two Jehovah's Witnesses, who are serving suspended sentences have not been amnestied. Begench Shakhmuradov received a two year sentence in September 2007, and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev was given an 18 month sentence in July 2007. Ashirgeldyyev has been threatened with a new sentence, even though he is still serving his current suspended sentence. He has been barred from work unless he receives a stamp from the Military Commissariat, which refuses to give him this. Another Jehovah's Witness, Ashirgeldy Taganov, also faces prosecution for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.