14 September 2004
Muslims have complained to Forum 18 News Service of increased scrutiny of their literature, often by "specialists" who know nothing of Islam. Among reasons given for banning an eighteenth century book by the Arabian founder of Wahhabism, a Moscow court ruled in April that it "disputes the truth" of atheism, Sufism and monasticism. After confiscating religious literature from two Muslim communities in the Urals in 2002, officials "didn't find anything which would form the basis of a criminal case - they were prayer books, introductions to Islam and commentaries on the Koran," one leader told Forum 18. Accusations that a Muslim community is "extremist" – and therefore liable for banning under Russia's 2002 extremism law – reportedly often originate from rival Muslim jurisdictions, and are taken up by the FSB secret police and prosecutors. "The law is very frequently used by officials as a convenient instrument for exerting pressure on Muslims," Sheikh Nafigulla Ashirov of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Asian Russia told Forum 18.
9 September 2004
Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers 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. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.
9 August 2004
Urals region Protestants sometimes encounter local state obstruction of evangelism, along with local state support of the Orthodox, but one local pastor told Forum 18 News Service that local authorities are, in the cases of Protestants who own their own buildings, "happy for us to do what we like in our own buildings." Local personal relationships have a key influence on the religious freedom situation, pastors in two areas telling Forum 18 that building and keeping church property was helped by their having good personal relationships with the authorities. Although local Orthodox opposition to local Protestants is strong, leading to media attacks, and in some cases physical attacks, one local commentator told Forum 18 that, "when people started to see the so-called 'sects' being helpful, their [negative] media image began to break down." Local Protestants have also found that negative campaigning by Orthodox has backfired, leading to the Orthodox gaining a negative public image.
2 August 2004
Religious freedom in the Urals varies widely, even from village to village, restrictions being most common on public events with an evangelical purpose, Baptist and Pentecostal leaders have recently told Forum 18 News Service. Some local officials are very supportive of such events, and also of social care projects such as anti-drug initiatives, but one pastor estimated that over 50 per cent of local officials are hostile to any event run by Protestants. One local religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the problem is that churches have poor legal knowledge and said that his office is "open to dialogue". But a former religious affairs official told Forum 18 that close relationships between higher level politicians and the Moscow Patriarchate stopped lower officials working with Protestant churches. "Even if they could really do with a social project, they know that an Orthodox priest will kick up a fuss, and no fool would risk his career by being linked with support for a Protestant church."
30 July 2004
In what he describes as "a vicious circle", Baptist Vsevolod Kalinin has again been refused a residence permit to live in his own home in the capital Tashkent, Forum 18 News Service has been told. In an open court hearing, a representative of the commission of the Tashkent city administration responsible for residence permits said that Kalinin's religious convictions were the main reason for refusing him a residence permit. It is unusual for Uzbek authorities to take a close interest in residential addresses, but Kalinin has since 2002 been the target of close scrutiny by authorities in Tashkent. As well as visits from the police, a military recruitment office has told Kalinin that he could be detained while his place of residence was checked. All Kalinin's appeals, including to Uzbek president Karimov, are met with the reply that he should appeal again to the commission which denied him a residence permit.
27 July 2004
Since 1996, Jehovah's Witnesses have held an annual Urals regional congress in the Yekaterinburg city stadium. But last Friday (23 July), the stadium management abruptly demanded four times the agreed fee, then, on Saturday, men claiming to be security guards tried to block the entrance, then the electricity supply was switched off, then 1,000 delegates were evicted from their accommodation, then the stadium management played loud music to drown out speakers, and finally the management with the security guards told delegates to disperse. Jehovah's Witness leaders then called off the congress. In April, the authorities in the neighbouring Urals region of Tyumen cancelled a similarly large-scale Protestant Easter service in a city stadium. Also in April, the Jehovah's Witness Yekaterinburg congregation had its rental contract with the 'house of culture' abruptly cancelled, following the court decision barring Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow 1,500 km (930 miles) west.
14 July 2004
Samara regional Pentecostal leader Vasili Lyashevsky is among religious leaders complaining about the local justice department's request to religious organisations for full names, ages and addresses of church members. "Everyone knows that the aim of the request was to get hold of the names of parishioners in order to put pressure on them later," he told Forum 18 News Service, citing similar requests by justice departments in the regions of Irkutsk, Perm, Tambov, Udmurtia and Yekaterinburg. The Catholic priest in Samara told Forum 18 he refused to give the names, ages and other details of all his parishioners. Although a justice department official appeared in a Samara television programme in May to defend the move, the justice department official in charge of registration denied the practice to Forum 18.
12 July 2004
In a revival of the practice of the mid-1990s, several Russian regions are again producing anti-missionary laws, mostly modelled on the 2001 law adopted in the southern Belgorod region. The neighbouring Kursk region is the latest, with a law adopted on 10 June, while Magadan region in the Far East is set to adopt an anti-missionary law in the autumn. "The law would make it very difficult for foreign missionary workers to enter the territory," foreign Protestants based in Magadan complained to Forum 18 News Service in June. "Those who enter under other types of visas will do so under threat of fines and punishment." But believers have told Forum 18 that the Belgorod, Smolensk and Kursk regional laws do not appear to be enforced so far, while restrictions on missionaries in Primorye on the Pacific coast – where six Catholic priests and nuns have been denied the possibility to return – have come in a region with no anti-missionary law.
22 June 2004
In both Sakhalin and Khabarovsk regions, Forum 18 News Service has observed that the local authorities attempt to translate the publicly expressed religious preferences of Russia's national leadership into concrete policy. Symbolic support for Russia's so-called traditional confessions - Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism - thus becomes material, even when these faiths have little or no traditional following in much of Far East Siberia. Local public opinion appears to be divided on the desirability of such an approach. Some believe state support for the Orthodox Church to be an essential part of the preservation of Russian national culture. One local Pentecostal, however, asked Forum 18: "Can you imagine - I, an evangelical Christian, or even an atheist, is working and paying taxes to build a new Orthodox church which is going to fight us?"
17 June 2004
A ban on all organised activity by some 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the city of Moscow went into force yesterday (16 June) with the failure of a court appeal by the community. This is the first time that a religious organisation has been banned outright under Russia's 1997 religion law. One of the Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyers told Forum 18 News Service outside the courtroom that all hope of overturning the ban now lies with the European Court of Human Rights. While the prosecution claims that the Moscow Jehovah's Witness community may continue to function without registration, the ban states clearly that all of its activity must cease, and Jehovah's Witness lawyer John Burns told Forum 18 that this prosecution claim was "like saying that you can be Catholic but you can't have a church - you can hold a belief but you can't do anything about it." Other regions of Russia may well try to copy the Moscow decision.
16 June 2004
Local Orthodox in Khabarovsk share the concerns of Orthodox in Sakhalin region about foreign missionaries, complaining to Forum 18 News Service of "espionage" and "Catholic expansion". However, throughout most of Khabarovsk region, Baptists, Catholics, and members of the New Apostolic Church have told Forum 18 that they have not recently encountered problems regarding access or visas for foreign missionaries. One exception appears to be access by foreign religious personnel to closed cities, which is reportedly very difficult to obtain, even though US citizens are employed at a military facility in one such city. This issue particularly affects Catholics, as the majority of Catholic priests in Russia are foreigners. One anonymous Protestant source has also told Forum 18 that it is now practically impossible for foreign citizens to conduct informal religious work in the Russian Far East.
16 June 2004
Russian Orthodox Deacon Andrei Khvylya-Olinter recently claimed on a Sakhalin radio programme that 70 per cent of the island's economy is in the hands of "sectarian structures", and warned of "involvement in intelligence gathering of foreign so-called pastors." Judging by local state support for a recent conference devoted to "Spiritual Security" and the tightening of religious work visa restrictions encountered by local Protestants and Catholics, who Forum 18 News Service has met, it appears that the regional authorities share his concerns.