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
3 February 2005
RUSSIA: Southern authorities side with Moscow Patriarchate against alternative Orthodox?
Despite the constitutional guarantee of equality before the law for all religious associations, state authorities in Stavropol appear to assist the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese against alternative Orthodox communities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Incidents known to Forum 18 have included an alternative Orthodox bishop, Andrei (Davidyan), who belongs to the recently formed Orthodox Russian (Rossiiskaya) Church, being held for questioning by police. This followed entry being forcibly made into a church by representatives of the local district administration, police officers, Moscow Patriarchate clergy and Cossacks, and the church's destruction reportedly being threatening whilst its contents were listed. The Moscow Patriarchal clergy present insisted that Bishop Andrei should submit to the authority of the local Moscow Patriarchate metropolitan. Neither state authorities nor Moscow Patriarchate representatives were willing to talk to Forum 18 about the incidents. Alternative Orthodox communities elsewhere in Russia, who are opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate, have also had problems with state authorities.
24 January 2005
RUSSIA: Church, mosque and synagogue kept by southern authorities
In southern Russia, three confessions regarded as "traditional" – the Greek Orthodox, Muslims and Jews – have all failed to win back places of worship confiscated by the state in Communist times, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Greek Orthodox community in the city of Krasnodar is part of the Moscow Patriarchate and has the support of its local Russian Orthodox bishop. Yet it has failed to get the authorities to return a church it can prove belonged to it, which now houses a state sanitation and disease control department. The city's Progressive Jewish community has now abandoned its nine year struggle to win back a pre-revolutionary synagogue in the city centre the community once used, which is now a government trade department. In the neighbouring region of Stavropol, the local Muslim community has similarly fought in vain for over ten years for the restitution of a pre-revolutionary city mosque, now used as the Stavropol city museum.
21 January 2005
UZBEKISTAN: Prisoner's wife on trial to show "who is boss here"
Halima Boltobayeva, a Muslim whose husband is in jail, was told by prison staff when visiting her husband that she dressed like a female Muslim terrorist, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Boltobayeva, who for religious reasons wears the hijab headscarf and a long garment that covers her entire body, retorted that she would dress as she believed was fitting. According to a local human rights activist, prison staff then decided to show her "who is boss here." She is now on trial accused of being a member of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, even though she has stated that "she hated Hizb ut-Tahrir as her husband had ended up in prison because of the organisation."
7 December 2004
RUSSIA: Southern Protestants' mixed fortunes
Protestants in the southern Krasnodar and Stavropol regions have all told Forum 18 News Service that their situation has improved since the 1990s, but several church leaders reported local obstructions in obtaining and using property for worship, similar to the problems faced by a local Christian university in conducting religious education. In early 2004, President Vladimir Putin's then representative in southern Russia praised Protestant social initiatives - especially alcoholism and drug addiction rehabilitation programmes - and one church leader told Forum 18 that his churches encounter no substantial state opposition to their activity. Cossack influence in southern Russia appears to be waning, after sometimes violent attacks in against Protestants during the 1990s. Local leaders of the (Nestorian) Assyrian Church of the East, Mountain Jews, and Yasin Muslims also reported variations in state policy towards their attempts to secure worship premises and provide religious education.
29 November 2004
RUSSIA: Governor links Jehovah's Witnesses and Islamic militants as "destructive cults"
Stavropol regional governor Aleksandr Chernogorov has linked Jehovah's Witnesses and Islamic militants as "destructive cults" at a major local conference on "Totalitarian Sects – the Path to the Destabilisation of the North Caucasus". Chernogorov maintained that "Wahhabism" and "Jehovism" [a Soviet-era term for the Jehovah's Witnesses' faith] had infiltrated into southern Russia and were now "attacking those confessions which provide the foundation of civil peace" – Orthodoxy and "traditional" Islam. Jehovah's Witnesses "think that this might be the beginning of something," local Jehovah's Witness representative Ivan Borshchevsky has told Forum 18 News Service. Recently, Jehovah's Witnesses have had increasing difficulties with the authorities. The Stavropol regional religious affairs official has declined to discuss these matters with Forum 18.
23 November 2004
RUSSIA: Mixed visa fortunes for foreign Catholic clergy
The visa situation for foreign Catholic clergy in Russia is mixed, Forum 18 News Service has found, with the length of visas granted varying from region to region. Some regions have a positive attitude to Catholic clergy, with others having a decidedly negative attitude, head of the Catholic Church in Russia Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz citing differing visa restrictions as being among the main problems faced by Catholic clergy in Russia. Foreign clergy are important for the Catholic Church in Russia, as there are only a relatively small number of ordained Russian nationals. This is because only two Catholic parishes and no seminaries were allowed to function in Soviet times. Priests in different regions have told Forum 18 that what they describe as "the human factor," rather than the law, is important in determining the length of visa they receive. None of the seven Catholic clergy denied entry to Russia since the beginning of 2001 have been able to return, but no more have been expelled.
18 November 2004
RUSSIA: Pressure on Tatarstan Protestants
The head of the FSB security service in Aznakayevo, a town in mainly Muslim-populated Tatarstan, has strongly denied to Forum 18 News Service that his officers have tried to expel Rafis Nabiullin, the pastor of a small Evangelical church, from the town. "We have made no threats to drive Nabiullin out," the FSB officer told Forum 18. Pastor Nabiullin told Forum 18 that an FSB officer had visited his flat, and "told me he had come 'unofficially', but that the FSB authorities in the town didn't want us there and intended to drive us out." Nabiullin commented that "it seems to have been a private initiative." Other Protestants have told Forum 18 that such pressure is widespread in Tatarstan, Nabiullin telling Forum 18 that "the authorities are Muslim and don't want Christianity, though they can tolerate Orthodoxy. They want to stop our activity."
9 November 2004
RUSSIA: Are Stavropol regional authorities interfering in Muslim affairs?
The head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Karachai-Cherkessia and Stavropol Region has claimed to Forum 18 News Service that the Stavropol regional authorities' are supporting the creation of a local muftiate separate from the Spritual Directorate. This is said to be due to the latter's insistence on the return of Stavropol city's historical mosque, which currently houses a museum. Apparent confirmation of the authorities' displeasure is their failure to invite the Spiritual Directorate to a major regional conference, addressed by Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov and other key officials, which was also attended by representatives of the muftiates of both Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Stavropol regional religious affairs official Vasili Shnyukov declined to respond to Forum 18's questions by telephone.
9 November 2004
RUSSIA: State restrictions on Mosques in south's minority Muslim areas
Only eight out of 47 Muslim communities in the southern Stavropol region have obtained state registration so far. The head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Karachai-Cherkessia and Stavropol Region, Mufti Ismail Berdiyev, told Forum 18 News Service that "the authorities don't want to register them because they think that if they don't, a problem will disappear." But he argued that "if you register communities then you can monitor them, but the authorities haven't grasped this yet." Mufti Berdiyev's assistant, Abubekir Kurdzhiyev, suggested to Forum 18 that the 39 unregistered Muslim communities in the region could not obtain registration because some of their members had fought with Chechen separatists: "When their corpses returned, the mosques came under suspicion." But he estimated that no one from about 60 per cent of these communities had fought in Chechnya, and rejected the idea that a whole mosque could be held responsible for one person's decision.
2 November 2004
RUSSIA: Is State's treatment of southern Muslims unjust?
Mufti Ismail Berdiyev, who belongs to the presidential Council for Co-operation with Religious Organisations, has told Forum 18 News Service that he supports "the general idea of attacking Wahhabism and terrorism," but cannot fully endorse every anti-terrorist measure. "Some state officials don't know the first thing about religion and go too far," he remarked, "we don't accept their mistakes." In the area he comes from, the authorities compile lists of suspected "Wahhabis". "I'm opposed to that," he told Forum 18, "if people are conducting terrorist activity then they should be prosecuted." Local imams state that there is an Islamic militant problem, but imam Magomed Erkenov told Forum 18 that the problem's scale did not warrant negative treatment of the entire Muslim community. Commenting on those fighting in Chechnya, he told Forum 18 that "They may have said that they were fighting against Russia, but if paid they would have fought against Muslims, or their own relatives. There is nothing holy about that war."
1 November 2004
RUSSIA: Southern Muslims complain of fall-out from anti-terrorist moves
Since the start of the second Chechen conflict, Islamic representatives maintain to Forum 18 News Service that a "negative policy towards all Muslims" in parts of the northern Caucasus has intensified. Imam Magomed Erkenov, who oversees 15 mosques in the southern Karachai-Cherkessia republic, told Forum 18 that since 1999 it has become "much harder" to register new Muslim communities. Officials visit mosques about twice a month to conduct interrogations of worshippers, Erkenov stated, on one occasion accusing a worshipper of being a Wahhabi and arresting him. An imam in a neighbouring mosque, speaking of visits by officials, told Forum 18 that "people are afraid to be seen to be Muslim now." Regional religious affairs official Yevgeni Kratov insisted to Forum 18 that mosque check-ups take place "entirely within the framework of the law" and entail neither searches nor abuses of any kind. "A police officer might drop by and take an interest, especially following a terrorist attack," he explained.
11 October 2004
CHINA: Xinjiang - Linked religious practice and state control levels?
China maintains few controls on religious life in the mountainous Altai [Altay] region in the far north of Xinjiang, Forum 18 News Service has noted, apparently because there are only low levels of Islamic, Buddhist, Pagan, Orthodox and Pentecostal Christian religious practice among the majority ethnic Kazakhs, as well as among Chinese and most other local minorities. In contrast, Forum 18 has observed strict controls in nearby mosques amongst the Muslim Dungan people, and the visit of a Russian Orthodox priest, Fr Vianor Ivanov, was met by the authorities arresting him, as well as questioning virtually all the several dozen elderly Orthodox believers in the city Fr Ivanov visited, before deporting him.
27 September 2004
NORTH KOREA: Will local Orthodox dare to regularly attend new church?
Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, has two Protestant and one Catholic church, which are suspected of being "show churches" for display to foreigners, so it remains unclear whether any North Koreans will be able to or will dare to regularly attend an Orthodox church under construction. The building is funded by the North Korean state, and Forum 18 News Service has learnt that it is "65 per cent finished". By the early 1900s, about 10,000 Koreans had converted to Orthodoxy due to Russian missionaries in the now divided Korean peninsula. Dmitry Petrovsky, of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, expressed the hope to Forum 18 that links with this past missionary activity remain, as is the case with Orthodox churches in South Korea. Four North Koreans are studying at the Moscow Theological Seminary, and Petrovsky remarked to Forum 18 that they are displaying "zeal and a genuine interest in Orthodoxy".
22 September 2004
RUSSIA: Suspicious fire guts Baptist church after authorities break up meeting
As Baptists were putting up a tent on privately-rented land in a village near Moscow on 20 August, administration officials demanded they provide advance notice of their two-day meeting. The Baptists refused, arguing that they did not need to for a non-political event. Several hundred armed police and secret police officers, "prepared as if for a terrorist attack" as Pastor Nikolai Dudenkov told Forum 18 News Service, invaded the site after the local administration banned the event. Workers pulled down the tent, but 4,000 Baptists went ahead with the meeting under police surveillance. On 10 September, local Baptist Yelena Kareyev told Forum 18, her teenage sons saw one of the officers involved in the raid lurking in woods behind their church. Three days later the building went up in flames and Kareyev saw men running away. She said the fire brigade was in no hurry to put out the fire.
22 September 2004
CHINA: Will Orthodox Christians soon be allowed priests?
China's estimated 3,000 scattered Orthodox Christians may soon be able to have their own priests once again. Since 2003, 18 Chinese Orthodox have been studying in Orthodox seminaries in Russia with the permission of China's State Administration of Religious Affairs. "Now they are happy for Chinese to become priests," an Orthodox source from Shanghai told Forum 18 News Service. But Hong Kong-based Russian Orthodox priest Fr Dionisy Pozdnyayev told Forum 18 it has yet to be decided whether these seminarians will be allowed to become priests in China when they complete their theological education. Fr Dionisy can minister only to foreign citizens in Beijing and Shenzhen, but a Russian priest spent two weeks in June ministering to local Orthodox in Harbin with official permission.
14 September 2004
RUSSIA: Increasing crackdown on Muslim "extremist" books
Muslims have complained to Forum 18 News Service of increased scrutiny of their literature, often by "specialists" who know nothing of Islam. Among reasons given for banning an eighteenth century book by the Arabian founder of Wahhabism, a Moscow court ruled in April that it "disputes the truth" of atheism, Sufism and monasticism. After confiscating religious literature from two Muslim communities in the Urals in 2002, officials "didn't find anything which would form the basis of a criminal case - they were prayer books, introductions to Islam and commentaries on the Koran," one leader told Forum 18. Accusations that a Muslim community is "extremist" – and therefore liable for banning under Russia's 2002 extremism law – reportedly often originate from rival Muslim jurisdictions, and are taken up by the FSB secret police and prosecutors. "The law is very frequently used by officials as a convenient instrument for exerting pressure on Muslims," Sheikh Nafigulla Ashirov of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Asian Russia told Forum 18.
9 August 2004
RUSSIA: Urals Protestants kept out of sight?
Urals region Protestants sometimes encounter local state obstruction of evangelism, along with local state support of the Orthodox, but one local pastor told Forum 18 News Service that local authorities are, in the cases of Protestants who own their own buildings, "happy for us to do what we like in our own buildings." Local personal relationships have a key influence on the religious freedom situation, pastors in two areas telling Forum 18 that building and keeping church property was helped by their having good personal relationships with the authorities. Although local Orthodox opposition to local Protestants is strong, leading to media attacks, and in some cases physical attacks, one local commentator told Forum 18 that, "when people started to see the so-called 'sects' being helpful, their [negative] media image began to break down." Local Protestants have also found that negative campaigning by Orthodox has backfired, leading to the Orthodox gaining a negative public image.
2 August 2004
RUSSIA: Urals religious freedom like "football with only one set of goalposts"
Religious freedom in the Urals varies widely, even from village to village, restrictions being most common on public events with an evangelical purpose, Baptist and Pentecostal leaders have recently told Forum 18 News Service. Some local officials are very supportive of such events, and also of social care projects such as anti-drug initiatives, but one pastor estimated that over 50 per cent of local officials are hostile to any event run by Protestants. One local religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the problem is that churches have poor legal knowledge and said that his office is "open to dialogue". But a former religious affairs official told Forum 18 that close relationships between higher level politicians and the Moscow Patriarchate stopped lower officials working with Protestant churches. "Even if they could really do with a social project, they know that an Orthodox priest will kick up a fuss, and no fool would risk his career by being linked with support for a Protestant church."
30 July 2004
UZBEKISTAN: Baptist denied permission to live in own home
In what he describes as "a vicious circle", Baptist Vsevolod Kalinin has again been refused a residence permit to live in his own home in the capital Tashkent, Forum 18 News Service has been told. In an open court hearing, a representative of the commission of the Tashkent city administration responsible for residence permits said that Kalinin's religious convictions were the main reason for refusing him a residence permit. It is unusual for Uzbek authorities to take a close interest in residential addresses, but Kalinin has since 2002 been the target of close scrutiny by authorities in Tashkent. As well as visits from the police, a military recruitment office has told Kalinin that he could be detained while his place of residence was checked. All Kalinin's appeals, including to Uzbek president Karimov, are met with the reply that he should appeal again to the commission which denied him a residence permit.
27 July 2004
RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness congress broken up
Since 1996, Jehovah's Witnesses have held an annual Urals regional congress in the Yekaterinburg city stadium. But last Friday (23 July), the stadium management abruptly demanded four times the agreed fee, then, on Saturday, men claiming to be security guards tried to block the entrance, then the electricity supply was switched off, then 1,000 delegates were evicted from their accommodation, then the stadium management played loud music to drown out speakers, and finally the management with the security guards told delegates to disperse. Jehovah's Witness leaders then called off the congress. In April, the authorities in the neighbouring Urals region of Tyumen cancelled a similarly large-scale Protestant Easter service in a city stadium. Also in April, the Jehovah's Witness Yekaterinburg congregation had its rental contract with the 'house of culture' abruptly cancelled, following the court decision barring Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow 1,500 km (930 miles) west.
14 July 2004
RUSSIA: Religious leaders' concern as intrusive state check-ups rise
Samara regional Pentecostal leader Vasili Lyashevsky is among religious leaders complaining about the local justice department's request to religious organisations for full names, ages and addresses of church members. "Everyone knows that the aim of the request was to get hold of the names of parishioners in order to put pressure on them later," he told Forum 18 News Service, citing similar requests by justice departments in the regions of Irkutsk, Perm, Tambov, Udmurtia and Yekaterinburg. The Catholic priest in Samara told Forum 18 he refused to give the names, ages and other details of all his parishioners. Although a justice department official appeared in a Samara television programme in May to defend the move, the justice department official in charge of registration denied the practice to Forum 18.
12 July 2004
RUSSIA: Anti-missionary law déjà vu
In a revival of the practice of the mid-1990s, several Russian regions are again producing anti-missionary laws, mostly modelled on the 2001 law adopted in the southern Belgorod region. The neighbouring Kursk region is the latest, with a law adopted on 10 June, while Magadan region in the Far East is set to adopt an anti-missionary law in the autumn. "The law would make it very difficult for foreign missionary workers to enter the territory," foreign Protestants based in Magadan complained to Forum 18 News Service in June. "Those who enter under other types of visas will do so under threat of fines and punishment." But believers have told Forum 18 that the Belgorod, Smolensk and Kursk regional laws do not appear to be enforced so far, while restrictions on missionaries in Primorye on the Pacific coast – where six Catholic priests and nuns have been denied the possibility to return – have come in a region with no anti-missionary law.
22 June 2004
RUSSIA: One religious policy fits all?
In both Sakhalin and Khabarovsk regions, Forum 18 News Service has observed that the local authorities attempt to translate the publicly expressed religious preferences of Russia's national leadership into concrete policy. Symbolic support for Russia's so-called traditional confessions - Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism - thus becomes material, even when these faiths have little or no traditional following in much of Far East Siberia. Local public opinion appears to be divided on the desirability of such an approach. Some believe state support for the Orthodox Church to be an essential part of the preservation of Russian national culture. One local Pentecostal, however, asked Forum 18: "Can you imagine - I, an evangelical Christian, or even an atheist, is working and paying taxes to build a new Orthodox church which is going to fight us?"
17 June 2004
RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness ban comes into effect
A ban on all organised activity by some 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the city of Moscow went into force yesterday (16 June) with the failure of a court appeal by the community. This is the first time that a religious organisation has been banned outright under Russia's 1997 religion law. One of the Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyers told Forum 18 News Service outside the courtroom that all hope of overturning the ban now lies with the European Court of Human Rights. While the prosecution claims that the Moscow Jehovah's Witness community may continue to function without registration, the ban states clearly that all of its activity must cease, and Jehovah's Witness lawyer John Burns told Forum 18 that this prosecution claim was "like saying that you can be Catholic but you can't have a church - you can hold a belief but you can't do anything about it." Other regions of Russia may well try to copy the Moscow decision.
16 June 2004
RUSSIA: Do foreign missionaries bear "the hallmarks of espionage" in Khabarovsk region?
Local Orthodox in Khabarovsk share the concerns of Orthodox in Sakhalin region about foreign missionaries, complaining to Forum 18 News Service of "espionage" and "Catholic expansion". However, throughout most of Khabarovsk region, Baptists, Catholics, and members of the New Apostolic Church have told Forum 18 that they have not recently encountered problems regarding access or visas for foreign missionaries. One exception appears to be access by foreign religious personnel to closed cities, which is reportedly very difficult to obtain, even though US citizens are employed at a military facility in one such city. This issue particularly affects Catholics, as the majority of Catholic priests in Russia are foreigners. One anonymous Protestant source has also told Forum 18 that it is now practically impossible for foreign citizens to conduct informal religious work in the Russian Far East.
16 June 2004
RUSSIA: Foreign missionaries in Sakhalin face restrictions
Russian Orthodox Deacon Andrei Khvylya-Olinter recently claimed on a Sakhalin radio programme that 70 per cent of the island's economy is in the hands of "sectarian structures", and warned of "involvement in intelligence gathering of foreign so-called pastors." Judging by local state support for a recent conference devoted to "Spiritual Security" and the tightening of religious work visa restrictions encountered by local Protestants and Catholics, who Forum 18 News Service has met, it appears that the regional authorities share his concerns.
9 June 2004
TAJIKISTAN: Why can't women wear the hijab for internal identity photos?
Although Tajikistan permits Muslim women to wear the hijab, or head and neck scarf, for international passport photos, it normally does not permit this for internal identity documents. Many Muslims think that it is unacceptable for a woman to be photographed without wearing a hijab, so many Muslim women, especially in very devout Muslim areas, do not have an internal identity document. Pulat Nurov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 News Service that this insistence on photographs without hijabs has caused problems, but claims that only a "very small percentage" of Muslim women regard this demand as "unacceptable". He also told Forum 18 that his committee has persuaded the police to make exceptions to the general rule in individual cases.
7 June 2004
RUSSIA: No non-Orthodox places of worship wanted in Khabarovsk city centre
An unofficial "red line" bars non-Russian Orthodox from securing places of worship in the centre of the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics have told Forum 18 News Service. The local authorities "don't let us anywhere near the city centre," Pentecostal pastor Aleksandr Pankratov complained to Forum 18. One local lawyer says no Protestant church has been allocated a plot of land in central Khabarovsk for four years. The Immaculate Conception Catholic parish is even unable to regain its historical church, confiscated in 1933. "Twelve of our elderly parishioners were baptised and made their first communion in that building," parish priest Fr Joseph McCabe told Forum 18. Admitting the existence of this ban, regional religious affairs official Mikhail Svishchev maintained that "every city tries to preserve its historical part".
7 June 2004
RUSSIA: Sakhalin region restrictions on using premises for worship
Jehovah's Witnesses in Sakhalin region are facing an ongoing campaign by the authorities against their right to gather for worship in the region. Following the recent ban on Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow, one Russian Orthodox priest, Fr Oleg Stenyayev, has suggested a similar ban in Sakhalin region, and that a new Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall be confiscated and given to local Muslims. Sakhalin's vice-governor, Georgi Karlov, responded that "we will probably make use of this splendid advice." Roman Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals have, in their use of premises for worship, encountered few or no problems from the authorities, but Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses have both had mission events barred from buildings.
1 June 2004
RUSSIA: Local restrictions on mission in Khabarovsk region
In the Far Eastern Russian region of Khabarovsk, religious believers can encounter state restrictions in sharing their faith, but to a lesser extent than in neighbouring Sakhalin region, Forum 18 News Service has found. Pentecostals, for example, have told Forum 18 of restrictions on missionary activity beyond the location where their church is registered, whilst Baptists have spoken of having to obtain permission for street evangelism concerts. Interviewed by Forum 18 about access to prisons and hospitals, the regional state religious affairs official commented that religious activity in state institutions is determined by each individual institution, which by now is well aware whether or not the religious representatives coming to them are "sound".
1 June 2004
RUSSIA: Local restrictions on mission in Sakhalin region
Local religious believers in Sakhalin region sometimes face state restrictions on sharing their faith, Forum 18 News Service has found. Pentecostals have been banned from showing the 'Jesus Film', and have also encountered local state bans on open-air evangelism, whilst the Jehovah's Witnesses have faced obstacles in distributing their literature. One official told Forum 18 that unregistered religious groups "can meet in private flats but not attract other people or disturb those around them."
25 May 2004
RUSSIA: Moscow court decision - a fair cop?
The full text, which Forum 18 News Service has seen, of the court decision banning Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow consistently accepts hostile testimony and rejects favourable testimony, including the conclusions of a previous court decision. Looking at the most recent decision, it is notable that only unproven allegations and not proven court cases are cited in the claims made about the legality of Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow. Many of the claims made about the Jehovah's Witnesses practices could also be made of other religious communities practices as well.
25 May 2004
RUSSIA: Full Moscow court decision slams JWs
Jehovah's Witnesses expect their appeal against a total ban on their activities in Moscow to be held within the next few weeks. The full decision of the judge who imposed the ban has now been released. Forum 18 News Service has seen the verdict and although it states that there is no evidence that Jehovah's Witnesses incite religious hatred with calls for violence, it does accuse them of forcing families to disintegrate, violating the equal rights of parents in the upbringing of their children, violating the Russian Constitution and freedom of conscience, encouraging suicide, and inciting citizens to refuse both military and alternative service. It is notable that the court decision consistently accepts hostile testimony against Jehovah's Witnesses, and as consistently rejects all favourable testimony.
5 May 2004
TRANSDNIESTER: Harsh draft religion law rejected – for now
A harsh draft new religion law in the unrecognised Transdniestr republic has been rejected, but the senior religious affairs official has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that it will be adopted, indicating that it has the support of the breakaway republic's president, Igor Smirnov. The draft gave the authorities draconian "control powers in relation to the activity of religious organisations" and attracted criticism from the Orthodox Church, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, amongst others. Orthodox Bishop Iustinian likened the proposed powers to those of Soviet times, and said that such state religious affairs offices were an anachronism. Despite this initial rejection of the draft law, plans remain to amend the Criminal Code to increase punishments for "illegal activity of sects", including youth and adult work, increasing fines 15 times and imprisoning offenders for up to a year.
4 May 2004
RUSSIA: Sacked for being Jehovah's Witnesses
Sergei Popov and Aleksandr Takhteyev, two of three Jehovah's Witnesses sacked on 1 April by a private firm on the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin, claimed to Forum 18 News Service that there was a direct link between the decision to sack them and the ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses in the Russian capital imposed by a Moscow court several days earlier. One manager of the food distribution company told the astonished Jehovah's Witnesses that since the group constituted a "sect", the three would steal money from the firm if told to do so by their religious superiors, and could not therefore be trusted. The firm's senior manager for Sakhalin overtly referred to the Moscow ban in an e-mail justifying the dismissals. "According to the charges, this sect interprets the Bible incorrectly, violates the rights of Moscow citizens, destroys the basis of the family and incites members to commit suicide," he claimed.
27 April 2004
ABKHAZIA: JWs still banned and Georgian Orthodox still barred
Politicians in the breakaway unrecognised republic of Abkhazia have told Forum 18 News Service that the Jehovah's Witnesses will continue to be banned. "If they won't defend their families, why should they have the freedom to practice their faith?" asked Valera Zantaria, making it clear that the ban was because of the Jehovah's Witnesses refusal of military service. Also unable to function is the Georgian Orthodox Church, whose members have to travel out of Abkhazia to the Georgian city of Zugdidi for services. Although the Catholic church can function in Abkhazia, access for priests has become difficult because Russian border guards refuse to let them through. Lutherans and unregistered Baptists are also allowed to function, one unregistered Baptist Pastor telling Forum 18 that conditions for their people are better in Abkhazia than in Georgia, with preaching permitted "once the authorities had established they were not Jehovah's Witnesses."
22 April 2004
RUSSIA: Methodists may have fought off church stealing
A Korean Methodist church in northern Moscow appears to have fought off an attempt by a commercial firm to steal their church building. A district court ruled against the Moscow justice department on 26 March after the church challenged the justice department's acceptance of fraudulent documents which claimed to have transferred the church to the company. Galina Skakun of the justice department admitted in court the Methodists' claim to the building, and tried to defend her department even though it failed to verify the authenticity of the documents. Church administrator Svetlana Kim said the Methodists believe that coverage of their case by both Forum 18 News Service and Russian news agencies "really helped us".
21 April 2004
RUSSIA: Spring offensive against the "Vitaliban"?
Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR - which is not part of the Moscow Patriarchate) within Russia less enthusiastic about a proposed merger with the Moscow Patriarchate have faced obstruction from the state authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. When 50 clergy and lay members held a diocesan assembly in Tula region in February, officers of the police and FSB (former KGB) questioned their legal right to meet, while elsewhere local authorities have failed to register parishes, obstruct those that meet in privately-owned buildings and even threatened to confiscate churches built with parishioners' funds. Without state registration, parishes cannot produce publications or conduct missionary activity, but some clergy argue it is better not to have registration. "It is easier for state officials to apply pressure to a community with legal status by finding fault with its documentation," one priest told Forum 18.
16 April 2004
RUSSIA: Was terrorist threat to Protestant Easter celebration genuine?
Although Russian Orthodox and Catholics celebrated Easter without problem in the Siberian city of Tyumen on 11 April, a large-scale Protestant Easter evangelistic service due to have been held in a city-owned stadium on 14 April was cancelled by the authorities, citing what they said was a "terrorist threat". Andrei Knyazhev, co-ordinator of the Protestant service, told Forum 18 News Service he is "almost 99 per cent certain" that the threat was spurious. Forum 18 has been unable to establish the authenticity or otherwise of the threat independently, though the service faced opposition from local Orthodox believers. After an explicit Chechen terrorist threat against Orthodox churches in Russia, the security agencies have stepped up their protection of Orthodox Christmas and Easter services.
13 April 2004
RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness rental contracts cancelled
In the wake of the recent Moscow court decision prohibiting all Jehovah's Witness religious activities in the city, some local congregations across Russia have this month had rental contracts either cancelled or threatened with cancellation by landlords, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The congregations known to be affected are in St Petersburg, Moscow, Vladimir, Yekaterinburg in the Urals, Krasnoyarsk, and Khabarovsk in the far east of Russia. The landlords' decisions appear to be related to misunderstandings of the nature of the Moscow court decision. In the Vladimir case, the Jehovah's Witnesses were told that they could use a venue "as long as they had the approval of a local Orthodox priest."
7 April 2004
TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, April 2004
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baha'i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy. Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow religious faiths to be practiced freely.
6 April 2004
AZERBAIJAN: Is religious censorship getting worse?
Baptists, Muslims, Adventists, Hare Krishna devotees, Baha'i and human rights activists have all noticed the problems caused by the censorship of religious literature in Azerbaijan, the head of the Baptist Union telling Forum 18 News Service that censorship is "getting worse". "We even have to ask for permission for one book sent to us through the post," Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. "Formally, censorship was abolished in Azerbaijan by presidential decree in August 1998, but it still exists," Eldar Zeynalov, of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointed out, telling Forum 18 that "If Rafik Aliev [chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations] had existed in Mecca at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he wouldn't have allowed him to produce any books as his views would have been regarded as heresy." Zeynalov also noted that prisoners are sometimes banned from seeing religious literature.
29 March 2004
RUSSIA: Alternative Orthodox denied church property
Although True Orthodox communities can normally gather in private homes and do not require a worship building, Forum 18 News Service has found indications that local authorities sometimes bar attempts to acquire or maintain worship buildings by the True Orthodox, as well as other Orthodox groups opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. In Moscow, this problem has existed since the early 1990s, when the City Council decided that pre-revolutionary Orthodox church buildings may be returned only to the Moscow Patriarchate. A spokesman for the City Council has claimed to Forum 18 that, before 1990, alternative Orthodox groups "did not exist."
29 March 2004
RUSSIA: Court bans Jehovah's Witnesses
On 26 March a local court banned the religious activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. This is the latest twist in a series of legal problems for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, which date back to June 1995. An appeal has already been made to the Moscow City Court, so the most recent verdict will not have legal force unless that appeal is rejected. It is estimated that it will take about two months for the case to be heard in court. If that appeal fails, the Jehovah's Witnesses will take their case to Russia's Constitutional Court. The European Court of Human Rights is currently reviewing the Moscow community's situation and has the authority to annul relevant court decisions in Russia at any level.
25 March 2004
RUSSIA: Alternative Orthodox denied legal status
Although most True Orthodox communities do not register with the state, due to a lingering fear of persecution, rejection of the state and a lack of the organisational skills required to register, Forum 18 News Service has found indications that local authorities sometimes bar attempts to register by the True Orthodox, as well as other Orthodox who are opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. Without legal status, such religious groups have the right only to worship and teach existing followers on premises provided by their own members. They cannot, for example, produce or distribute literature, or engage in other activities for which a 'legal personality' is necessary.
15 March 2004
RUSSIA: Pentecostals & Orthodox to lose buildings on Pacific coast?
Two congregations on Russia's Pacific coast – the Grace Pentecostal Church and the Orthodox parish of the Annunciation – may lose their places of worship after the Sovetskaya Gavan city council abruptly cancelled a contract it had given for the use of a state-owned building, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The cancellation of the Pentecostal's contract came after the town gained a new mayor, Valeri Shevchuk, and a council official told Forum 18 that the Orthodox parish is in the same position as the Pentecostals. "We had a 20-year contract – so why should we move?" the Grace Church's former deacon Andrei Nadtochi told Forum 18 News Service. He said officials have hinted to church members that rental payments for their building under a new "commercial" agreement would be so high that they would give it up of their own accord. The church says it does not have the money to challenge the decision in court or pay higher rent.
8 March 2004
UZBEKISTAN: University attacks Hare Krishna followers, along with secret police
Claiming without evidence that Hare Krishna followers were terrorists, had tried to stage a putsch in Russia and are now trying to stage a coup d'etat in Uzbekistan, Razumbai Ischanov, dean of Urgench University's Natural Sciences Faculty, has reportedly said he will expel all students who are Hare Krishna followers. Since the speech by the Dean, which had the support of University authorities, rumours have been spread that female Hare Krishna students are prostitutes, causing several planned weddings to be cancelled, and a lecturer in the natural sciences faculty forced a student Krishna devotee, against their religion, to eat meat and drink vodka. The NSS secret police have also started monitoring Hare Krishna students since the speech.
25 February 2004
NORTH KOREA: Mystery of the last "Hermit Kingdom"
Although some things are known about North Korea's control over all aspects of its citizens' lives and about its chemical and biological experiments on prisoners, less is known about the country's religious life. Although religious freedom does not exist, there is dispute about how genuine religious practice is at the handful of "show churches" in the capital Pyongyang. Dusty pews suggest that they are not well used. Buddhist temples are mere cultural relics. Parents are reportedly afraid to pass on their faith to their children, as sporadic refugee accounts suggest believers are still punished for practising their faith in secret. It is often as refugees in China that North Koreans first encounter religious life. Refugees repatriated from China have reported that they are interrogated about their contacts with mainly Protestant South Korean missionaries, while the North Koreans have reportedly set up a fake Protestant church in China to lure back defectors. Evidence suggests that any religious revival in North Korea is a recent phenomenon resulting from repatriates sharing their faith. This might prove a challenge to the regime.
17 February 2004
RUSSIA: Old Believers summoned by ex-KGB before church leadership election
Some 12 years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, an Old Believer representative has told Forum 18 News Service that he believes ex-KGB officials were acting "out of inertia" when they voiced preference for one of two candidates on the eve of his Church's 9 February leadership election. Romil Khrustalev added, however, that the energetic Andrian (Chetvergov) was elected metropolitan even though the Russian secret service apparently favoured the other candidate. Both Khrustalev and a Moscow Patriarchate representative told Forum 18 that a report claiming that Metropolitan Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church had acted similarly to the ex-KGB was false. Accounting for only a few per cent of the Russian population at most, the Old Believers say that they have "no idea" why the state should take an interest in the identity of their leader.
11 February 2004
RUSSIA: Tula Baptist & Orthodox churches under attack?
Pastors of one of the largest unregistered Baptist churches in Russia, in Tula, have told Forum 18 News Service that they believe their prayer house was the victim of a deliberate attack in January, when two powerful explosions ripped through the building's interior. However, Viktor Orlov and Aleksandr Lakhtikov told Forum 18 that they do not know who caused the explosions. The timing of the incident - just before a major conference at the church to be attended by Baptist leaders from all over Russia - is thought to be particularly suspicious. Also in Tula, two Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox churches have suffered arson attacks in recent months. One of the Orthodox parish priests referred Forum 18 to "that inexplicable explosion" at the Baptist prayer house, and described both it and the arson attacks as "links in the same chain."