26 April 2007
Senior Russian state representatives, such as President Putin, continue to project an image of supporting "traditional religions" such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Forum 18 News Service notes. But this does not translate into day-to-day decision making, as religious affairs are a low national priority. Decisions are normally made at a low level, so the religious freedom situation varies even between towns. One exception is support by senior state representatives for religious leaders who endorse them, such as Pentecostal bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky. Legal discrimination is rare, even against communities such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and where it exists does not completely halt religious activity. So-called "telephone law" and blocking some foreign religious workers have been the main sources of religious freedom violations. Acquiring or retaining worship buildings is a major problem, and affects Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hare Krishna devotees, Jehovah's Witnesses, Molokans and the Russian Orthodox Church. Widening the legal definition of terrorism and extremism is a particularly concern for Muslims. Russia's central authorities do not have a policy of restricting freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 can state. But their failure to actively tackle discrimination produces a slow erosion of religious freedom.
17 April 2007
New simplified reporting requirements for religious communities under the so-called NGO Law ask religious communities and organisations to specify whether they receive income from Russian legal personalities, foreign legal personalities, foreign states, any form of enterprise and "other" sources, Forum 18 News Service notes. But they are no longer asked whether they receive income from Russian individuals or the Russian state. Similarly, they no longer have to provide details of religious congresses, conferences or governing body meetings - including the number of participants. Nor are they required to stipulate the ways in which they publicise their activities. Each religious organisation still has to supply the full names, addresses and passport details of those members belonging to its governing body. Centralised religious organisations may submit all this information on behalf of their affiliate communities.
17 April 2007
Following sustained lobbying by religious communities, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has significantly simplified the accounting procedure for religious organisations under the so-called NGO law, as well as extending the deadline for religious organisations to submit their financial accounts to 1 June 2007. Moscow Islamic University submitted its accounts under the NGO Law even before the simplified procedure was adopted. Its rector, Marat Murtazin, told Forum 18 News Service that "it would be more complex to fill out a form for a visa to visit Norway!" Murtazin, who is also Vice-chairman of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of European Russia, commented that "we wanted maximum simplicity, so that even a village imam would be able to comply." Shortly before the regulations were simplified, the official in charge of religious organisation registration, Viktor Korolev, told Forum 18 that he had not received any financial accounts from the roughly 600 centralised religious organisations due to submit them to his office. Anatoli Pchelintsev, of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, suggested that this was because plans to simplify the regulations were well-known.
10 April 2007
One of the more prominent Russian-language religious news websites, Portal-credo.ru, is blocked in Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Tests in the Uzbek capital Tashkent showed that the religious news website was inaccessible. Blocking is done at the instigation of the National Security Service (NSS) secret police. Internet service providers (ISPs) in Uzbekistan blame the blocking of sites on Uznet, owned by the state provider Uzbektelecom and through which all ISPs have to connect to the internet. Uznet insists that sites are already blocked by the NSS. "We don't block websites – this is done by the NSS secret police. The NSS open the connections for us – they have all the equipment there," an Uznet employee told Forum 18. Uzbekistan has long barred access to more websites than any other Central Asian country, including websites such as Centrasia.ru, Ferghana.ru and Uznews.net. All these websites carry some coverage of religious affairs.
4 April 2007
A Russian Christian musical festival in the Siberian republic of Sakha (Yakutia) had to abruptly move from Yakutia State University after a contract was cancelled, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The university's Prorector stated that this was due to a telephone call "from above." This is the latest of a series of disputes between local Protestant organisations and the local authorities. One official, Afanasy Nikolayev, claimed that disputes were caused by some religious organisations "pursuing a policy in the republic aimed at dividing the population along religious lines (..) in practice they are realising the directive given by Adolf Hitler in his time (..) to encourage any form of disunity and facilitate the appearance of the most varied kinds of religious sects in every little village." Following earlier Protestant concern at the high degree of state involvement in what was described as a Russian Orthodox conference, at which delegates questioned Russian constitutional rights, another official described Protestant concerns as "baseless and contrived" and wrote that "by your tactless actions you violate the right and freedom of believers of other confessions."
29 March 2007
Although the Russian government seems set to pay the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army the compensation due to it by 5 April in the wake of the October 2006 judgment at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the branch's lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev says "the problem remains". He told Forum 18 News Service that the government has taken no steps to re-register the branch or to renounce official denigration of the group as a "paramilitary organisation". "If they'd wanted to sort this out, they would have done so already. They had five years while our [ECtHR] application was pending." The official in charge of registration of religious organisations within the Federal Registration Service, Viktor Korolev, told Forum 18 he has yet to read the ECtHR's judgment. "I've only seen what's on the Internet, not an official translation". While acknowledging that governments are required to take action to remove the causes of the human rights violations identified by the ECtHR, Korolev said he has received no instructions of what to do from the Russian Council of Ministers.
15 March 2007
Catholic and Orthodox communities are reporting the same inordinate level of state interest in the technical aspects of worship buildings which has mainly been experienced up to now by Protestants, Forum 18 News Service has found. For example, claiming that it is an "unlawful construction", the authorities in Kaliningrad are calling for the demolition of a Catholic priest's house – although Fr Anupras Gauronskas has told Forum 18 that "there's nothing to take down!" Russian Orthodox communities also complain of apparently over-zealous authorities. One example is that fire safety officials in Komi have taken issue with a "wooden partition" – the iconostasis - in a village church, and made what the local diocesan secretary Fr Filip (Filippov) calls "absurd demands". These include the installation of a fire alarm system which is activated by candles and incense during services. Such demands are still most commonly reported by Protestants, and if deadlines are given – as in the case of a mosque in Astrakhan - such situations normally drag on beyond deadlines.
22 February 2007
The authorities in Lipetsk have threatened to close a Baptist prayer house, if it is not approved fit for use by today, 22 February, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "It's been built legally – why won't they give us more time to get it fit for use?" Pastor Vladimir Boyev of Holy Trinity Baptist Church commented to Forum 18. He thinks that the threat is connected with the fact that another congregation from the same Baptist church meets for worship at an Orthodox church building elsewhere in Lipetsk. Pastor Boyev does not oppose transferring that building to the local Orthodox diocese, but does want a replacement. The prayer house under threat, which has been built by the Baptists, is incomplete due to the high cost of building work. But despite this, it is used by its congregation. Police first demanded that the prayer house be closed in November 2006, and then the local construction inspectorate imposed a fine and warned that the building would be closed down. Forum 18 notes that similar situations have tended to drag on beyond deadlines, and similar threats of closure or demolition have recently become more apparent.
19 February 2007
Chelyabinsk region's public prosecutor has just opened an investigation into a late December raid on a Pentecostal service at a private house, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The disruption of Word of God Church's Christmas service in the town of Argayash involved local police and district officials from the Emergencies and Youth departments. According to the church, one of its members was subsequently forced to resign from her kindergarten teaching post or else face "fabricated" charges of maltreating children under the Criminal Code. Word of God's parent church in Chelyabinsk city believes that the Argayash police and officials are the ones who have violated the Criminal Code, however, by impeding their members' religious freedom and acting without proper authorisation. While remarking to Forum 18 that the attack on his church "feels like the 1930s", Pastor Sergei Bortsov stressed that the situation in Argayash is unusual for Chelyabinsk region as a whole. In recent years similar incidents have been reported in Chelyabinsk city, Ivanovo, Udmurtia and Sakhalin, with varying state responses.
8 February 2007
Local authorities in widely separated parts of Russia are demanding the demolition of several Protestant churches and mosques, Forum 18 News Service has noted. This follows an apparently unusual level of interest in their buildings' fire safety and other technical factors in recent months. In one example, Glorification Pentecostal Church – which is threatened with demolition - in the central Siberian city of Abakan questions the validity of numerous claimed violations, such as a failure to keep the storage area under the staircase clear, as "the only thing present under the stairs during the fire safety inspection was a jar of gherkins," Forum 18 was told. Amongst Muslim communities facing problems is Mosque No. 34 in the southern city of Astrakhan. This has been claimed to be "unauthorised construction" and so should be demolished. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has decided to hear the case, after an unannounced hearing in Russia's Supreme Court upheld a demolition order. But in a positive development in Samara, a pre-1917 Belokrinitsa Old Believer Church has been regained by the corresponding local parish.
17 January 2007
Russian Jehovah's Witnesses are "very glad" about a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that Russian authorities unlawfully interrupted the worship of 103 predominately deaf Jehovah's Witnesses in Chelyabinsk. Spokesperson Yaroslav Sivulsky told Forum 18 News Service that the ruling is also important because "deaf people in Russia often feel that they are of inferior worth, outside society, but this has made them feel rehabilitated and aware that their rights are respected." He regretted that the case had not been resolved within Russia. Both parties in the case have three months in which to appeal against the ECtHR decision. The community currently rents premises for worship without obstruction. Following another ECtHR ruling that Russia had violated the rights of the Salvation Army's Moscow branch by refusing to give it legal status and by branding it a "militarised organisation", the judgement became final on 5 January 2007 and so Russia must make its compensation payment to the Salvation Army by 5 April. There is also a pending ECtHR case about a ban on the Jehovah's Witness organisation in Moscow.
9 January 2007
In the biggest expulsion of foreigners involved in religious activity in Azerbaijan since 1999, two Georgian and two Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported, with a Dutch and a British citizen about to follow, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The administrative deportation orders – which do not require any court proceedings – followed a massive police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, which only four of the six foreign residents were attending. Jeyhun Mamedov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed to Forum 18 that "it wasn't a raid – you can't call it that." He refused to state what law the Jehovah's Witnesses had allegedly broken. Mamedov claimed on local public TV – which accompanied the raid - that "specialised equipment" was confiscated which "could be used for communicating secretly with secret services of other countries". Jehovah's Witnesses totally reject these allegations. A steady trickle of foreigners have in recent years been deported for their religious activity.