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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: Will Moscow Salvation Army's rights be restored?

Although the Russian government seems set to pay the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army the compensation due to it by 5 April in the wake of the October 2006 judgment at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the branch's lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev says "the problem remains". He told Forum 18 News Service that the government has taken no steps to re-register the branch or to renounce official denigration of the group as a "paramilitary organisation". "If they'd wanted to sort this out, they would have done so already. They had five years while our [ECtHR] application was pending." The official in charge of registration of religious organisations within the Federal Registration Service, Viktor Korolev, told Forum 18 he has yet to read the ECtHR's judgment. "I've only seen what's on the Internet, not an official translation". While acknowledging that governments are required to take action to remove the causes of the human rights violations identified by the ECtHR, Korolev said he has received no instructions of what to do from the Russian Council of Ministers.

RUSSIA: "Absurd" property regulations extend to Catholics and Orthodox

Catholic and Orthodox communities are reporting the same inordinate level of state interest in the technical aspects of worship buildings which has mainly been experienced up to now by Protestants, Forum 18 News Service has found. For example, claiming that it is an "unlawful construction", the authorities in Kaliningrad are calling for the demolition of a Catholic priest's house – although Fr Anupras Gauronskas has told Forum 18 that "there's nothing to take down!" Russian Orthodox communities also complain of apparently over-zealous authorities. One example is that fire safety officials in Komi have taken issue with a "wooden partition" – the iconostasis - in a village church, and made what the local diocesan secretary Fr Filip (Filippov) calls "absurd demands". These include the installation of a fire alarm system which is activated by candles and incense during services. Such demands are still most commonly reported by Protestants, and if deadlines are given – as in the case of a mosque in Astrakhan - such situations normally drag on beyond deadlines.

RUSSIA: Will Baptist prayer house closure threat be carried out?

The authorities in Lipetsk have threatened to close a Baptist prayer house, if it is not approved fit for use by today, 22 February, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "It's been built legally – why won't they give us more time to get it fit for use?" Pastor Vladimir Boyev of Holy Trinity Baptist Church commented to Forum 18. He thinks that the threat is connected with the fact that another congregation from the same Baptist church meets for worship at an Orthodox church building elsewhere in Lipetsk. Pastor Boyev does not oppose transferring that building to the local Orthodox diocese, but does want a replacement. The prayer house under threat, which has been built by the Baptists, is incomplete due to the high cost of building work. But despite this, it is used by its congregation. Police first demanded that the prayer house be closed in November 2006, and then the local construction inspectorate imposed a fine and warned that the building would be closed down. Forum 18 notes that similar situations have tended to drag on beyond deadlines, and similar threats of closure or demolition have recently become more apparent.

RUSSIA: Pentecostal teacher "forced to resign" after raid on house church

Chelyabinsk region's public prosecutor has just opened an investigation into a late December raid on a Pentecostal service at a private house, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The disruption of Word of God Church's Christmas service in the town of Argayash involved local police and district officials from the Emergencies and Youth departments. According to the church, one of its members was subsequently forced to resign from her kindergarten teaching post or else face "fabricated" charges of maltreating children under the Criminal Code. Word of God's parent church in Chelyabinsk city believes that the Argayash police and officials are the ones who have violated the Criminal Code, however, by impeding their members' religious freedom and acting without proper authorisation. While remarking to Forum 18 that the attack on his church "feels like the 1930s", Pastor Sergei Bortsov stressed that the situation in Argayash is unusual for Chelyabinsk region as a whole. In recent years similar incidents have been reported in Chelyabinsk city, Ivanovo, Udmurtia and Sakhalin, with varying state responses.

RUSSIA: Will church and mosque demolition threats be carried out?

Local authorities in widely separated parts of Russia are demanding the demolition of several Protestant churches and mosques, Forum 18 News Service has noted. This follows an apparently unusual level of interest in their buildings' fire safety and other technical factors in recent months. In one example, Glorification Pentecostal Church – which is threatened with demolition - in the central Siberian city of Abakan questions the validity of numerous claimed violations, such as a failure to keep the storage area under the staircase clear, as "the only thing present under the stairs during the fire safety inspection was a jar of gherkins," Forum 18 was told. Amongst Muslim communities facing problems is Mosque No. 34 in the southern city of Astrakhan. This has been claimed to be "unauthorised construction" and so should be demolished. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has decided to hear the case, after an unannounced hearing in Russia's Supreme Court upheld a demolition order. But in a positive development in Samara, a pre-1917 Belokrinitsa Old Believer Church has been regained by the corresponding local parish.

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witnesses "very glad" about ECtHR victory

Russian Jehovah's Witnesses are "very glad" about a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that Russian authorities unlawfully interrupted the worship of 103 predominately deaf Jehovah's Witnesses in Chelyabinsk. Spokesperson Yaroslav Sivulsky told Forum 18 News Service that the ruling is also important because "deaf people in Russia often feel that they are of inferior worth, outside society, but this has made them feel rehabilitated and aware that their rights are respected." He regretted that the case had not been resolved within Russia. Both parties in the case have three months in which to appeal against the ECtHR decision. The community currently rents premises for worship without obstruction. Following another ECtHR ruling that Russia had violated the rights of the Salvation Army's Moscow branch by refusing to give it legal status and by branding it a "militarised organisation", the judgement became final on 5 January 2007 and so Russia must make its compensation payment to the Salvation Army by 5 April. There is also a pending ECtHR case about a ban on the Jehovah's Witness organisation in Moscow.

AZERBAIJAN: Biggest expulsion in eight years

In the biggest expulsion of foreigners involved in religious activity in Azerbaijan since 1999, two Georgian and two Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported, with a Dutch and a British citizen about to follow, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The administrative deportation orders – which do not require any court proceedings – followed a massive police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, which only four of the six foreign residents were attending. Jeyhun Mamedov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed to Forum 18 that "it wasn't a raid – you can't call it that." He refused to state what law the Jehovah's Witnesses had allegedly broken. Mamedov claimed on local public TV – which accompanied the raid - that "specialised equipment" was confiscated which "could be used for communicating secretly with secret services of other countries". Jehovah's Witnesses totally reject these allegations. A steady trickle of foreigners have in recent years been deported for their religious activity.

UZBEKISTAN: Despite official denials, religious freedom violations continue

Repression of religious communities from the majority community Islam to religious minorities such as Christians has increased, Forum 18 News Service notes. Protestants have been attacked in state-controlled mass media, such as a student, Tahir Sharipov, accused of holding "secretive meetings with singing," and pressure is applied to stop ethnic Uzbeks attending Protestant churches. Andrei Shirobokov, a Jehovah's Witness spokesperson, told Forum 18 that he has had to leave the country as "my friends in the law enforcement agencies warned me that an attempt was to be made on my life." Religious minority sources have told Forum 18 that schoolteachers have been instructed to find out the religious communities schoolchildren attend and where their parents work. US designation of Uzbekistan as a "Country of Particular Concern" for religious freedom violations has drawn a harsh response. Forum 18 has itself been accused of trying "at every opportunity to accuse Uzbekistan without foundation of repressing believers."

RUSSIA: How likely are missionary restrictions?

In early September 2006 Russian Justice Ministry proposals for a draft law, aimed at "Counteracting Illegal Missionary Activity," were published by the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice. The draft proposes wide-ranging restrictions on all "missionary activity." Vladimir Ryakhovsky, a lawyer with the Centre, told Forum 18 News Service this month that he hoped that it would not be considered by the Duma, Russia's parliament, "because it's absurd." Andrei Sarychev, a senior Justice Ministry official, stressed that the draft has no formal status. "It is still a proposal – it hasn't been taken up by the Duma or anything," adding that he did not know who was responsible for it. Stepan Medvedko, a consultant to the Duma Committee on Religious and Social Organisations, told Forum 18 that no such proposals have been taken up by his Committee for Duma consideration. "We are not considering any changes to the 1997 Religion Law right now." He also stressed that the Justice Ministry text was "just a proposal – it hasn't been sent to us so we can't comment on it" and added that all other suggested amendments "have either gradually been rejected or else became no longer necessary."

RUSSIA: Will NGO regulations restrict religious communities?

Fulfilling the requirements of Russia's January 2006 legal amendments – commonly referred to as the NGO Law – will be practically impossible for many religious organisations, a Russian religious rights lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, has suggested to Forum 18 News Service. He thinks that "there will be selective application of the law – right up to liquidation – for those not to the authorities' liking." However, a senior Federal Registration Service official has stressed to Forum 18 that the deadline for religious organisations to submit the first annual accounts of their activity - 15 April 2007 – is still far off. "We're not dealing with it yet," Andrei Sarychev told Forum 18. The bureaucratic requirements are very detailed. "A charitable foundation might manage this, but how can a religious organisation say how many people were at its events? Or whether a Russian or foreign citizen put money in its collection box? What constitutes 'charter activity' for a religious organisation?" questioned Ryakhovsky. Religious organisations sometimes complain about petty checks made by local Federal Registration Service departments.

RUSSIA: Will Salvation Army's European Court victory set a precedent?

Finding against the Russian state for violating the rights of the Salvation Army's Moscow branch by refusing to give it legal status and by branding it a "militarised organisation", the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg ruled on 5 October that the state must pay the Church compensation of 10,000 Euros. Reacting "very positively" to the ruling, which came five years after it lodged the case, Aleksandr Kharkov of the Salvation Army told Forum 18 News Service: "We would have preferred to have come to an agreement in a friendly manner, without recourse to the courts." Forum 18 has been unable to find out whether the Russian state will appeal against the judgment, though it has three months to do so. In what could serve as a precedent in other cases, the ECtHR ruling criticised the state's evaluation of the legitimacy of the Salvation Army's beliefs, the way officials used petty faults and subjective demands to deny registration applications, and the 1997 Religion Law's discrepancy between the religious rights of local citizens and foreigners.

UZBEKISTAN: Massive fines and jail proposed for sharing beliefs

Uzbekistan intends to impose massive fines and jail people – and the leaders of their religious communities – for sharing their beliefs outside places of worship, Forum 18 News Service has been told. The proposals were made to a meeting of leaders of registered religious communities, in the capital Tashkent, by the state Religious Affairs Committee. For a first "offence," Forum 18 was told, it is intended to impose a fine of between 200 and 600 times the minimum monthly salary. The second time this "offence" is committed, it is intended to jail the offender and the leader of their religious community for between 3 and 8 years. These proposals are the latest harshening of penalties for peaceful religious activity and, like for example the ban on unregistered religious activity, directly break the international human rights standards Uzbekistan is formally committed to. The country has also – in the latest use of deportation against religious believers – deported to Russia a Baptist who grew up in Tashkent, Forum 18 has learnt.

CHINA: Isolated Xinjiang religious minorities

Three strands of Christianity are officially recognised in China's north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Forum 18 News Service notes: the Three Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), the Patriotic Catholic Association, and two state-registered Orthodox communities. The authorities in Xinjiang appear to be eager to isolate these communities, along with Xinjiang's Buddhists, from links with their fellow believers in other countries. Missionary activity that the authorities become aware of, especially by foreign missionaries, is swiftly halted. Orthodox believers have been advised by the authorities not to communicate with foreigners, Forum 18 has been told. No Orthodox priests are permitted to work in Xinjiang, and it does not appear likely that this will change soon, or that Orthodox men from Xinjiang will be permitted to study at a seminary abroad.

RUSSIA: One Nation, one Orthodox Church?

Despite Russia's constitutional guarantee of equality before the law for all religious associations, some regional state officials support the Moscow Patriarchate against other Orthodox organisations, Forum 18 News Service has found. Orthodox groups can experience unfair treatment in seeking state registration or in property disputes. Another example is the description of a Russian Orthodox Church of the New Martyrs priest, Fr Aleksandr Ganzinin, as a "common swindler," in a press release by a regional authority. This was after Fr Ganzinin had given the required notification of the church's intent to preach, distribute icons and candles and collect donations at a town's markets, and the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese's "confirmation" of Fr Ganzinin as an "impostor" not found among its clergy. An example of property problems is the transfer by a local authority of a church, in Zheleznovodsk, from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) to the Moscow Patriarchate. Local officials are often reluctant, in Forum 18's experience, to discuss favouritism of one Orthodox church over another.

UZBEKISTAN: Another JW deportation, more pressure on Protestants and Muslims

Uzbekistan has deported a second Jehovah's Witness, a month after deporting a Russian lawyer intending to defend his fellow-believers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Yevgeny Li's home is in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, but he was deported to Kazakhstan although he is Ukrainian. Also, Jamshed Fazylov, an Uzbek lawyer intending to defend Jehovah's Witnesses in southern Uzbekistan was himself detained in a cell for 24 hours for "vagrancy". "What happened to Li sets a very dangerous precedent," a Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18. "The authorities could launch a mass deportation of our fellow-believers." The use of deportation to rid the country of religious believers the state does not like seems to be growing. Other faiths are facing growing repression, Protestant sources telling Forum 18 that twelve churches have been stripped of registration, thus banning them from conducting any religious activity. Also, the authorities are attempting to stop Muslim schoolchildren from attending mosques.

SERBIA: Restitution Law passed

As Serbia and Montenegro separate, the Serbian National Assembly has passed a Restitution Law for property confiscated from religious communities. Much doubt remains about whether the Law will operate fairly, Forum 18 News Service has found. There are also concerns about how the complex legal problems involved will be resolved. This is especially the case for communities, such as Kalmykian Buddhists, with no unambiguously clear legal successor. It is also, Forum 18 has found, a problem for those – such as Adventists and Baptists - whose property was in the 1920s and 1930s formally owned by private individuals or companies, even though it was in practice owned by the church. Property such as formerly-Catholic and formerly-Methodist hospitals is barred from return. But religious communities also hope to regain some property, such as Catholic and Serbian Orthodox land given to the churches in the eighteenth century by the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.

RUSSIA: Property struggles of Protestants, Muslims and Hare Krishna devotees

"A negative attitude towards Evangelical churches" is blamed for the Russian city of Krasnodar's demand for the demolition of a private home intended to host worship. Its owner, Aleksei Yeropkin, told Forum 18 News Service that many religious communities, regionally and nationally, meet for worship in the legal residence of a member. No deadline has yet been set for the demolition, as a court appeal is pending. A linked church in Kalmykia complains of slander on local regional state TV, leading to hostility from local people. But a threatened mosque demolition in Astrakhan has not yet been carried out and an appeal has just been lodged with Russia's Supreme Court. In the Russian capital Moscow, there may be progress in a Hare Krishna temple's struggle for land, following an agreement between the city governments of the Indian capital Delhi and Moscow. But there has been no progress in resolving the similar struggle of a Pentecostal congregation to build a church.

RUSSIA: Whose side are the police on?

Pentecostals, Catholics and Baptists are among religious communities to complain recently of police failure to protect them from attacks or other unwarranted intrusions during services or of police raids to prevent them conducting religious activity – such as giving out religious literature – which they regard as legitimate, Forum 18 News Service notes. Police failed to respond when 300 Pentecostals in Spassk in Siberia were terrorised by 20 drunken youths who attacked their service in April or when a Catholic service in St Petersburg was disrupted by intruders in late May. Only when church leaders complained did the authorities take belated action. In Ivanovo near Moscow, the FSB security service initiated a raid on a 14 May Baptist evangelisation event at a rented cinema and an investigation is underway over the fact that copies of the New Testament being handed out did not include the name of the publisher. "We are still trying to find out what will happen," Pastor Aleksandr Miskevich told Forum 18. "I can't imagine how they are going to check the authenticity and authorship of the Gospels!"

RUSSIA: Sharing faith in public – a fundamental right

Recently, local officials have given Forum 18 News Service contrasting reactions to public preaching. This appears to indicate growing disagreement over whether or not the "free dissemination of religious convictions" - as upheld by the 1993 Russian Constitution - is a right subject to state permission. Unregistered Baptists have been the group that has encountered most state obstruction to public dissemination of their beliefs. The head of the southern Rodionovo-Nesvetaiskoye District Administration has insisted to Forum 18 that unregistered Baptists do not have the right to preach in public. She also maintained that unregistered religious groups may meet on private premises, "but they don't have the right to go outside." Forum 18 notes that there is no clear legal restriction of the right to conduct public religious events to registered religious organisations. Contrastingly, after a violent attack on unregistered Baptists in north-eastern Russia, the public prosecutor for Ust-Mai District (who is prosecuting the attackers) has confirmed to Forum 18 that there was nothing illegal about the Baptists preaching in public in a village.

TURKMENISTAN: Official exit ban list confirmed

Former Baptist prisoner of conscience Shageldy Atakov is the latest person, known to Forum 18 News Service, banned from leaving Turkmenistan apparently because of their religious activity. "We blocked him from travelling – he's here on the list," a Migration Service officer told Forum 18. "People are only stopped from leaving if they have problems with the government," he added, without explaining what reasons trigger exit bans. As well as the Migration Service, the MSS secret police can also impose exit bans. "Sometimes we work together with them, sometimes separately," the official said. Forum 18 knows of an increasing number of Turkmen residents banned from leaving the country, because the authorities do not like their religious activity. Protestants are frequent victims of the exit ban policy, but others known to have been banned from exit are Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses. The number of Muslim haj pilgrims is also severely restricted.

RUSSIA: Will southern Catholics win full rights to their churches?

Two southern Catholic parishes are unable to obtain official permission to use their new church buildings, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Priests in both parishes stressed, however, that worship has so far been unaffected, and that they do not believe Catholic ownership of the churches to be at stake. Religious organisations very often find it difficult to obtain official confirmation that their de facto complete houses of worship are fit for use, Natalya Gavrishova, a lawyer at the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice told Forum 18. Another problem for both Catholic parishes - in Rostov-on-Don and Sochi - is that changes to the Land Code have resulted in huge financial demands, which are a considerable burden for the parishes. Vitali Brezhnev, state Chief Specialist for Relations with Religious Organisations in Rostov-on-Don region, emphasised to Forum 18 that the authorities "bear no evil intent" towards Catholics and that bureaucracy has become more complicated: "Building my own house was an eight-month nightmare – and I'm a bureaucrat myself!"

RUSSIA: Sochi Muslims without Mosque, Catholics hope for Chapel

In the Black Sea town of Sochi, close to the Georgian border, the authorities have persistently denied the Yasin Muslim community permission to construct a mosque, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The community has been trying to find a suitable site for 10 years but, "whenever I find somewhere, the [city] architectural department says that it's already sold, obstructed by pipes, or something else," Ravza Ramazanova, the organisation's chair, told Forum 18. The community's roughly 70 worshippers currently use three cramped cellar rooms – which Forum 18 has seen – to pray and study. Similarly, local Catholic priest Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski hopes that Sochi's bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 will assist plans for the construction of a Catholic chapel in the nearby town of Adler. This, he explained to Forum 18, was how the Catholic church in Sochi was built from 1995-97: "They were hoping to hold the Winter Olympics here in 2002." Forum 18 noted that the Russian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews and the New Apostolic Church all have prominent houses of worship in the Sochi area.

RUSSIA: Step forward for Salvation Army, backward for Pentecostals

The Salvation Army's Russian national registration has been restored, but its Moscow city branch is still unregistered. "We're waiting on [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg," Territorial Commander Colonel Barry Pobjie told Forum 18 News Service. However, the Salvation Army does not face obstruction to its day-to-day Moscow activities, unlike Jehovah's Witnesses in the city, who sometimes face obstruction and are under a local court ban. In contrast, in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the Salvation Army has told Forum 18 that it has not had the registration difficulties faced in Moscow. "That didn't affect us at all," Captain Vladimir Tatiosov said, noting that the authorities support the Salvation Army's various social projects. Pentecostal Pastor Viktor Shvedov told Forum 18 that his church can provide social assistance to prisoners, but is unofficially barred from both helping local children's homes and conducting a March for Jesus through Rostov-on-Don city centre. Before 2005, Rostov-on-Don Pentecostals were able to provide clothes, toys and building materials to children's homes.

UZBEKISTAN: Deported "for defending believers' rights"

Russian lawyer Kirill Kulikov has been barred from entering Uzbekistan to help local Jehovah's Witnesses with the numerous prosecutions and denial of registration to their communities they face, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Held at passport control on arrival at Tashkent airport early on 26 April, Kulikov was denied access to anyone, including the Russian Embassy, and forced to board a Moscow-bound flight that evening. "Entry to the Republic of Uzbekistan is closed," is the statement on his deportation document - the same wording used when Forum 18's correspondent was deported in 2005. "I am sure the reason for my deportation was the fact that I was defending believers' rights," Kulikov told Forum 18. He was deported a few days after three Turkmen Protestants, held when police raided a Protestant pastor's home in Urgench, were deported back to Turkmenistan, with stamps in their passports barring them also from future visits.

RUSSIA: Religious work visa respite?

Catholics in southern Russia have told Forum 18 News Service it is getting easier for foreign Catholic priests to gain visas, citing the return to Russia of one of the eight Catholic clergy (including a bishop) barred since 1998. After being denied a visa in October 2004, Fr Janusz Blaut returned to his parish in Vladikavkaz last autumn, thanks to an invitation not from the parish but from the diocese in Saratov. Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski told Forum 18 in Sochi that Catholic priests in Krasnodar region – previously issued only three-month visas at a time – are now given one-year visas as elsewhere in southern Russia. Russia's Catholic Church, which was allowed no seminary in Soviet times, depends heavily on foreign clergy. Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and a Jew are also among the 55 known religious workers barred since 1998, though a handful have been allowed to return. A Pentecostal pastor in Rostov-on-Don told Forum 18 that far fewer foreign Protestant missionaries are now working locally than in the 1990s and they have to keep a low profile.

RUSSIA: Muslim human rights activist linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir?

Mufti Ismagil Shangareyev, who heads the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Orenburg Region and the Moscow-based Islamic Human Rights Centre, has accused police of planting Hizb ut-Tahrir documents on him, after a search of his former Al-Furkan madrassah. "There's not even any sense in saying that they were planted – it's as clear as daylight," Shangareyev told Forum 18 News Service. His lawyer is Anatoli Pchelintsev of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, which stated that "the situation surrounding Ismagil Shangareyev "is a characteristic example of how the organs of the Interior Ministry and public prosecutors in various Russian regions subject Muslims to humiliation and undermine religious believers' trust in the authorities and the law." No formal charges have been brought against Shangareyev, who maintains that he does not and has never had any prohibited item in his apartment, car or office. He remains a witness in the criminal investigation opened after the discovery of the leaflets.

RUSSIA: Literary analyses key to Hizb ut-Tahrir convictions

Analyses of publications has been a key element in criminal prosecutions brought against alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members, some of whom have been jailed, Forum 18 News Service has found. These have been conducted by Russian academics, including a former scientific atheism lecturer. Vitali Ponomarev of the human rights group Memorial has closely followed many of the trials, and he commented to Forum 18 that "if someone speaks about the caliphate or has the organisation's literature, that would automatically be considered proof of membership. (..) in most cases this isn't examined – normally there is just a witness who says that the accused gave them literature and asked them to join, or talked about the caliphate." However Georgi Engelhardt, who researches militant Islam at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18 that, for him, dissemination of Hizb ut-Tahrir literature was sufficient proof of membership. "It demands a certain sharing of views – the person is not a paid postman. You need to be quite motivated to be connected with Hizb ut-Tahrir."

RUSSIA: Muslims reject Hizb ut-Tahir membership charges

Many of the 46 Muslims convicted of membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir – a party which claims to reject violence, but which is banned in Russia – have denied that they are members of the organisation, Forum 18 News Service has noted. Mars Gayanov, for example, maintains that an official account of a police conversation, which he signed, "was substituted for one in which I said I belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir." He stated that his family was targeted simply because "we are serious Muslims – our women wear the hijab, we don't drink alcohol, we are trying to live in accordance with Islam." Vitali Ponomarev of human rights group Memorial told Forum 18 that after the Beslan school siege "there was a need to find terrorists" and that, as the only large Muslim political organisation with a definable membership, Hizb ut-Tahrir "filled a vacuum." However, Georgi Engelhardt, a researcher into militant Islam at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18 that it was not possible to say whether evidence was planted: "The rumours about the reputation of the police remain rumours."

RUSSIA: Ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir not to be challenged?

Following Russia's ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organisation, a Moscow-based human rights organisation has been given an official warning, for publishing a Muslim leader's statement questioning the ban's soundness, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to reject violence – though the sincerity of this rejection has been strongly questioned – and those charged in Russia with membership claim that they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Following appeals from Muslims charged with membership, the Memorial Human Rights Centre published an analysis of Hizb ut-Tahrir's brochures by Sheikh Nafigulla Ashirov, head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Asiatic Russia. Ashirov wrote that the brochures contained nothing that "could be viewed as calls to violence," but rather contained "a theoretical point of view about a path towards creating an Islamic society." The Moscow Public Prosecutor's Office then demanded the removal of Ashirov's analysis from Memorial's website. Memorial has complied with the demand, and has since filed a legal challenge against it.

RUSSIA: Division over Hizb ut-Tahrir

In Russia, there is much disagreement over how to respond to Hizb ut-Tahrir, Forum 18 News Service has found. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned as antisemitic in Germany, and its Danish spokesman was given a suspended jail sentence for distributing racist propaganda. Rejecting democracy and core human rights such as religious freedom and purporting to reject violence, it has made violently antisemitic statements but not publicly called for specific terrorist acts. In Russia, 29 alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been given jail terms, following a Supreme Court decision banning the organisation as terrorist. Some, such as Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center, think that monitoring and targeted prosecution of concrete cases of incitement to violence or hatred would be a more effective response. Mukaddas Bibarsov, co-chairman of Russia's Council of Muftis, told Forum 18 that he had only met three sympathisers, suggesting that, instead of prison terms, the Muslim community should challenge such people, but lamented that "there is no [Muslim] intellectual force to explain that (..) everyone must live by the Constitution here."

RUSSIA: Blocks to acquiring places of worship

A Muslim community in southern Russia has been told to demolish its mosque by 1 May, or it will be demolished by the local authority, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The dispute in the city of Astrakhan revolves around the renovation of a disused silage tower and two-storey annexe for use as a mosque – which a regional court has described along with the municipal administration as "unauthorised construction" – and the construction of a new mosque on the site. Approval for the mosque construction was given in 2001, but construction only started in 2005 after sufficient funds had been collected; this too must now be removed. The Muslims claim that there was a sudden change in attitude by the local authority following a visit by President Vladimir Putin. Hare Krishna and Buddhist religious communities in Moscow have also recently complained to Forum 18 about attempts to block their acquisition of places of worship. Permission to build a Hare Krishna temple was withdrawn amid hostility from a Russian Orthodox Archbishop, and a Tibetan Buddhist group lost their city centre premises due to a municipal construction project.

RUSSIA: Official and unofficial challenges to Protestant property ownership

Due to begin today (20 February) in Moscow Arbitration Court is a case challenging the 1997 purchase by the charismatic Kingdom of God Church of a factory's social club to use as a church. The Federal Property Agency is seeking the return of its "illegally occupied" property, although as church lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky pointed out to Forum 18 News Service the church has a valid ownership certificate and the deadline for legal challenges runs out after three years. Elsewhere local officials have refused to register Protestant churches' ownership of land, arbitrarily rejected approved construction plans and refused to redesignate property for religious use. This suggests that local authorities deliberately use bureaucratic and/or unofficial methods to challenge Protestant property ownership. Mikhail Odintsov of Russia's human rights ombudsperson's office noted in early February that while in the past complaints about religious freedom violations came from foreign organisations, "now it is ours, our Protestants", with the number of complaints rising. "The percentage of complaints resolved is miserable, and attempts to do so stop, start and go on for years."

COMMENTARY: A murder in Turkey, missionaries and Turkish-language books

Since the murder of Italian Roman Catholic priest Fr Andrea Santoro, much discussion has taken place within Turkey as to why this happened. This mainly centred on the controversy over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, and on Fr Andrea's work helping Russian women caught up in organised prostitution. But some discussion focused on the presence of Christian literature, in Turkish, at the back of Fr Andrea's church, notes Canon Ian Sherwood, an Irish priest who has been Anglican Chaplain in Istanbul http://web.archive.org/web/20080229064600/http://www.anglicanistanbul.com/ since 1989. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, he observes that even "liberal" voices see any attempt to express or commend Christianity in Turkish as suspiciously criminal, or at least intellectually unacceptable, and the liberty to distribute non-Islamic texts has been seen as unacceptable in Turkey for centuries. Canon Sherwood asks whether the time has now come to shed this misplaced suspicion and fear of a reasonable liberty.

RUSSIA: Muslim rivalry behind criminal charges?

A Muslim activist in the southern region of Astrakhan, Mansur Shangareyev, has been charged with incitement to religious hatred by the regional authorities, but his lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, insists to Forum 18 News Service that the charges are "absurd and very crudely falsified." He strongly maintains that the conduct of a police and Interior Ministry search of Shangareyev's home, and the quality of the evidence presented in court, is highly questionable. Mukaddas Bibarsov, who heads the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, expressed his doubts about the charges to Forum 18, and has claimed that one form of state discrimination against Muslims in Russia is "the fabrication of criminal cases" and that Mansur Shangareyev's case was "one of the most flagrant examples." Well known human rights activists and Rabbi Zinovy Kogan of KEROOR have signed an open letter supporting this. Some observers believe that the reason for the charges is rivalry between Muslim Spiritual Directorates, as well as charges of extremism levelled against the Al-Furkan madrassah founded by Mansur Shangareyev's brother Ismagil Shangareyev.

CENTRAL ASIA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan close doors to UN Special Rapporteur

Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.

RUSSIA: Moscow Chief Rabbi returns, but expulsion explanations are contradictory

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow's Chief Rabbi, has returned to the Russian capital after having his one-year multi-entry visa revoked without explanation in September. Speaking to Forum 18, Rabbi Goldschmidt said that he now holds a one-month single-entry religious work visa supported by an invitation from "one of the Jewish communities." He confirmed to Forum 18 that he thus has to leave Russia again in early January, but that he hopes to re-enter holding a one-year multi-entry religious work visa. He declined to comment on the possible reasons for his September deportation, but the Russian Foreign Ministry indicate that the visa revocation may have been linked with Rabbi Goldschmidt's possession of a business rather than a religious work visa. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has firmly reported that Russia's Interior Ministry stated in an official letter that the visa revocation was "for national security reasons." Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of the International Jewish Newspaper, indicated to Forum 18 that Rabbi Goldschmidt's expulsion may have been connected with a property dispute.

RUSSIA: When can Moscow Chief Rabbi return?

Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is still in Israel, after his Russian visa was annulled without explanation at a Moscow airport in September. But his wife, Dara, told Forum 18 News Service that he may return to the Russian capital next week. "With God's help, we think the situation will be resolved shortly," she told Forum 18. Dara Goldschmidt, who is in Moscow with the couple's seven children, told Forum 18 that she had returned without problems from a visit to Israel in October and that she had no idea why her husband's visa had been annulled. Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of the Moscow-based International Jewish Newspaper, told Forum 18 that Israeli Vice-Premier Shimon Peres had raised the issue of Goldschmidt's deportation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 27 October. According to Golenpolsky, "Lavrov said that it sounded like a technical thing they could solve in several minutes." Swiss-born Rabbi Goldschmidt leads Moscow's Choral Synagogue and has lived in Moscow since 1989.

UZBEKISTAN: When is postal censorship not postal censorship?

Uzbekistan's Post Office routinely opens parcels of religious books and magazines sent from abroad, sends examples to the state Religious Affairs Committee, then collects them with a Committee decision as to whether or not to ban the title, writes to the sender and the failed recipient to explain why titles have been rejected, and (sometimes) returns them at Uzbek Post Office expense, Forum 18 News Service has found. Kural Tulebaev, Director of the main Post Office which receives foreign parcels, as well as customs officials have both denied that this is censorship. "We're just following the law," Tulebaev told Forum 18. His Customs Service colleagues were just as adamant: "The law requires that all of it is checked by the Religion Committee," a senior inspector told Forum 18, "the law is the law." The Religious Affairs Committee has refused to explain how it makes censorship decisions, or why it censors religious literature in defiance of international human rights commitments.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, October 2005

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, including denials of the right of legally registered religious communities to worship. In a typical example of this approach - which other religious minorities have also experienced - police raided a legally registered Baptist church in northern Turkmenistan, claiming that "individuals can only believe alone on their own at home." Unregistered religious activity continues – in defiance of international human rights agreements – to be attacked. There has been an increase in attempts to impose a state religious personality cult of President Niyazov on all Turkmen citizens, with mosques being particularly targeted. Turkmenistan continues to fail to implement its international human rights commitments, and also continues to take direct governmental action to deny religious freedom to peaceful Turkmen citizens.

RUSSIA: Why was Moscow's Chief Rabbi deported?

It remains unclear why Moscow's Chief Rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, was denied entry to Russia last week after returning from Israel. Rabbi Goldschmidt, who is Swiss-born and has lived in Moscow since 1989, stated that he was not given a reason by border guards at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. His wife and seven children are still in the city. Various factors have been suggested to Forum 18 News Service as influencing the entry denial, including: rivalry between the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations of Russia and the state-favoured Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia; proposed changes to visa rules; a dispute between Rabbi Goldschmidt and the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations of Russia; and his strong criticism of a petition signed by 19 Russian parliamentarians, which called for a ban on all Jewish religious and national organisations in Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry is not commenting on the case. Rabbi Goldshmidt is now in Israel and intends to apply for a new Russian visa following Yom Kippur, to be marked on 13 October 2005.

RUSSIA: Presbyterian church to be confiscated?

Its registration liquidated in 2003 for "administrative violations" and with subsequent registration applications denied, the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Mozdok in Russia's North Caucasus now faces the confiscation of its "beautiful Gothic-style" prayer house, church administrator Olga Mazhurova told Forum 18 News Service. The local administration told the congregation in early September that there is enough evidence to file suit for its confiscation, though no date for a court hearing has been set. The church admits it "made mistakes" over the way the church was built without planning permission, but claims it has been blocked from regularising its position due to local suspicion of its foreign connections. Officials at Mozdok district prosecutor's office have refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they are seeking to confiscate the church.

RUSSIA: How many missionaries now denied visas?

While Moscow-based religious rights lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev believes the number of foreign religious workers barred from Russia is rising, this is difficult to corroborate as many prefer not to report visa denials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Catholic bishop Clemens Pickel told Forum 18 that the denial of a new visa to Fr Janusz Blaut in October 2004 after ten years in Russia (the eighth such Catholic visa denial) has left his Vladikavkaz parish without a priest. Yet Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer and Protestant overseer Hugo Van Niekerk – both denied visas this summer – have once more been granted them. Of the 52 excluded religious workers since 1998 known to Forum 18 – whether Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon - only a handful have been allowed to return to Russia. Officials and the media have often stoked fears of "religious expansion" which, they argue, represents a threat to Russia's "national security".

RUSSIA: Who owns religious property?

One of the most troublesome issues for religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found, is gaining property. In places where historical worship buildings survive, there can be insufficient numbers of religious believers to claim or take care of them. This is particularly so for Orthodox churches in rural areas, and for Jewish and Lutheran communities. In cases where churches have been sold to private owners, or belong to a local authority, Catholic, Orthodox and Old Believer communities have often failed to regain them. But this situation is variable, Muslim communities, for example, having a mixed record of success in regaining mosques. Catholic and Old Believer churches have been sometimes given to Russian Orthodox dioceses, despite Catholic and Old Believer communities existing in these places. Some local authorities finance the construction of new worship premises for confessions they favour, but the cultural importance of historic Russian Orthodox property can prevent its return. Protestants, Old Believers, Molokans and Muslims have had problems in acquiring land for new building, as have other alternative Orthodox communities.

RUSSIA: Growing obstruction to Protestant church property ownership

Protestant communities wanting to build a place of worship face increasing obstruction from state authorities, they have told Forum 18 News Service. Other religious confessions also encounter such problems. For example, a protracted series of discussions and protests have still not enabled Moscow's Emmanuel Pentecostal Church to either obtain a new construction site or official rights to the land beneath a building it owns. Similar problems have been encountered by Protestant churches elsewhere in Russia. Protestants have often told Forum 18 of their suspicions that local Orthodox clergy are instrumental in blocking Protestant construction plans, through private discussions between state officials and local Orthodox clergy. Unusually, in a letter seen by Forum 18, the Volga city of Saratov refused Word of Life Pentecostal Church permission to put an advertisement on its own outside wall, "on the basis of letter No. 490 dated 19 April 2005 from the Saratov diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church." Protestant communities also often speak of lengthy and energy-consuming battles to retain worship premises they acquire.

RUSSIA: Growing restrictions on rental by Protestants

Russian law does not prevent religious communities from renting premises for worship, but Protestants have told Forum 18 News Service that in recent months they are increasingly barred from doing so. Most Protestant communities in Russia do not have their own church buildings and so have to rent buildings for worship, the majority of which are state-owned. Examples of this problem known to Forum 18 come from many parts of the Russian Federation. Anatoli Pchelintsev and Sergei Sychev, two Moscow-based lawyers specialising in religious believers' rights, have suggested to Forum 18 that possible reasons include state administrators not informing the federal authorities of official leases, so avoiding the need to give reasons for refusing to lease, and stepped-up pressure by the Moscow Patriarchate on local authorities and cultural institutions not to lease buildings to Protestants.

RUSSIA: Police and fire inspector try to close JW Congress

Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that they can see a pattern of obstruction to their regional congresses. This month (August 2005), for example, an Arkhangelsk newspaper asked "Is there really anything to stop Jehovists from killing hundreds of people - in Arkhangelsk, for example - in the name of a deity or some crazy idea?" Two attempts to rent buildings for a regional congress in the city were thwarted. At the third venue, police stepped onto the stage demanding that all 714 delegates leave "in view of the threat of terrorist attacks." Police then began to conduct a search, and a fire department inspector announced that the building was unsafe. When Jehovah's Witnesses refused to leave, the fire inspector ordered the stage lighting and then the entire electricity supply to be switched off. A Jehovah's Witness speaker continued by torchlight and the police couldn't search the building in darkness, so power was switched back on. The fire inspector then ordered the building's closure. Arkhangelsk regional public prosecutor's office told Forum 18 that they are investigating the Jehovah's Witnesses' complaint.

UZBEKISTAN: Forum 18 reporter detained at Tashkent airport

Igor Rotar, Forum 18 News Service's Central Asia Correspondent, was this morning (11 August) detained by the Uzbek authorities on arrival at Tashkent Airport. He is still being held by the Uzbek authorities, who are forcibly preventing him from communicating with anyone. Reliable sources indicate that the detention was ordered "for political reasons at the highest levels" and that the detention was carried out by the Immigration Service and Border Guards, on the instructions of the National Security Service secret police. The Uzbek authorities are refusing to comment on the case, but the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other international diplomats are following Igor Rotar's continuing detention closely.

RUSSIA: Altai officials prefer eyedrops and cattle to Catholics

In the Siberian Altai region, Catholics have encountered persistent obstacles, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Catholic parish in Barnaul's attempts to regain its church – dating from 1908 – have been blocked since 1992. After the parish began its struggle with the local authority, a café was built onto the church and on top of the cemetery, along with an Orthodox chapel. The local governor claimed his main contribution to Orthodoxy had been in keeping Catholics out. The authorities in the neighbouring Altai Republic have similarly barred a Catholic church being built, despite local support for the church, citing the negative attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church who are "tired from the dominance of sects." In a striking contrast, the Moscow Patriarchate is currently seeking to build churches in the predominantly Catholic Irish cities of Galway and Limerick, where the first-ever Russian Orthodox liturgy was held in a Catholic church in 2002. Reasons given to the Irish ambassador for the Galway plan, to build a traditional Russian wooden church, were tourism and bearing "witness to Orthodox tradition and culture" to immigrants "and to Irish people."

RUSSIA: When will Dalai Lama next visit Tuva?

The Dalai Lama's only visit to the traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva was in 1992. Since then, none of the "very many attempts" to invite him to the republic has come close to success, a former kamby-lama (head Buddhist of Tuva) told Forum 18 News Service. "Religion shouldn't interfere in politics, but we want to see him," Norbu-Sambuu Mart-Ool noted to Forum 18. The Dalai Lama has several times visited Russia's two other traditionally Buddhist republics of Buryatia and Kalmykia. But the main obstacle to a visit to Tuva - which borders Mongolia – seems to be Russian relations with China, which opposes a visit taking place. Mart-Ool told Forum 18 that the efforts of Kalmykia's president were instrumental in ensuring the Dalai Lama's two-day visit to that republic, following several years of visa denials, but lamented that "our council of ministers is not so active." Tuva's main religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the republic's Buddhist community alone issues invitations to its Tibetan spiritual leader, while adding that the Tuvan government would provide assistance with transport and premises.

RUSSIA: Violence, arson and religious believers

Police in the traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva seem to be indifferent to violent attacks on Protestants. Pastor Aleksandr Degtyarev of Gospel Light Baptist Church, told Forum 18 News Service that "for them it is minor - they have too many murders to solve." The republic's crime rate is amongst the highest in Russia, with two-and-a-half times more murders than the national average. Physical attacks against religious believers are uncommon elsewhere in Russia, but there has in recent years been an apparent increase in cases of arson attacks on places of worship reported by Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Jewish and Muslim communities. In some cases, police investigations have resulted in prosecution, but in others police either fail to investigate or refuse to acknowledge that arson has taken place. The director of the Moscow-based Baptist Association for Spiritual Renewal, Valentin Vasilizhenko, suggested to Forum 18 that arsonists might prefer to attack places of worship, because the repercussions against them would be far less serious than if they attacked a bank or a business.