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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: Further fines for religious literature

In the four months up till the end of August, Forum 18 News Service identified 18 individuals or organisations in 15 different regions of Russia facing administrative punishment for possessing religious literature which appears not to incite violence or hatred. All but two were eventually fined. Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Yevdoshenko was fined in Krasnoyarsk after a man claimed to have been given an "extremist" booklet at a religious meeting, even though fellow Jehovah's Witnesses say no "available evidence" exists that the man who brought the complaint to police was present. The man claimed on his party website he "simply went to the police station and wrote a statement", which the police received "with enthusiasm". According to court documents seen by Forum 18, searches of Jehovah's Witnesses' homes, vehicles and workplaces tend to be prompted by complaints from members of the public. Inspections of mosques and Muslim shops are more often carried out to monitor "compliance with the law on extremist activity", according to prosecutors.

RUSSIA: "We still cry when we remember the burned books"

A Tatarstan court had to reject the prosecutor's suit to have a further 18 books by or about the Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi declared "extremist" as police had already burned them. According to a police letter seen by Forum 18 News Service, police claim not to have received a court decision ordering their return to the owner, Nakiya Sharifullina, who had controversially been convicted for "extremist" activity. "We still cry when we remember the burned books," a local Muslim told Forum 18, adding that they "asked God that these people repent for their actions, since in these books were verses of the Holy Koran". Four further Nursi titles, plus more Jehovah's Witness publications, have been declared "extremist" and banned. Websites or pages that host religious materials controversially banned as "extremist" have similarly been banned and added to Russia's Register of Banned Sites.

RUSSIA: Suspended prison terms and fines and criminal records for meeting for worship

Seven Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog in southern European Russia will have criminal records unless their appeals against their 30 July convictions for "extremism" are upheld. They may not change their places of work, study or residence without notifying the authorities and must also show that they have "corrected" their behaviour, Forum 18 News Service notes. Four of the seven were given suspended prison terms of at least five years, while all seven were fined (though these were waived). The defendants - all members of the community declared "extremist" in 2009 – were punished for continuing to meet for prayer and Bible study. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 they fear that "their determination to continue religious activity means that they might be subject to more severe punishments as recidivists". Samara's Jehovah's Witness community has similarly been ruled "extremist" and dissolved. The criminal trial of two Muslims, Yelena Gerasimova and Tatyana Guzenko, in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on "extremism"-related charges is expected to begin soon.

RUSSIA: European Court repeats calls for Religion Law change

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled against Russia in two freedom of religion or belief cases, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah's Witnesses detained during a police raid on a meeting for worship in Moscow, and a Pentecostal centre in Chuvashia liquidated for alleged violations of educational, fire and sanitary regulations both won their cases. Liquidation and loss of legal status as a registered religious organisation should not legally lead to a complete ban on activity, but will make it difficult to continue to do more than privately meet for worship and to study texts. Despite this, people who belonged to forcibly liquidated Jehovah's Witness communities in Samara and Taganrog have found that they are not allowed to even meet together. The ECtHR also ruled that Russia must bring the Religion Law into line with both the country's international obligations and with the case-law of the Russian Supreme and Constitutional Courts. One ECtHR judge stated that "any additional delay would be unforgivable". Current changes to the Religion Law now in the Duma appear to have stalled. The proposed changes removed the 15-year registration waiting period, but human rights defenders have expressed concern about an apparent attempt to make registration of all religious groups compulsory.

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims face up to six years' imprisonment

Four of the 16 Jehovah's Witnesses on criminal trial in Taganrog and both the Muslim women whose criminal trial in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk is imminent face up to six years' imprisonment each if convicted. All have been accused of organising an "extremist" religious community banned by Russian courts, Forum 18 News Service notes. The criminal cases against Yelena Gerasimova and Tatyana Guzenko, Muslims who read Said Nursi's works, reached Krasnoyarsk's Soviet District Court on 29 May, but are being transferred to a Magistrate's Court. Meanwhile, several further Muslim women in Naberezhnyye Chelny have been issued warnings for allegedly attending an "underground madrassah", a fellow Muslim in the city told Forum 18. Officials "are harassing us on the quiet", one Muslim complained to Forum 18. "We are not left alone."

RUSSIA: Obstructions to building places of worship

The Regional Court in the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad has upheld a lower court ruling which deemed a nearly completed mosque illegal, despite the fact that the federal law on heritage preservation it allegedly violates did not apply to the site at the time construction began. The community's lawyer Dagir Khasavov described the court to Forum 18 News Service as being "in the worst traditions of the Soviet period of stagnation". He said the community has organised "round-the-clock protection" of the mosque in case of attempts to destroy the building now that the court decision has come into force. The same court also upheld a decision suspending the construction of a synagogue to replace one destroyed by the Nazis. Moscow's Hare Krishna community lost its court case challenging the city Property Department's unilateral termination of its lease on a plot of land on which it had planned to build a temple. The Property Department claimed to Forum 18 it was working on a new possible site.

RUSSIA: Auction to end Old Believer church restitution hopes?

Despite a verbal promise from the regional governor, Old Believers in Yekaterinburg in the Urals fear that they may never get restitution of their church, seized during the Soviet period. Sverdlovsk Regional Property Fund is due to auction the historical church on 11 June. "Logic, common sense, the Governor's promise, and historical justice compel us to believe that the church building will be handed over to its rightful owners," Maksim Gusev of the Church's Urals Diocese told Forum 18 News Service. "But officials are doing everything to obscure the situation and delay the outcome." Lutherans in Vyborg in north-western Russia have been refused the restitution of their former parish house, which they hope to use as the pastor's accommodation and a Sunday school. A 21 May court decision claims this is not a "religious purpose" as required under the 2010 restitution law. Catholics in Barnaul have been promised the return of their Soviet-confiscated church "no later than 3 February 2018".

RUSSIA: "They'll punish you .. whether or not you committed a crime"

State agencies continue to conduct inspections of premises and vehicles owned by Muslims and Jehovah's Witness, often targeting religious literature banned as "extremist", Forum 18 News Service notes. Prosecution often follows on charges of "mass distribution" of "extremist" material – even if only one copy of a text is found. In the 15 known prosecutions so far in 2014 all have led to convictions. In one example, the Mufti of a Mosque in Saransk was tried for possession of one copy of Turkish theologian Said Nursi's "Guidebook for Women". Mosque staff think the book was planted, and Mufti Zyaki Aizatullin stated that the first time he had seen it was during an inspection by the Prosecutor. On appeal on 5 March, the defence pointed out among other things that there were discrepancies in who the prosecution stated had found the book. But the appeal was dismissed. The Mosque spokeswoman commented to Forum 18 that "it turns out the law exists only on paper, and in practice they'll punish you regardless of whether or not you committed a crime. It's enough just to be a Muslim."

RUSSIA: European Court request enough to protect Uzbek asylum seeker?

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has told the Russian government that Uzbek asylum seeker Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov "should not be expelled or otherwise involuntarily removed from Russia to Uzbekistan or another country" while his case there is considered, according to court documents seen by Forum 18 News Service. The Uzbek government has been seeking his return since 2010 to face criminal charges for participating in an unregistered Muslim community. Although he succeeded in having an extradition order overturned in 2011, his status as a temporary refugee in Russia was not extended in 2013. His challenge failed in a Moscow court in March 2014. "The European Court measures should be enough to protect Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov, as Russia usually abides by such measures," his lawyer Eleonora Davidyan told Forum 18. However, she points to cases when security service officers have abducted asylum seekers in Russia. Irina Blazheyeva of Novosibirsk Region Federal Migration Service dismisses such concerns. "This is in the realm of fantasy," she told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: "Tired of the unjust treatment of the books, ourselves, and our loved ones"

Amid a crackdown on readers of the late Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi in Naberezhnyye Chelny in Tatarstan, two more were fined for involvement in an "extremist" organisation, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Nakiya Sharifullina and Laura Khapinova are now appealing against their criminal convictions. Naberezhnyye Chelny Court is also hearing a Prosecutor's Office suit to have 17 more of Nursi's books – plus a biography of him – seized during police raids banned as "extremist". The Prosecutor's Office refused to discuss the suit with Forum 18. On 21 March, the Russian government defended its 2010 ban on another Nursi publication in a case brought to the European Court of Human Rights by Krasnoyarsk Spiritual Administration of Muslims. The government response – seen by Forum 18 - insists that the ruling was "necessary". However, Jehovah's Witnesses have finally succeeded in having two of their brochures removed from the Federal List of Extremist Materials.

RUSSIA: St Petersburg church liquidated, Rostov and Chelyabinsk drug and alcohol rehabilitation targeted

A St Petersburg Pentecostal church has been liquidated this month for alleged illegal educational activity. Protestant-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres in Rostov and Chelyabinsk regions of Russia are also been targeted for closure by the authorities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Harvest Church lawyer Sergei Chugunov of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice stated that the St Petersburg Prosecutor "could simply have demanded an end to the activities they deemed illegal, and taken action in the event of disobedience". But, he told Forum 18, "it was decided to resort immediately to the most extreme measure – liquidation. We pointed out this disparity in court, but the court decided otherwise." The Church continues to meet for worship and intends to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The three Rostov cases and single Chelyabinsk case have so far followed the same pattern – claims of illegal detention of addicts, an inspection by officials, and the removal of residents.

RUSSIA: Two fines, two more sentences imminent, court-ordered book destructions

Two readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi - Ilnur Khafizov and Fidail Salimzyanov – have appealed against fines handed down in Tatarstan in February for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The verdict – seen by Forum 18 News Service – also orders religious books confiscated from them to be destroyed. Sentences in the criminal trial of two female Nursi readers are expected on 19 March. Although a criminal trial in Kaliningrad ended without a verdict after the two-year deadline, the court ordered Nursi reader Amir Abuev's books destroyed, a decision he described to Forum 18 as "a gross violation".

RUSSIA: Still no mosque for Sochi, Protestants struggle to keep church

Acquiring and retaining places of worship in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi is difficult for some local residents, Forum 18 News Service notes. Sochi's Muslims are still without a mosque, despite repeated attempts to obtain land and permission to build since 1996. Despite repeated official promises of action, no concrete steps have yet been taken to enable a mosque to be built. In contrast, Krasnodar Region allocated more than 525 million Roubles for the construction of the vast Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Image of Christ at the Olympic Park, which was consecrated on 2 February 2014. Meanwhile, House of the Gospel Church is struggling to retain its Church building against city attempts to sell it off. In 2011 the Church asked for full ownership of the building it has used since 1993 (having had lesser ownership since 2007), as Russian law allows, but Sochi administration repeatedly failed to respond or give reasons for its lack of response. Two court hearings have failed to secure the Church's rights to the property, and it is now preparing a third appeal. The hearing date will be set on 25 March.

RUSSIA: "We do not believe in the justice of our court"

The criminal trial of Ilnur Khafizov and Fidail Salimzyanov, both Muslim readers of the works of Islamic theologian Said Nursi, began again in a magistrates' court in Naberezhnyye Chelny in Russia on 29 January. Proceedings are due to re-start on 19 February, local Muslims told Forum 18 News Service. The criminal trial of two Muslim women, Nakiya Sharifullina and Laura Khapinova, began in a different magistrates' court in the town on 22 January. Their trial is due to resume on 12 February. In Krasnoyarsk, Andrei Dedkov has been accused of organising a cell of the banned "extremist" group "Nurdzhular", having been detained on 24 January when police searched the city's Cathedral Mosque after morning prayers. In the same city, Magomed Suleyman-ogly has been accused of being the leader of a "youth wing of Nurdzhular". Also, changes to "extremism"-related Articles of the Criminal Code, signed into law on 3 February, make it easier for the state to obtain legal permission for surveillance techniques such as phone tapping.

RUSSIA: Two "extremism" bans overturned - but bans, fines continue

A Krasnodar court has overturned a ban on a popular Russian translation of the Koran (though the court has still not issued the written ruling), while a Tver court has overturned a ban in Russia on the main Jehovah's Witness international website. Yet bans on religious literature amid controversial "extremism" accusations continue, Forum 18 News Service notes. Four more Jehovah's Witness texts were ruled "extremist" in December 2013. And no moves have taken place to lift a less publicised "extremism" ban on 68 Islamic texts, Nirzhigit Dolubayev, a lawyer representing one of the publishers in the case, told Forum 18. Fines continue on mosques and individuals for possessing any of the 68 books – which include collections of hadiths [sayings of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed].

RUSSIA: Religion, schools and the right to choose

Russian state schools offer sharply different interpretations of the religion and ethics course introduced in September 2012, Forum 18 News Service notes in a comprehensive analysis of the current situation. In one Siberian school, only the Orthodox Culture module was offered as a headteacher claimed "we live in an Orthodox country". Yet a teacher in a different school tried to convey to pupils that "we may believe in different religions but we should respect one another". This inconsistency on the ground could result in violations of freedom of religion or belief anywhere in Russia. Unlike the initial version proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), pupils may choose one module from six on Secular Ethics, Foundations of World Religious Cultures, Foundations of Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish or Buddhist Culture. Most parents and pupils do not favour instruction in the Russian Orthodoxy of the Patriarchate in state schools. (Orthodox Old Believer churches have recommended either Secular Ethics or Foundations of World Religious Cultures.) The most common module choice is Secular Ethics.

RUSSIA: Alternatives to "extremism" charges to punish freedom of religion or belief

"Extremism" accusations are not at present routinely turning into "extremism" prosecutions against members of most religious communities exercising freedom of religion or belief. (Such charges continue to be used against Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works.) But other charges continue. Taganrog's Exodus Pentecostal Church has been forced to stop drug and alcohol rehabilitation work due to alleged fire and sanitation violations. In 2010 the church it is affiliated with was given a warning for "extremism". But this does not seem to feature in the current case, although Taganrog is a focus of a key "extremism" trial against Jehovah's Witnesses. Baptists continue to be prosecuted and fined for meeting without state permission. Forum 18 News Service has found state hostility to be highly localised, with some officials supportive of Protestants exercising freedom of religion or belief. In contrast, newly emerged documents from the Jewish Autonomous Region suggest co-ordination with Moscow during local officials' preparation of an "extremism" case against Jehovah's Witnesses.

RUSSIA: Catholic and Protestant "extremism"?

Russia has ruled as "extremist" a sermon given in 1900 by Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Unlike the 15 other Ukrainian texts (not written by Sheptytsky) simultaneously ruled "extremist" the sermon focuses on the Catholic faith. Officials have refused to reveal to Forum 18 why the sermon was ruled "extremist". The Metropolitan has recently been posthumously honoured for saving Jews from the Holocaust. Blog entries by Pentecostal Petr Tkalich also form the basis of an "extremism" investigation in Asbest. He criticised what he describes as "Soviet Orthodox". Official pursuit of religious "extremism" may continue widening beyond the Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works now routinely facing prosecution. Possession of "extremist" texts renders the possessor liable to criminal prosecution.

RUSSIA: Incoherence persists in counter-"extremism" policy

As the Russian state continues its campaign to brand as "extremist" readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi and Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has found strikingly different levels of support for the campaign among officials - even in the same locality. In Siberia's Krasnoyarsk Region, criminal cases have been brought against Nursi readers and courts have ruled his books "extremist". Yet when Forum 18 suggested that Nursi texts had been banned without foundation, the region's religious affairs official replied: "Something needs to be done about this, we agree." After a local court found four Jehovah's Witness texts "extremist", two of the findings were overturned on appeal. Prosecutors dropped four further cases, even though all eight cases were "as alike as peas in a pod", a local Jehovah's Witness involved in the hearings told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Muslims "fed up" with "not being allowed to read these texts"

After two separate raids on 8 August on the homes of Muslims in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, an "extremism" criminal case has been opened against a 48-year-old Muslim woman who state officials refuse to name. The woman is alleged to be involved in an organisation called "Nurdzhular" which Russian readers of theologian Said Nursi's works deny exists. The same day, another raid lasting 5 hours took place on the home of Yelena Gerasimova. Gerasimova, a professional lawyer, noted numerous procedural violations in the raid, including an invalid search warrant the authorities unlawfully refused to give her. She also told Forum 18 News Service that, for fear of a similar raid, she did not this year host a party to celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha on 15 October. "We're fed up with this whole thing – not being allowed to read these texts – but we don't read them", Gerasimova told Forum 18. Other trials of alleged readers of Nursi's works continue, as well as of 16 people in Taganrog allegedly involved in the local Jehovah's Witnesses community. This has been banned as allegedly "extremist".

RUSSIA: What's wrong with "extremist" Koran translation?

While many Muslims in Russia are outraged by a 17 September Novorossiisk court ruling banning as "extremist" a widely-used Russian translation of the Koran by Azerbaijani scholar Elmir Kuliyev, some Muslim organisations have welcomed the ruling. Their objections to Kuliyev's text – equally applicable to another translation they accept – suggest to Forum 18 News Service that long-standing rivalries between Russian Muslim organisations may lie beneath state moves against Kuliyev's work. Critics of the translation highlight his rendering of several ayats (Koranic verses), but Forum 18 notes that his rendering of them differs little from those of other widely-available Russian translations. Ravil Tugushev - a Muslim lawyer who has lodged an appeal against the Novorossiisk ruling - told Forum 18 he also compared Kuliyev's text with four other translations and found "no special differences between them".

RUSSIA: Muslims rush to challenge Koran "extremism" ruling

"It is a provocational decision – to destroy, and not just confiscate, the Holy Book of Muslims (..) and the court case and decision took ten minutes?!" Mufti Ravil Gainutdin of Russia's Council of Muftis wrote to President Vladimir Putin after a Novorossiisk court banned as "extremist" and ordered destroyed a widely-used Russian translation of the Koran. "Muslims are angered by this lawlessness." The secretary of Judge Gennady Chanov who issued the ban told Forum 18 he "does not give comments". Stressing that the copy of the Koran translation had not yet been destroyed, she refused to say who might destroy it, or how. Lawyer Ravil Tugushev has lodged an appeal. "Muslims' rights are being violated," he complained to Forum 18. Many Muslim, Jehovah's Witness and Falun Gong works have been banned as "extremist", with punishments for those who distribute them.

RUSSIA: Moscow Krishna devotees face eviction

Boxes of property at Moscow's only Hare Krishna temple are packed and labelled in order of priority, so that the congregation's most treasured items can be removed "within 15 minutes if the bulldozers come", the congregation's lawyer, Mikhail Frolov, told Forum 18 News Service. In November 2012, a court ruling ordering the Krishna devotees' eviction from the site came into force. Meanwhile, in May 2013 a Moscow city agency told them that building a new temple at an alternative site they had been allocated in 2007 would be "inexpedient" taking into account the opinions of local residents. Muslims and some Protestants have met similar difficulties acquiring or retaining property in the Russian capital. Pentecostals whose church was bulldozed in September 2012 now have to meet at three separate venues, the pastor told Forum 18. A Moscow city official dealing with religious issues declined to discuss these problems with Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Six-month "extremism" sentence for St Petersburg Nursi reader

After nearly six months in prison and a psychiatric examination, Shirazi Bekirov was sentenced in St Petersburg to six months in an open-regime prison. He is the thirteenth Muslim in Russia known to have received a criminal sentence for reading the works of Islamic theologian Said Nursi, many of which have been controversially banned in Russia as "extremist". A court official was unable to say exactly how Bekirov's activity was "extremist". However, she told Forum 18 News Service that Bekirov was freed on 2 September as he had already spent nearly the whole sentence in detention since his March arrest. A similar Nursi-related criminal case against three women in Chelyabinsk Region was halted after no conviction was reached within the required two-year period. Travel bans on them have now been lifted. However, Bekirov, the three women and other Nursi readers who have faced prosecution – whether or not they were convicted of any "crime" – appear on a Russian government "list of terrorists and extremists (current)".

RUSSIA: Parliamentary Religion Committee back in action

The increase in Russian legislative initiatives affecting freedom of religion or belief since President Vladimir Putin's May 2012 return appears partly due to renewed activism by the Committee on Social Associations and Religious Organisations of the Duma (parliament), Forum 18 News Service notes. The Duma is a rubber-stamp parliament endorsing any idea coming from Putin's Presidential Administration, Boris Falikov of the Centre for the Study of Religions at the Russian State University for the Humanities told Forum 18. "But initiatives in the religious sphere mostly conform to the personal convictions of the Committee's members". Alexander Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis noted in relation to "astoundingly nonsensical laws" that: "the 'anti-opposition' campaign begun since Putin's return to the Kremlin involves a kind of 'competition between initiatives', and basic technical control over these initiatives is much weaker than before".

RUSSIA: Rise in legal proposals affecting religious freedom

Russian legislative initiatives concerning freedom of religion or belief have markedly increased since President Vladimir Putin's return in May 2012, Forum 18 News Service notes. This appears at least partly due to activity by the Duma's Committee on Social Associations and Religious Organisations after its chairship passed to Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party in late 2011. But not all are restrictive, or have proved resistant to revision in the direction of more religious freedom. For example, a government legislative initiative backed by the Committee regulating religious meetings has still to be voted on by the Duma. The amendments, proposed on 7 June 2013 in response to a Constitutional Court ruling, are to some extent positive: meetings for worship in private could not be subject to a need to gain state permission in advance. However, a degree of uncertainty remains over public meetings for worship in rented premises. Some local state officials have continued to obstruct meetings for worship in private or rented premises. But despite a general trend towards harsher restrictions, not all recent proposals negatively affecting religious freedom are being adopted.

RUSSIA: "Religious feelings" not offended – or the calm before the storm?

Since a vaguely-worded Russian law criminalising "offending religious feelings" came into force on 1 July no prosecutions have followed, Forum 18 News Service notes. Alexander Verkhovsky's SOVA Center for Information and Analysis has reported only one associated incident, concerning a representative of the Saami people in Russia's Far North. Critics fear that the new amendments are so poorly defined that they could be used by anyone to prosecute actions they simply dislike. Verkhovsky, for example, thinks they will certainly be interpreted in a way that criminalises actions previously not treated as criminal. While understood as a concession to the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), there is considerable disagreement over the criminalisation of "offence to religious feelings" in both the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and Russian society, Forum 18 notes. And not every legal initiative apparently motivated by the notion of "offending religious feelings" is progressing in Russia.

RUSSIA: State destroys own "extremism" evidence

A Russian court case in Siberia to ban 68 Islamic books and leaflets has taken an ironic turn, Forum 18 News Service has learnt: the state has destroyed its own evidence. Following appeals against the March 2012 ban, which was not made known until June 2012 and came from a hearing lasting only 20 minutes, Orenburg Regional Court has ordered a repeat "expert" analysis. But only 42 of the titles are now being analysed, because the authorities are unable to find copies of the remaining 26. Prosecutions can only be brought relating to "extremist" texts if they are the exact edition of the work specified on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. But this has not stopped prosecutions relating to editions not on the Federal List. While "everything depends upon the analysis and the court's decision," the omission of the 26 texts should mean that the Court's ban on them will ultimately be lifted, appeal lawyer Nurzhigit Dolubayev told Forum 18. Compilation of the Federal List List is accelerating, Forum 18 notes. The List is now growing at a rate at least three times faster than when it first came into existence.

RUSSIA: Orthodox relics block Jehovah's Witness meeting

A written Russian official refusal to allow Jehovah's Witness to meet for worship in Nizhny Novgorod Region, made in consultation with a local Orthodox bishop, provides rare evidence that state opposition to Jehovah's Witnesses is fuelled by support for the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Forum 18 News Service has found. "As the administration, we conduct all our activity in close contact with the [Moscow Patriarchate] Diocese," the official who drafted the refusal, Svetlana Zakharova, confirmed to Forum 18. "There's not a single question affecting the interests of one side or the other that we don't decide collegially." It is highly unusual for Russian officials to make such admissions, especially in writing, Forum 18 notes. Elsewhere, more Jehovah's Witness texts have been banned, and raids on and detentions and fines of Jehovah's Witnesses and Falun Gong practitioners continue. The government is also set to increase punishments for "extremist" activity under the Criminal Code.

RUSSIA: Eight readers of Islamic theologian arrested

Shirazi Bekirov – a reader of Islamic theologian Said Nursi – has been under arrest in St Petersburg since his home in the city was raided by the FSB security service late on 2 March, a fellow Nursi reader told Forum 18 News Service. Six other homes were also raided, more than ten people were briefly detained and thousands of Nursi's books were seized. Bekirov stands accused of organising the activity of banned "extremist" organisation, "Nurdzhular", an organisation Nursi readers insist does not exist. He faces up to three years' imprisonment if convicted. An Azeri named "Elnur" is among seven Nursi readers in detention in Russia's Perm Region since at least May after police and FSB raids on private homes, in which thousands of copies of Nursi's works were seized. A spokesperson for Volga Federal District's Interior Ministry told Forum 18 that all seven suspects are still in detention - "Their question is still being decided" – and that they have not yet been formally charged. He refused to name those detained.

RUSSIA: Readers of Islamic theologian under house arrest, travel bans

Seven readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi are known to be under house arrest or other travel bans in different regions of Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. All are accused or suspected of organising or participating in banned "extremist" organisation "Nurdzhular" – charges they reject - and could face up to three years in prison. Gulnaz Valeyeva – one of three female Nursi readers on trial in Chelyabinsk Region - married in 2012. But she is unable to live with her husband, who works over 2,000 km away in Krasnoyarsk, another of the three told Forum 18. Another cannot visit her frail 85-year-old mother. Meanwhile, all 16 Jehovah's Witnesses on criminal trial in Taganrog of belonging to an "extremist" organisation have been under travel bans for over a year, Viktor Zhenkov, one of their lawyers, told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Imams' defence rejected "for contradicting prosecution"

Ilhom Merazhov – one of two imams given a one-year suspended prison sentence on 27 May in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk after a three month criminal trial on "extremism" charges – has expressed his astonishment. "Convicted of organising an extremist organisation when we didn't conduct extremist activity - it's nonsense!" he told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecutor's Office official Sergei Ageyev even admitted in court that "the deed of which they are incriminated does not envisage any kind of extremist activity", according to the transcript. The verdict orders a large quantity of Muslim literature from the imams' personal libraries to be destroyed as "weapons of the crime". "I'm speechless, this is the same as destroying the Koran. It's blasphemy!" Merazhov insisted. In a case on the same criminal charges in the southern Russian town of Taganrog, where the local Jehovah's Witness congregation has been banned as "extremist", the criminal trial of 16 of its members has begun.

RUSSIA: Government checks on religious organisations seek "extremism"

"Extremism" was a key reason given for Russia's state inspections of some Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim communities this Spring, Forum 18 News Service notes. Yet no signs of "extremism" were found during the vast majority of government checks. For example, a Pentecostal Church in Russia's Far East was initially accused of "extremism" when a Public Prosecutor inspection found its statutes did not specify that non-citizens could participate in its activity as well as Russian citizens. These accusations were soon dropped. But in Irkutsk Region and Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, administrative cases for "production or distribution of extremist materials" were opened against local Muslim leaders, one resulting in a fine. One of the cases related to possession of a translation of a work by Islamic theologian Said Nursi. Muslims are, like Jehovah's Witnesses, subject to ongoing checks for "extremism". Searches of their communities this Spring were thus not necessarily part of the NGO sweep.

RUSSIA: Mixed response to sweeping government checks

Representatives of hundreds of religious organisations inspected by state officials this Spring have voiced mixed impressions of the checks to Forum 18 News Service. Following its inspection, a Catholic parish in southern Russia is facing a heavy fine for fire safety violations. But this appears exceptional. Unlike major human rights organisations the checks appeared to target, most religious representatives surveyed by Forum 18 received only minor complaints. Konstantin Andreyev, a Moscow-based lawyer, remarked to Forum 18: "The majority [of Public Prosecutor employees] did this quite formally, understanding that they just need to submit reports saying they checked." Protestant representatives in particular were unconcerned, and sometimes even defended the state's actions. But the Jehovah's Witnesses are worried about the possible consequences of a massive inspection of their Russian headquarters.

RUSSIA: Why were hundreds of religious organisations checked?

Hundreds of religious communities across Russia are among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) inspected by officials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Check-ups ranged from a simple telephone request for documents to multiple, extensive searches. It "wasn't simply the initiative of the Prosecutor", Moscow-based lawyer Konstantin Andreyev told Forum 18. "There's a political subtext." Yet the new regulations on foreign funding for NGOs – including designation of some as "foreign agents" – do not legally apply to religious organisations. In several cases, religious organisations appear to have been inspected due to "foreign" links, such as Catholic charity Caritas and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The General Prosecutor's Office order for the sweep is not public, but Samara Regional Public Prosecutor's Office ordered that inspections should check compliance with laws on "surveillance and criminal procedure" and the Extremism Law by "social and religious associations and other non-commercial organisations".

RUSSIA: Is "negative evaluation of Christianity" a crime?

Four Jehovah's Witness publications have been ruled "extremist" by a Siberian court since the beginning of 2013, with rulings expected soon on a further four, Forum 18 News Service notes. One "expert" analysis used by the court uncovered "propaganda" of the superiority of citizens on religious grounds and incitement of religious discord. It also pointed to the publication's "negative evaluations of Christianity and its religious leaders", but gave no examples from the text itself. The publications are expected to appear soon on Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials. In April a court in Chelyabinsk is due to consider whether 95 further Jehovah's Witness works are "extremist". Fifteen more works by Islamic theologian Said Nursi and a Russian translation of a biography of him were added to the Federal List on 19 March. Individuals and communities who possess such works deemed "extremist" can be fined or even imprisoned.

RUSSIA: Familiar twist in anti-Jehovah's Witness campaign

Russian officials are reviving old tactics in their long-running campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learned. A prosecutor in the Siberian city of Tobolsk opened a criminal case against local Jehovah's Witnesses alleging they "called upon citizens to refuse to perform their civic duties" and "motivated citizens to refuse vital medical treatment". The maximum punishment they might face if the case reaches court is four years' imprisonment. The prosecutor refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Police and FSB security service officers raided six Jehovah's Witness homes in Tobolsk and that of another local resident, seizing religious literature and other items. In December 2012 a court in Kemerovo refused a prosecutor's request to ban the local Jehovah's Witness community on similar grounds. Officials have failed to respond to Forum 18's repeated attempts to find out why Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims who read Islamic theologian Said Nursi's works are targeted.

RUSSIA: What's the matter with Said Nursi?

The reasons for Russia's ongoing nationwide campaign against readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi have remained obscure, Forum 18 News Service notes. The state has offered weak or no explanations for banning as "extremist" 39 Nursi works and an alleged associate organisation, "Nurdzhular", which Nursi readers deny exists. Much of the state's argumentation is incoherent, with quite different reasons offered for banning Nursi writings and "Nurdzhular" in different contexts. Court materials seen by Forum 18 contain no evidence that either Nursi's writings or Muslims who read them advocate violence, despite claims to the contrary by officials. However, since the anti-Nursi campaign became apparent in 2005, clear patterns are emerging in the types of "evidence" offered. Considered together, these suggest that the campaign's primary cause is state opposition to "foreign" Turkish and American spiritual and cultural influence. Officials and others who support the bans have pointed to this in their public statements. But as this is not a criminal offence, weak allegations of "extremism" are instead offered in a legal context.

RUSSIA: Contradictions in "extremism" case against imams

Forum 18 News Service has found numerous inconsistencies in the Russian state prosecution's case against Ilhom Merazhov and Komil Odilov, the two imams facing criminal "extremism" charges in Novosibirsk. "The case should be examined in a legal, not political, manner - but many concepts being used aren't legal terms," Ilhom Merazhov, one of the imams, told Forum 18. "We're accused of 'gradual transformation of the personality', forming 'behavioural stereotypes' and 'new life values'. This doesn't make [legal] sense!" Aleksandr Tokarev, an officer in the police Counterextremism Department closely involved in the case, has refused to address the charges' many contradictions when contacted by Forum 18. For example, the charges include the claim that the two imams encouraged participation in "Nurdzhular", an alleged organisation with the claimed aim "to change the form of state government and introduce Muslim religious government on the basis of sharia". But some of the prosecution's evidence strengthens the imams' counterclaims that they reject violence. There are also numerous flaws in an "expert analysis" commissioned by the prosecution.

RUSSIA: "Extremism" trial of imams resumes

The trial of two imams serving with a major Russian Muslim organisation resumed today (27 February) in Novosibirsk. One of the imams, Komil Odilov, was questioned for the whole four-hour hearing, the other imam, Ilhom Merazhov, told Forum 18 News Service afterwards. Merazhov complained he was not permitted to ask questions about the substance of the case, such as the meaning of allegations that the imams had sought "Islamisation of the region" and formed a "conspiratorial medressah". "We acted within the boundaries of our religion and did not violate Russian laws," Merazhov insisted to Forum 18. "How can they say 'conspiratorial medressah'? It's Odilov's flat, he's the owner, he talks about God in his own flat and it's a crime! This is simply repression." Police officer Aleksandr Tokarev, who has been closely involved with the case, did not provide any specific examples when asked by Forum 18 what was concretely "extremist" about Merazhov and Odilov's activity. Tokarev referred Forum 18 to the charges against the pair: "It's all laid out there!" He declined to answer any further questions.

RUSSIA: Criminal charges to follow armed Tatarstan raids?

Armed and masked Russian law enforcement agents raided 23 homes of readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi in Tatarstan, in the early hours of 14 February, Forum 18 News Service has learned. "They took everything," one of those searched, Laura Khapinova, told Forum 18. "Anything where they saw the word 'Islam'." Two of those raided are under arrest on criminal charges of "extremism". Ilnur Khafizov is in police detention and Nakiya Sharifullina under house arrest, Khapinova told Forum 18. A uniformed investigator showed Khapinova and her flatmate a search warrant "for banned literature, drugs and weapons". One question put by interrogators was "Do you read or distribute extremist literature?", she told Forum 18. "They don't like the fact that guests come to our home to pray and read the Koran and other literature," Khapinova remarked. Tatarstan's Interior Ministry was unable to tell Forum 18 what was concretely "extremist" about the activity of those searched.

RUSSIA: Reduced state harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses?

Incidents of Russian police harassment against Jehovah's Witnesses appear to be declining, Forum 18 News Service notes. However, Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov stated that the apparent reduction in such incidents could be because ordinary Jehovah's Witnesses are now less likely to report them. "At first they're outraged, yes. But the second and third time you get used to it and don't think anything about it, it becomes just 'a chat with the police'", he told Forum 18. Also, followers of faiths the authorities dislike won a victory in the Constitutional Court on 5 December 2012. It ruled that regulations obliging organisers to seek advance state approval for religious events should be loosened. The ruling followed prosecution of two Jehovah's Witnesses in Belgorod Region for meeting for worship without state approval. It should make the religious freedom situation of communities without access to designated houses of worship easier.

RUSSIA: Is anti-Jehovah's Witness campaign slowing?

Russia's efforts to convict Jehovah's Witnesses for criminal "extremism" appear to be weakening, Forum 18 News Service notes. "But we can't say the authorities have become more relaxed in principle," Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov he remarked to Forum 18 in Moscow. "It's not clear how they will react next, what other methods they will seek." Incidents of police harassment against Jehovah's Witnesses are also reducing. Martynov's continued concern stems primarily from a criminal case against 16 Jehovah's Witnesses in the southern Russian town of Taganrog. Forum 18 notes that local prosecutors have so far found it easier to convict Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works than Jehovah's Witnesses because they are deemed to belong to a banned "extremist" organisation. Even with Nursi readers - although one trial and several other criminal investigations continue - no "extremism" criminal convictions have been handed down since October 2011.

RUSSIA: Why is Falun Gong literature banned?

Russian Falun Gong practitioners have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg after their core spiritual text was ruled "extremist", Mikhail Sinitsyn, Falun Gong practitioner and lawyer, has told Forum 18 News Service. The appeal followed failure to overturn a December 2011 rejection of an earlier appeal by Krasnodar Regional Court. Extraordinarily, the Regional Court ruling directly contradicts its own earlier decision in Falun Gong's favour as "expert analyses" were "unfounded" and "one-sided". But in its December 2011 ruling, Krasnodar Regional Court ruled that Falun Gong texts are "extremist" on the basis that other "experts" in a report "confirm the conclusions" the same Court had earlier rejected. "We thought our case was so obvious that we could rely on our own courts, but it turned out not to be a legal issue but a political one", Sinitsyn commented to Forum 18. One of those involved, Sergei Shipshin, works for a state institution belonging to the Justice Ministry. However he insisted to Forum 18 that "we are independent experts".

RUSSIA: China-led restrictions on Falun Gong

Russia's small community of followers of the Chinese spiritual practice of Falun Gong face increasing state pressure, Forum 18 News Service notes. In 2005, officials refused to register a newspaper, citing provisions of the 2001 China-Russia treaty "On Neighbourly Relations, Friendship and Co-operation". The movement's core spiritual text "Zhuan Falun" has been included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials and courts have blocked access to websites containing the text. Four practitioners were detained in Vladivostok in July, while "anti-extremism" police summoned three local leaders in southern European Russia. In the latest deportations, two Ukrainian Falun Gong practitioners were barred from Russia in September when they tried to attend the movement's annual conference near Moscow. One had to move his wedding from Russia to Ukraine, as he told Forum 18. A similar Russian desire not to alienate the Chinese lies behind repeated denials of a Russian visa to the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

RUSSIA: Religious freedom "the only viable option for consolidating Russia's extraordinary diversity"

This is the second of two abridged extracts from a book by Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18's Russia and Belarus Correspondent, "Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism" (Routledge, 2013). The book presents a comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life and revealing how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition. The book argues that continuing failure to resolve the question of whether Russia is to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state is destabilising the nation. More details on the book are available from http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415490023/.

RUSSIA: "The Kremlin's failure to uphold its own constitutional commitment to religious freedom"

This is the first of two abridged extracts from a book by Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18's Russia and Belarus Correspondent, "Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism" (Routledge, 2013). The book presents a comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life and revealing how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition. The book argues that continuing failure to resolve the question of whether Russia is to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state is destabilising the nation. More details on the book are available from http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415490023/.

RUSSIA: Pussy Riot, blasphemy, and freedom of religion or belief

The way that Russia has handled the Pussy Riot case indicates that the authorities are using it to intensify restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. A shift from the Kremlin's initial response to the case suggests that a claimed moral outrage was not the motivation to prosecute, and that support for the Moscow Patriarchate is tactical. Since the Extremism Law was adopted in 2002, officials have used the same selective determination of what causes offence to persons of one worldview to restrict the freedom of religion or belief of people with a different worldview, as can be seen in prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses. This approach now also targets supporters of atheism. Arbitrary state prosecutions of some manifestations of religion or belief – such as by Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works - may soon be further strengthened by controversial proposed "blasphemy" amendments to the Criminal Code and Code of Administrative Offences. The legal chaos proposed by state representatives after the Pussy Riot trial thus continues a well-established trend.

RUSSIA: Article 20.29 causes 60-day community ban, fines, and bookshop closure

Prosecutors often use Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offences to try to punish individuals, religious communities and bookshops found to have religious literature which has controversially been banned, Forum 18 News Service has found. A court in Primorsky Region banned a Jehovah's Witness community for 60 days after a raid found 16 copies of their publications which have been placed on Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials. A Muslim bookshop in Tolyatti was fined 50,000 Roubles (nearly 11 months' minimum wage) after a prosecutor and officers of the Police's Anti-Extremism Centre found two copies of books by a Turkish Sufi teacher. "The books have been banned and are on the Federal List, so they have to be seized. That's all," a Prosecutor's Office official told Forum 18. Verdicts often order confiscated literature to be destroyed.

RUSSIA: "The crime he is being accused of does not envisage the existence of victims"

Two separate criminal trials in Russia, on "extremism"-related charges, have started of Muslims who read the works of theologian Said Nursi, Forum 18 News Service notes. The sixth hearing in the trial of Ramil Latypov is due to begin in the southern Urals city of Orenburg on 22 October, and the trial of Farida Ulmaskulova, Gulnaz Valeyeva and Venera Yuldasheva in Chelyabinsk east of the Urals is due to resume on 26 November. Asked who had been the victims of Latypov's alleged "extremist" activity, a Prosecutor's Office official told Forum 18 that there had been no victims, and none were appearing at the trial. Also, the criminal trial of a Jehovah's Witness in the southern Astrakhan Region has been adjourned. However, in Chuvashia in the central part of European Russia, Jehovah's Witnesses Igor Yefimov and Aleksei Nikolaev were freed from pre-trial detention. They are among five local Jehovah's Witnesses still facing "extremism" criminal charges for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.