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RUSSIA: "Soon there won't be a single Baptist church in Lipetsk!"

Baptists in the town of Lipetsk south-east of Moscow complain that the authorities are using "a bureaucratic way" to restrict their activity. Two of their local congregations have lost legal status for failing to file tax returns on time, a claim Pastor Vladimir Boyev vigorously rejected to Forum 18 News Service. The tax office refused to speak to Forum 18. One of the congregations has been using a former Orthodox church for nearly twenty years and without legal status cannot now defend its interests in court as the Orthodox diocese wants the building back. The third has lost its rented place of worship it has used for nearly twenty years amid redevelopment plans. The court claimed it had invited the congregation to attend a hearing to set compensation, but the Baptists complain they never received an invitation. Lipetsk's regional religious affairs official, Olga Fyodorova, told Forum 18 the Baptists are deliberately rejecting possible solutions "in order to aggravate the situation". Asked how the Baptists would defend themselves in court after losing their legal status, she responded: "That's their problem!"

RUSSIA: 56 major religious organisations to be shut down?

Following the surprise mid-October publication of a list of 56 centralised religious organisations scheduled for liquidation, apparently for not submitting correct accounts, Russia's Justice Ministry has refused to reveal what stage any plans for liquidation are at and precisely why the 56 organisations are on the list. Old Believer, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, Protestant, Nestorian, Muslim and Buddhist organisations are among those listed. None of 15 of the named organisations Forum 18 News Service spoke to had received any warning from the Ministry before the list's publication. Two organisations were found by Forum 18 to be defunct. None of the 56 listed organisations are from the Moscow Patriarchate, even though 309 of 562 centralised religious organisations belong to it. Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice claimed to Forum 18 that Moscow Patriarchate organisations were told in advance how to correct their submissions. Fr Vsevolod Chaplin of the Moscow Patriarchate confirmed that the Ministry had made "certain comments" on their organisations' accounts, but was unable to say when this was. A Justice Ministry official told the Adventist Church: "the aim of the list is 'to call religious organisations to discipline'."

RUSSIA: Police search publisher of controversially banned Islamic book

The Moscow-based publisher of "The Personality of a Muslim" by Arab theologian Muhammad ali Al-Hashimi, placed in December 2007 on the list of banned extremist literature, is now facing criminal prosecution. Aslambek Ezhayev told Forum 18 News Service the Economic Crimes Police searched the publishing department offices at Moscow's Islamic University for six hours on 8 October. "But it was clear from the beginning that they weren't really looking for anything financial." Computers and books were seized. The accounts were then deemed in order, but the materials passed to the Prosecutor's Office for the criminal case. The Prosecutor's Office refused to talk to Forum 18. Ezhayev complains of the way books are put on the banned list by local courts without the possibility of challenging their verdicts: "a book can't defend itself". Andrei Sebentsov, vice-chair of the government's Commission for Issues Concerning Religious Associations, told Forum 18 federal officials cannot act: "The executive cannot interfere with the judiciary." Fighting two separate attempts to ban their literature, the Jehovah's Witnesses are among the latest targets of the widening religious extremism allegations.

RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, October 2008

The gravest current threat to freedom of religion or belief in Russia comes from the federal government's approach to combating religious extremism, Forum 18 News Service finds in its survey analysis of religious freedom. In the wake of the 2002 Extremism Law, moderate Muslim literature has been outlawed as inciting religious extremism - despite the reasoning behind this being questionable. This has led to harassment and sometimes prosecution of alleged authors, distributors or simply readers. The authorities have subsequently begun to level religious extremism charges against other confessions, including traditional pagans, Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baptist. Some religious communities continue to complain of restriction through petty bureaucracy, such as the loss of legal status for unlicensed educational work or not engaging in financial activity, even though the law is ambiguous on these points. Long-running problems – such as state disruption of religious events, obstruction of access to and retention of property for worship and bureaucratic visa problems for foreign religious personnel - persist.

RUSSIA: Unregistered Baptists pressured

Baptists in different parts of Russia have experienced state harassment in recent months, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This has included interrogation by the FSB security service, defamatory state television coverage, a warning for home worship and a fine for preaching in public. The congregations concerned all belong to the Baptist Council of Churches, whose communities do not register with state authorities. In one example, two FSB security service officers in Kurgan Region separately questioned two Yurgamysh church members for four hours about internal church matters. Regional state TV later broadcast a programme on the church called "Criminal News". This made unsubstantiated allegations, such as that children from the church are "retarded, downtrodden, dress differently from other [school] pupils and often have to repeat the year," and that church members live off illegal business. The region's parliament is to consider proposals "to protect citizens from religious sects" on 30 September. Proposals include compulsory notification of the existence of an unregistered religious group and compulsory registration for communities with ten or more members.

RUSSIA: Were religious organisations wrongly de-registered?

The vast majority of the hundreds of Russian religious organisations to have had their legal status annulled in recent years are believed to be defunct. But several – especially religious education institutions – believe their loss of legal status is wrong and are fighting to retain it. Nine religious educational organisations are slated to lose legal status in Moscow for unlicensed educational activity, including Torat Khaim yeshiva (Jewish school). "Things are getting stricter and stricter," the director Iosif Susaikov told Forum 18 News Service. However, education has continued there. However, Good Shepherd Baptist Church in the Black Sea port of Tuapse had its liquidation cancelled by a court in May 2008. Officials had stripped it of registration for failing to file a tax-return, a common reason for de-registration. The church argued that it had no financial transactions so did not need to file one. Despite the abolition of the Federal Registration Service in July and the transfer of its duties back to the Justice Ministry, Ministry officials were unable to tell Forum 18 who – in addition to the tax inspectorate – has the power to initiate liquidations of religious organisations.

RUSSIA: Did Kabardino-Balkaria authorities stoke Islamist threat?

The authorities in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria have deliberately inflated the threat from Islamic extremism, local people in the capital, Nalchik, have told Forum 18 News Service. "If only five per cent of the population understand Islam (..) you can't go out on the streets and create an Islamic state," one local Muslim pointed out. By exaggerating the threat, they suggested, local officials are able to secure anti-terrorism funding from the Kremlin, divert public attention away from the republic's systemic corruption and poor economic performance, and keep people too afraid to protest. A former contender for the Kabardino-Balkaria presidency has documented the questionable speed with which the alleged Islamist threat appeared in the republic. Local Muslims claim the state persecuted ordinary mosque-goers on the pretext of fighting Islamic extremism, but local state representatives insist the threat is genuine. "There are still people trying to destabilise the situation with extremist ideology," one official dealing with religious affairs assured Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Did Kabardino-Balkaria authorities turn peaceful Muslims into terrorists?

Sustained and brutal state persecution of Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria has pushed some into terrorist activity, Forum 18 News Service has been told in the regional capital Nalchik. Two popular Islamic preachers now wanted by police in connection with a failed 2005 uprising in the capital used to advocate non-violence, local Muslims said. Reports suggest that at least one began launching armed attacks against the state authorities by late 2004. Republican officials – who have denied reports of abuse – claimed to Forum 18 that the pair were conducting "military-methodological preparations" from the beginning, but could not be convicted due to insufficient evidence.

RUSSIA: Religious dispute fuels state oppression of Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims

Conflict between Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria led to the local authorities' repressive policy towards one party, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Returning from Islamic study abroad in the 1990s, young Kabardin and Balkars insisted upon the removal of what they learnt to be corrupt local customs. While criticism could centre on trivial details – such as the wearing of a hat during prayer – "you only need to strike a match to light a fire," one local Muslim pointed out to Forum 18. Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate and the older generation responded to the younger Muslims' demands by branding them "Wahhabi" extremists. In part because they saw adherents of stricter Islam as a threat to local traditional and political culture, the republic's authorities backed these claims and instigated a brutal crackdown against them.

RUSSIA: Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims still afraid

Little has changed for practising Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria since a state crackdown on alleged Islamic extremists culminated in a failed 2005 uprising, Forum 18 News Service has been told. The capital of what is a traditionally Muslim region still has only two functioning mosques. In violation of Russia's federal Religion Law, organised Islamic activity is possible only within the republic's Muslim Spiritual Directorate. Mosque-goers report that they are still watched by the state or turned in to police by older worshippers, forcing many young Muslims to pray at home. "The Soviet times have come back," the widow of one remarked to Forum 18. Mufti Anas Pshikhachev defended police surveillance of mosques, telling Forum 18, "The state must know everything." State representatives have rejected allegations of abuse.

RUSSIA: One Muslim's blighted life in Kabardino-Balkaria

Until 2004, Kabardian radio presenter Ali Pshigotyzhev enthusiastically spread Islam with the assistant directors of the Islamic Research Institute, the main rival to Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate. Then, at the height of the North Caucasus republic's crackdown on active Muslims and a few years before his retirement, he was sacked for religious reasons, he told Forum 18 News Service. "But praise be to Allah, now I can devote the rest of my life to studying and writing about Islam." Ali's son Zaur was similarly laid off from his police job in 2003, and wrongly convicted of distributing extremist literature and possession of firearms in 2004, his father insists. Zaur Pshigotyzhev was also detained and allegedly tortured following the 2005 uprising in the capital, Nalchik, but released due to numerous witness statements in his defence. Kabardino-Balkaria Public Prosecutor's Office has refused to comment to Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Kabardino-Balkaria mosque-goers listed as extremist

Names of those detained or wanted for Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria were culled from "Wahhabi lists" – police records of regular mosque-goers, local Muslims have told Forum 18 News Service. The republic's late President, Valeri Kokov, in 2002 announced the compilation of a list of 400 Islamic extremists and the authorities' readiness "to take any measures against them, including physical elimination." At the top of the list were the three leaders of the main rival organisation to Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate, all of whom have since gone missing. A state representative denied the existence of the "Wahhabi lists" to Forum 18. The head of the Spiritual Directorate acknowledged to Forum 18 the possibility that some ordinary Muslims may have been targeted by police, but added that, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."

RUSSIA: State persecution wrecked religious life, Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims claim

A sustained crackdown on Muslims by the local authorities in the traditionally Muslim North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria preceded the bloody uprising three years ago in the capital, Nalchik, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Local Muslims report mosque closures, arbitrary detentions and police brutality. "The police would keep rounding them up, beating them up, then throwing them out again," the mother of two young Muslims killed in the 2005 attack told Forum 18. State representatives have denied to Forum 18 that this was the case, while admitting that, "maybe some police spoke roughly, but it was interrogation, and interrogation isn't dancing." Contrary to the state's claims, local Muslims insist that mosques were not centres for extremist activity.

RUSSIA: Detained and tortured for faith, Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims claim

Some young Muslims facing trial for a militant attack on the state security services in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria three years ago were in fact arrested due to their active faith, Forum 18 News Service has been told. As frequent mosque-goers, they and relatives say they were already listed as Islamic extremists by police, who used torture to extract confessions. These claims are "lies" and "rubbish", Forum 18 was told at the detention centre in Nalchik where they are currently held by that institution's assistant head. Unproven suspicions of Islamic militancy resulted in the arrest of one detainee, former Guantanamo Bay inmate Rasul Kudayev, his mother told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Is mass disruption to Jehovah's Witness congresses coordinated?

The authorities have prevented about eight Jehovah's Witness congresses from taking place so far this summer while about thirty have gone ahead despite official attempts to obstruct them, Marina Topuriya of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. The FSB security service, local administrations and Prosecutor's Offices have all been involved. Congresses in Kemerovo and Kirov due to have begun on 25 July are the latest to be abruptly cancelled. "We suspect it's co-ordinated, because everywhere the methods are the same," she noted. "It's difficult to say where the wind is blowing from. But we can see the results." The FSB security service in Moscow refused to discuss with Forum 18 their role in the cancellations, but an officer in Vladikavkaz denied that the FSB had obstructed the local Jehovah's Witness congress. A pending legal case in Sverdlovsk Region could see many Jehovah's Witness books and magazines – including "Watchtower" – declared extremist and banned. Acting Public Prosecutor Aleksei Almayev denied that this was a "witch hunt" and dismissed Jehovah's Witness fears that the magazine could be banned in its entirety. Religious freedom lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev shares the Jehovah's Witnesses' concerns. "I feel [the authorities] want to close down the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, though of course they physically couldn't do this."

RUSSIA: What evidence that banned Islamic books are extremist?

The recently-released Buguruslan City Court decision banning 16 Islamic publications fails to identify which parts of the texts are extremist, Forum 18 News Service has found. The local ruling resulted in the titles being added to the national Federal List of Extremist Materials. Under the Extremism Law, the Criminal Code can be invoked so that anyone carrying out mass distribution, preparation or storage with the aim of mass distribution of the texts risks a five-year prison term. Handed a list of the titles and asked if any support terrorism, leading Islam specialist Aleksei Malashenko told Forum 18: "If you say this, then every book, including the Bible, may be called pro-terrorist. The problem is not the books, but one of commentary – how they are used." Forum 18 has read one of the banned publications, Muhammad Ali al-Hashimi's "The Personality of a Muslim". The book's sole emphasis is on kindness and generosity, including towards non-Muslims – but a criminal case has now been opened against the head of Moscow Islamic University's publishing department for distributing it. The chairman of Buguruslan City Court has declined to answer Forum 18's questions about his court's ruling.

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness tracts feared harmful in asbestos town

The court in the Urals town of Asbest chose not to consider a lawsuit accusing the Jehovah's Witnesses of distributing "extremist" religious literature, as an assessment by FSB security service specialists did not qualify as evidence, the town's acting Public Prosecutor Aleksei Almayev told Forum 18 News Service. However, he said a criminal investigation is continuing and an analysis of several Jehovah's Witness publications – including their magazine "Watchtower" - is being conducted by a local university. "And when we file suit again, we think the court will be more sympathetic." The Prosecutor's Office warning to Asbest's Jehovah's Witnesses claims the publications are "overtly, clearly and directly aimed at inciting hatred, propaganda of exclusivity and humiliation of human dignity on account of a person's attitude towards religion". It claims that the Jehovah's Witnesses' "aggression" will incite others to react to "blasphemous pronouncements on things they consider sacred". If found "extremist" by Asbest court, the publications will be added to the ever-lengthening Federal List of Extremist Materials, which already includes traditional Mari pagan and Muslim literature. Those distributing literature on this list anywhere in Russia risk a five-year prison term.

RUSSIA: Reprieve for Methodist Sunday school – but for who else?

In a crucial development for religious organisations, Russia's Supreme Court on 10 June ruled that a Smolensk Regional Court decision dissolving a local Methodist church was "unlawful and without foundation". The Regional Court had dissolved the church for running a Sunday school without an education licence. Had the Supreme Court not overturned the earlier decision, "every religious organisation in Russia would have to be shut down for operating such schools," the church's lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky told Forum 18 News Service. The Supreme Court noted that the Sunday school falls outside both the 1992 Education Law and state education regulations, so does not require a state licence. But confusion persists over what type of religious educational activity requires a state licence, and some adult Bible schools are fighting liquidation on similar grounds. One such case has been sent to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but no admissibility decision has yet been made.

RUSSIA: Are Turkish teachers, traditional pagans and Jehovah's Witnesses religious extremists?

Tatar-Turkish lycees, traditional Mari paganism, and Jehovah's Witnesses are all being officially accused of religious extremism in Russia, Forum 18 News Service has found. Tatarstan Public Prosecutor's Office has warned a Tatar-Turkish Lycee that Turkish teachers – who make up one quarter of the staff - are holding secret discussions with pupils about religion. Marat Fattiyev, the headteacher, insisted that "there is no basis whatsoever for these accusations." Fattiyev told Forum 18 that "the lycees are secular institutions – there isn't even any tuition about religion here." The case is linked to the earlier ban on works by moderate Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Traditional pagan beliefs in Mari-El also face religious extremism allegations, as well as a media ban on advertising centuries-old ploughing festival worship. Also suspecting extremist activity, the Public Prosecutor's Office in Rostov-on-Don has ordered its local offices "to investigate local communities of Jehovah's Witnesses and to consider filing applications for their liquidation." Levelling religious extremism charges against such disfavoured religious - and non-religious – groupings undermines the charges' reliability.

BELARUS: "We are reclaiming our history as a land of religious freedom"

Concern is growing across Europe about the deterioration of freedom of conscience in Belarus. Few are aware, however, that Belarus was once a haven of religious freedom for people fleeing persecution in Western Europe. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Antoni Bokun, pastor of Minsk's John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, describes how Belarusians' historical experience has taught them that "religious freedom elevates our nation, whereas religious un-freedom leads to the darkest and most tragic consequences." In 1573 - almost 400 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Belarusians adopted one of Europe's first legal declarations upholding religious freedom for all, when many other European states executed people for their faith. Pastor Antoni maintains that it is this deep-rooted experience which lies behind today's campaign against religious freedom restrictions. "Inspired by our long history of freedom of conscience, Belarusians continue to work and hope for the day that our country will reclaim its heritage as a land of religious freedom." In 2007 Pastor Bokun spent three days in prison and was heavily fined for leading worship services.

RUSSIA: Visa changes leave religious communities in uncertainty

Visa rules introduced in October 2007 allow foreigners with a business or humanitarian visa – which includes religious work – to spend only 90 out of any 180 days in Russia. While not targeted at religious communities, they are having a harsh impact on many that depend upon foreigners. "Our priests are really, really suffering from this," one Russian Catholic told Forum 18 News Service. Many of the over 90 per cent of Catholic priests who are foreign citizens are now forced to spend long periods abroad or even commute into Russia for Sunday Mass. One foreign Protestant told Forum 18 that he and others are in three-month "exile" in Georgia as they have used up their time in Russia. Religious communities now need to get work permits for their foreign workers, but complain that these are subject to general regional quotas for all foreigners. "These criteria aren't acceptable for religious work," religious rights lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky told Forum 18. "The state shouldn't say who the leaders of a religious community should be; it's their internal decision." Government religious affairs official Andrei Sebentsov agrees. But, he told Forum 18, "There would need to be a change in the law for anything to happen."

ABKHAZIA: Only Georgian Orthodox priest expelled

The internationally unrecognised entity of Abkhazia has expelled a Georgian Orthodox priest, Fr Pimen Kardava, after a "special decree" of the canonically unrecognised Abkhaz Orthodox Church. Independent sources who preferred not to be identified have told Forum 18 News Service that the expulsion was carried out by the entity's SSS security police. Fr Kardava's expulsion, just before the Orthodox celebration of Easter, leaves the entity's Georgian Orthodox believers without any priests. Yuri Ashuba, head of the SSS security police, declined to speak to Forum 18, but a subordinate stated that "You should speak to Fr Vissarion Aplia of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church." He admitted that Fr Aplia is not a state official but would not say why he was the appropriate person to answer questions. The Abkhaz diocesan administration's telephone was not answered. Also, Batal Kobakhia, chair of the entity's parliamentary Human Rights Committee, told Forum 18 that a Religion Law is being prepared.

RUSSIA: Methodist church dissolved for having Sunday school

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.

RUSSIA: Methodist church dissolved for minor bureaucratic slip

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."

RUSSIA: State investigates Methodists at Orthodox bishop's request

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.

RUSSIA: Charismatics targeted as would-be Orange Revolutionaries?

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.

RUSSIA: Islamic book promoting tolerance banned

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.

RUSSIA: Old Believers use new media to demand religious freedom

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".

UZBEKISTAN: Haj pilgrims still strictly controlled and restricted

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.

RUSSIA: Fresh raids on moderate Turkish Muslim theologian readers

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".

RUSSIA: Building places of worship in Moscow still a struggle

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."

RUSSIA: Will Moscow mayor help Molokans?

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."

RUSSIA: Pentecostal and Muslim organisations dissolved

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.

TRANSDNIESTER: Restrictive draft Religion Law proposed

A restrictive draft Religion Law is being proposed in the parliament of the unrecognised entity of Transdniester, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The new draft – if adopted – would stop any new religious communities, unaffiliated to existing registered denominations, from gaining legal status for ten years. This would deny them the right to produce and import literature, set up religious colleges, and invite religious workers from outside Transdniester. Independent Protestant congregations or faiths such as the Jehovah's Witnesses are likely to be most affected. But also hard hit is likely to be a newly-established diocese of the Bessarabian Orthodox Church. Local Russian Orthodox Church officials, as well as Transdniester state officials, have already signalled their strong opposition to the new Bessarabian diocese. Vyacheslav Tobukh, the Supreme Soviet deputy who wrote the draft Law, declined to discuss specific concerns with Forum 18 but defended his text.

RUSSIA: Threats to demolish churches and mosques continue

In Astrakhan, a mosque community fears its unfinished building could be demolished despite a pending case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Mosque chairwoman Asya Makhmudova told Forum 18 News Service that "a bailiff at the Regional Court told me recently that it was quite possible they could receive an order to demolish the mosque any day, and that they wouldn't hesitate to follow it". The Glorification Pentecostal Church in the Siberian city of Abakan was forced to demolish its worship building after a court ruled that it did not conform to building regulations. Threats to take away the land have now been overcome, but the regional religious affairs official told Forum 18 that he has stopped the distribution of a leaflet from city officials among local residents opposing the building of a replacement church on the site. Yet Nikolai Volkov was unable to explain why the church has been unable to regain its licence to run a secondary school after the church brought the school building into line with fire safety standards. A Pentecostal church in Kaluga has faced repeated criminal investigations into its school after it narrowly avoided having its church building confiscated. The church's electricity supply is about to be cut off.

RUSSIA: Orthodox parish forced out of hospital church

A Moscow Patriarchate parish in Russia is being forced out of a pre-1917 hospital church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. St Nicholas' parish, in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, is widely known for its missionary youth work. It has been worshipping in the church, which is part of a hospital complex sold for redevelopment, since 1997. The case is unusual as the parish is being evicted from an historical Orthodox church which had been returned by the state. It seems to be symptomatic, Forum 18 notes, of the commercial pressures beginning to dominate in some parts of Russia. In Orthodoxy, consecration of a church building is irrevocable, so that its secular use is regarded as desecration. Officials have been unsympathetic to the parish's case, one parishioner complaining to Forum 18 that "for government officials, a church doesn't differ from a prayer room, they don't understand its significance." However, a regional official insisted to Forum 18 that a hospital or house church differs from an ordinary parish church. In many parts of Russia, surviving historical Orthodox, Old Believer and Catholic churches have not always been returned.

RUSSIA: Compulsory Orthodox lessons to continue, Belgorod official insists

Pastor Andrei Karchev of Kingdom of God Pentecostal Church objects to the compulsory Orthodox Culture classes which have just begun again in schools in his home region of Belgorod for the second year running. "When only one confession is taught - when the textbook emphasises that only Orthodox Christians are Christians while others are sects – in our opinion, this is bad," he complained to Forum 18 News Service. However, Karchev notes that although the subject is officially compulsory, unofficially he and other parents have been able to withdraw their children from the classes. Such children's grades suffer as they get no mark for the subject. Another local Protestant pastor pointed out to Forum 18 that not all teachers in Belgorod Region follow the Russian Orthodox line. "One said openly that she doesn't believe in God, but they've been told to teach the subject." Olga Yeliseyeva, the specialist on Orthodox Culture at Belgorod Regional Education Authority, insisted to Forum 18 that the region has no intention of halting teaching of the subject.

RUSSIA: Patchy local provision of Orthodox culture classes

On 1 September, the start of the school year, a seven-year-old Protestant pastor's son in Voronezh Region was beaten up by fellow-students for refusing to cross himself during prayers in school led by a Russian Orthodox priest. But provision of the controversial Foundations of Orthodox Culture course in state schools remains patchy, Forum 18 News Service notes. Belgorod Region has gone the furthest in imposing it as a compulsory subject for all grades. A Public Chamber survey found that 12 regions have 10,000 pupils or more studying Foundations of Orthodox Culture, though other regions have none. Mukaddas Bibarsov of the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims complained to Forum 18 in 2005 that the subject represents "the Christianisation of our children". More recently Vsevolod Lukhovitsky of the Teachers for Freedom of Conviction group cited complaints from Orthodox parents who believe religious education is their and their priest's responsibility. "They don't want some half-trained teacher who is officially secular taking over."

RUSSIA: Putin sounds final bell for Orthodox culture classes?

Non-Orthodox parents – whether of other faiths or no faith – have long complained that the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course in schools is compulsory and catechetical, not culturological. But Forum 18 News Service notes that the Russian Orthodox Church's efforts to promote it could now flounder after President Vladimir Putin's remarks in mid-September in Belgorod – the region where imposition of the subject has gone furthest. Stressing Russia's constitutional separation of religion and state, Putin added, "if anyone thinks that we should proceed differently, that would require a change to the Constitution. I do not believe that is what we should be doing now." But it remains unclear how religion will be taught in state schools. Reforms now in parliament would abolish the regional mechanism through which the Foundations of Orthodox Culture has been introduced. In a position paper sent to Forum 18, however, the Education Ministry says that the reforms will also allow each individual school to determine curriculum content, "taking into account regional or national particularities, school type, educational requirements and pupils' requests".

RUSSIA: Islamic extremists, real and imagined

Russia's pursuit of religious and other extremists has intensified with recent amendments to the Extremism, Media and other laws, Forum 18 News Service notes. The legal definition of incitement to religious hatred is no longer restricted to activity involving violence or the threat of violence. Journalists describing a religious or other organisation that has been banned as extremist must now state this or face a heavy fine. Some prominent Russian Muslim representatives are deeply unhappy about state policy on extremism. They allege that justice has been misapplied in some recent trials and that, at the middle and lower tiers of authority, "state policy has become distorted and turned into the opposite of what it is meant to be." Mikhail Ostrovsky of the Presidential Administration responded that most of the cases raised lie within the competency of the judiciary and urged Muslims to refer concrete violations to the law enforcement agencies "in the prescribed manner". Opinion on Islamic extremism in Russia is polarised, being influenced by shifting and ambiguous definitions, rivalry between Islamic groups and state preferences for some Muslim organisations over others.

RUSSIA: European Court victory for Evangelical pastor

Pastor Petr Barankevich of the Christ's Grace Evangelical Church is the latest Russian citizen to win a freedom of religion or belief case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. The Court unanimously ruled that it was not lawful to ban the Church from meeting for worship in a public park, and that the authorities should uphold their right to meet in public. Pastor Barankevich told Forum 18 News Service that he thinks the financial compensation due from the Russian Government is "not as important" as upholding his rights. Ever since the Church was denied permission to meet for worship in a park in the town of Chekhov (Moscow Region) in 2002, it has not held any public events. "We thought there was no point in trying until the European Court resolved the issue." The Russian Government has not yet paid a group of Jehovah's Witnesses compensation due by 11 July under an earlier ECtHR judgment. However, after another 2007 ECtHR judgment became final, this time in favour of the Salvation Army, they were paid compensation. But the situation which led to that ECtHR judgment has not been addressed. Aleksandr Kharkov, of the Salvation Army, told Forum 18 that they are very concerned to get the original Moscow court ruling overturned, because it suggests the church is a paramilitary formation.

TURKMENISTAN: Another Baptist deported to Russia

Seven weeks after being arrested for religious activity, Baptist pastor Yevgeni Potolov has been deported to Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Potolov's deportation separates him from his wife and seven children. While he was in prison, the MSS secret police gave the Migration Service a document declaring the Pastor to be a "dangerous person." Forum 18 has been unable to find out from officials why Potolov was deported and why arrests, raids and deportations in punishment for peaceful religious activity are increasing. Others deported in earlier years for their religious activity have not been allowed to return to their homes. After Baptist leader Aleksandr Frolov was deported in June 2006, his wife Marina, a Turkmen citizen, appealed for him to be allowed back to live with her and their two young children. But in the face of Turkmenistan's refusal of family re-unification, she has now joined him in Russia. "I hadn't seen my husband for a year and didn't want our family to be split," she told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Officials deny harassing Muslim women's study group

Exactly two years ago, officials in the Volga republic of Tatarstan began harassing a group of 50 women who study the writings on the Koran of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Group members have told Forum 18 News Service that flats were raided and searched, often without a warrant, books and notes confiscated and several of the women subjected to forced psychiatric examinations. After ailing 62-year-old Fakhima Nizamutdinova was warned in autumn 2006 that she would be taken to the FSB secret police if she failed to cooperate, she suffered two heart attacks. One group member told Forum 18 that Nizamutdinova has still not recovered and rarely leaves her flat. Asked why sweeping searches, involving the FSB and a helicopter, had been conducted at the group's meeting places, Valeri Kuzmin of Tatarstan Public Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18 that "the aim of the searches was to find the literature", even though no court had then deemed it "extremist".

RUSSIA: Tatar Muslim women fear purge following Said Nursi ban

Following extensive state harassment and a ban imposed by a Moscow court in May on the Russian translation of Said Nursi's book Risale-i Nur (Messages of Light), a group of 50 women in Tatarstan who study the late Turkish theologian's writings on the Koran fear a new crackdown. "We Muslims who read Said Nursi's books are afraid for our lives and the lives of our loved ones," they told Forum 18 News Service. Although no reprisals have occurred since the Moscow ban, they note that television stations have reported that if the appeal against the ban fails anyone reading the banned work will be liable to prosecution. Eduard Ismagilov of the Tatarstan branch of the FSB secret police staunchly denied to Forum 18 the women's allegations of abuse. Valeri Kuzmin of Tatarstan Public Prosecutor's Office – who initiated the case that led up to the Moscow ban – also denied that officials used coercion against Nursi followers. However, he told Forum 18 they are dangerous "because their literature harms people's health" and "because they lure children into their activity".

RUSSIA: Said Nursi ban brands moderate Muslims as extremist

Muslims popularising the work of Said Nursi, a Turkish Muslim theologian, may be at risk of criminal prosecution as extremists, Forum 18 News Service has been told. If an appeal – which may be heard in August - against a Moscow court ban on translations of Nursi's works fails, "anyone in Russia who publishes or distributes the banned publications of Said Nursi will be liable to criminal prosecution," Valeri Kuzmin of Tatarstan's Public Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. Sergei Sychev, a lawyer who is contesting the ban, estimates that millions of copies of Nursi's work Risale-i Nur - a popular missionary text – are currently in circulation in Russia. Kuzmin has stated that legal action was initiated in response to complaints from relatives "concerned by what was happening to those lured into the Nursi community." Its approximately 200 members in Tatarstan, Kuzmin estimated, "try to sever social ties" in just the same way as "totalitarian sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses." The ban relies solely upon analysis of the work by psychologists and linguists of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Russia's Ombudsman for Human Rights, Vladimir Lukin, and a wide range of Russia's Muslim leaders and scholars has condemned the ban.

RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, 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.

RUSSIA: Religious communities' new NGO Law reporting requirements

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.

RUSSIA: Religious organisations' NGO Law financial accounting simplified

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.

UZBEKISTAN: Russian religious news website blocked

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.

RUSSIA: Are Sakha Protestants' concerns "baseless and contrived"?

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."