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
22 March 2010
RUSSIA: Raids, literature confiscations and criminal case in Tambov
Russia has raided three flats of Jehovah's Witnesses in Tambov in the first such reported home raids against them since the Soviet era, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raids follow previous raids on the homes of Muslims who read the works of theologian Said Nursi. The police protocol of one search gives its aim as confiscation of "items of literature and electronic devices propagandising religious hatred, as well as other documentation recording activity by the religious group 'Jehovah's Witnesses'". Search warrants referred to the opening of a case under Criminal Code Article 282 ("incitement of ethnic, racial or religious hatred"). Forum 18 was unable to find out why the house searches were ordered, nor why copies of the search warrants were not given to the victims. Tambov Regional Police claimed that "these were not raids but searches". Distribution, preparation or storage with the aim of distribution of Jehovah's Witness literature on the Federal List of Extremist Materials could result in a five-year prison term.
5 March 2010
RUSSIA: Illegal religious literature seizures
Religious literature is often seized from Russian Jehovah's Witnesses and readers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi in an illegal fashion, Forum 18 News Service notes. No formal record of seizure is given in many cases, and no investigation or court case to rule on whether or not an individual's ownership of the literature is illegal. Two lawyers working on religious freedom cases – Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice and Sergei Sychev of Sychevs and Advocates – separately told Forum 18 that this is unlawful. To continue to hold the literature, the authorities must conduct an investigation which either results in criminal or administrative proceedings, or the literature must be handed back. In law, such literature is only definitively "confiscated" by a court ruling. The comments come as all 34 of the Jehovah's Witness publications recently ruled "extremist" were added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Distribution, preparation or storage with the aim of distribution of these items could result in a four-year prison term. Forum 18 has been unable to find out what happens to literature on the Federal List once it is seized, whether or not with the support of a court verdict.
4 March 2010
RUSSIA: Criminal charges against readers of religious literature
For the first time in Russia to Forum 18 News Service's knowledge, formal criminal charges have been brought against four readers of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. The four – Aleksei Gerasimov, Fizuli Askarov, Yevgeny Petry and Andrei Dedkov – are accused of violating Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code ("organising activity by a banned religious or other association"), which carries a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment. The association concerned is "Nurdzhular", which Nursi readers insist does not exist. Two Nursi readers in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, Ziyavdin Dapayev and Ruslan Bulatov, are being investigated under Article 282.2, Part 2 of the Criminal Code ("participation in a banned religious extremist organisation"). Many Russian translations of Nursi's works feature on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, making their distribution a criminal offence.
26 February 2010
RUSSIA: Back to the future for Jehovah's Witnesses?
Just weeks after Russia's Supreme Court outlawed their literature as extremist, Jehovah's Witnesses are encountering at least ten times the level of state harassment across the country as before the ban, their press secretary has estimated to Forum 18 News Service. Since 8 December, they have catalogued over 30 incidents, including searches, threats and brief detentions. So alarmed are the Jehovah's Witnesses by the growing similarity of their predicament with their repression during the Soviet period that their entire 160,000-strong Russian membership will today (26 February) begin distributing 12 million copies of "Is History Repeating Itself?", a leaflet refuting the religious extremism allegations against them. In December, Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman informed President Dmitry Medvedev of an upsurge in citizens' complaints about religious freedom violations, but his only response was to check if they came from "non-traditional" confessions. Mikhail Odintsov of the Ombudsman's Office declined to answer Forum 18's questions. Readers of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi – whose works are also banned - similarly note increased state scrutiny, with raids by the police and FSB security service on dozens of homes in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan and Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in the past two months.
23 February 2010
RUSSIA: Three more readers of Muslim theologian detained
Following simultaneous raids on 20 homes in Krasnoyarsk on the night of 16-17 February by Russia's FSB security service, three readers of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi were detained for some 36 hours, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. They and a fourth Nursi reader could now face religious extremism charges carrying a maximum three-year jail term. "These accusations of extremism are incomprehensible and ridiculous," Aleksei Gerasimov, one of those detained, told Forum 18 after his detention. "On the contrary, the Islam we're studying teaches deeper knowledge of the Most High, honesty, sincerity, how to help people and become a better person." Akhmad Kolobayev, the detained Muslims' lawyer, told Forum 18 that no formal charges have yet been brought, and he thought that court proceedings might not begin for some time. The Krasnoyarsk events follow similar raids and detentions in Dagestan in December 2009. Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are also reporting a significant increase in brief police detentions since December.
28 January 2010
RUSSIA: Muslims raided, more Jehovah's Witness literature banned
Following an 11 December raid on a Makhachkala flat by "a whole busload" of armed and masked rapid reaction police led by a Dagestani FSB security service investigator, some 30 readers of the works of the late Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi were taken for questioning. Six homes of other Nursi readers in Dagestan were raided. Ziyavdin Dapayev, one of two of those held who could face criminal charges of participating in a banned religious extremist organisation, lamented to Forum 18 News Service that Nursi readers are becoming "victims to the incompetence of some employees of the law enforcement agencies". Dagestan FSB told Forum 18 no one could answer questions about the investigation. Nursi's works have been banned in Russia, despite a 2007 Turkish government statement that they "contain no statements whatsoever aimed at inciting religious hatred". Moscow Public Prosecutor's Office confirmed to Forum 18 that it had issued an extremism warning to Ravil Gainutdin, chair of the Russia-wide Council of Muftis, for inviting a Turkish Nursi follower to a Moscow conference. Meanwhile, Jehovah's Witnesses have lost their latest appeal against an extremism ban on more of their publications.
15 January 2010
RUSSIA: Supreme Court ban on Jehovah's Witnesses begins to bite
Although 34 Jehovah's Witness publications described as extremist have not yet been added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, public prosecutors in several Russian regions have begun issuing extremism warnings to Jehovah's Witness communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Also, in what is thought to be the first instance in post-Soviet Russia of extended detention in connection with sharing beliefs, two Jehovah's Witnesses informally accused of distributing extremist literature in Bryansk Region were detained for six days for "petty hooliganism". Mikhail Odintsov of the office of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman told Forum 18 – in what he stressed was his personal view – that there was a realistic chance Jehovah's Witnesses could appeal successfully to President Dmitry Medvedev to defend their rights, if complaints were formulated in purely legal terms. He characterised the overall situation as "threatening", maintaining that "reverse Sovietisation" was taking place. "We are returning to the ideological roots of state dislike of certain religious organisations," he remarked. "These people [Jehovah's Witnesses] have no defence. What defence do they have when a court is negatively predisposed towards them, pro-Orthodox, believes that one religion should be protected from another?"
8 December 2009
RUSSIA: 34 Jehovah's Witness publications and one congregation banned
Russia's Supreme Court has today (8 December) upheld a Rostov-on-Don Regional Court ruling finding 34 Jehovah's Witness publications "extremist", ensuring that their distribution will be banned nationwide. The Supreme Court also upheld, as part of the ruling, the liquidation of the Taganrog Jehovah's Witness congregation as extremist. The congregation's property will now be confiscated, and it will be banned from meeting as a community. Asked why the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision, the secretary for the Supreme Court's Civil Cases Division, who would not give her name, told Forum 18 News Service: "The Jehovah's Witnesses are extremist." Asked if they have for example killed anyone, she responded: "To a certain extent, yes." The court ruling opens the way for the distribution of all Jehovah's Witness literature in Russia to be banned in future. Grigory Martynov of the Jehovah's Witnesses expressed disappointment, telling Forum 18 that "the decision was taken very quickly and they gave no explanation as to why they upheld the Rostov decision." He also stated that they will consider whether to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.
23 November 2009
RUSSIA: Proposed missionary restrictions - a paper tiger?
Justice Ministry proposed amendments to the 1997 Religion Law and the Administrative Violations Code imposing draconian controls on religious activity have provoked protest from religious communities and have now been removed from the Ministry's website. Andrei Sebentsov, secretary of the government's Commission for Issues Concerning Religious Associations, told Forum 18 News Service that the parliamentary Religion Committee has refused to consider the proposals, leading the Ministry to approach the parliamentary Security Committee. He says the proposed draft is "so clearly against the demands of the Constitution that the presidential administration would hardly support it." Yet Muslims, Old Believers, Protestants and some Russian Orthodox remain concerned. The draft echoes proposals the Ministry made unsuccessfully in 2006, but Vitali Vlasenko of the Baptist Union believes the threat of their adoption is now greater, since "society is scared by religious extremism".
23 October 2009
RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witnesses to be banned?
Following more than 500 check-ups on Jehovah's Witness communities across Russia, prosecutors in several regions are going to court to have various of their publications declared extremist. This would see their distribution banned in Russia and cripple the organisation, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah's Witnesses believe state agencies want a total ban. Rostov-on-Don Regional Court ruled 34 texts extremist on 11 September, the first court to do so. The court ruling, seen by Forum 18, claims that the sentence "true Christians do not celebrate Christmas or other festivals based on false religious ideas" represents incitement to religious hatred, while another publication which quoted Tolstoy – described as "an opponent of Orthodoxy" - created "a negative attitude towards the Russian Orthodox Church". The court also declared a local congregation extremist and ordered it liquidated. The Jehovah's Witnesses have appealed to Russia's Supreme Court. Customs continue to seize their books. The public prosecutor who raided a meeting in St Petersburg alleging "extremist activity" was going on refused to talk to Forum 18: "You could be some kind of spy."
2 October 2009
RUSSIA: "You have the law, we have orders"
Two Baptist preachers in Russia's Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad have been fined after their community "sang psalms and spoke about Christ" in the street, they have told Forum 18 News Service. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in the Kaliningrad police told Forum 18 that all public gatherings – whether political or religious – must be authorised by the municipal authorities in advance. "But they didn't have permission and they had no intention of getting it!" he remarked, clearly irritated by the Baptists' actions. Asked why permission is necessary, the source replied, "That's the law in Russia!" Aleksandr Legotin, one of the two Baptists, insisted that, as the Baptists held a religious service and not a demonstration, the legal requirement to notify the authorities in advance should not have applied. "We follow the law very carefully," he told Forum 18. "And under the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] we have the right to freedom of conscience – the law should be doing the opposite, protecting us from such arbitrariness."
23 July 2009
RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness lawyers deported for defending extremism cases?
Four lawyers defending Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported since March, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The deportations of the two American and two Canadian lawyers seriously hinder the Witnesses' attempts to defend themselves in seven local court cases seeking to ban their literature as extremist. Also, a recent police detention allegedly involving torture and a raid on a Sunday service – after which one worshipper had a miscarriage and another was sent to a children's shelter – suggest the law enforcement agencies continue to view Jehovah's Witnesses as religious extremists even without a ban. A leaflet by a traditional Mari-El pagan priest is among the latest additions to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, meaning it is banned throughout Russia. The priest, Vitali Tanakov, has told Forum 18 that he thinks the strongly ecological nature of the Mari religious worldview makes it a threat to those who wish to exploit the republic's timber resources. Recently interviewed in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of Mari El, he suggested that whereas many strive to become rich and happy through business, the Mari faith teaches that "you won't become happy by becoming a businessman, by felling the forests."
16 July 2009
RUSSIA: Raids continue as doubts grow over Nursi ban
Russian customs officials, Prosecutor's Office officials and FSB security service officers are continuing to seize works by Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, most recently in Siberia and Bashkortostan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Russian translations of many of Nursi's works have been banned in Russia, as they have been placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Yet local state officials in Tatarstan maintained to Forum 18 that federal accusations against a Tatar-Turkish lycee in the regional capital Kazan that it was linked with "religious extremism" were unfounded. Tatarstan's senior religious affairs official Renat Valiullin also told Forum 18 that the Moscow court decision banning Nursi translations was taken "without any strong expert analysis". Lycee headteacher Marat Fattiyev, who was accused of being a Nursi follower without his having read any of Nursi's works, suggested to Forum 18 that the move followed false information passed to the FSB about the Turkish ultra-nationalist Ergenekon conspiracy. Federal officials have not yet replied to Forum 18's questions about why Tatarstan officials do not agree with the federal claims of "religious extremism".
9 July 2009
RUSSIA: Any school of Islam, as long as it's Hanafi
Not only do leaders of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Tatarstan support a local monopoly over all Muslim activity in the traditionally majority Muslim republic, so too do state officials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Renat Valiullin, the republic's top religious affairs official, acknowledged to Forum 18 that a requirement in Tatarstan's 1999 Religion Law that all Muslim religious organisations be subject to the Directorate had been struck down as unconstitutional. Yet he insisted all Muslim organisations must be subject to it "so as to keep the argument" of the 1999 Law, adding that they must also be of the Hanafi school of Islam. Kazan City Government religious affairs official Irek Arslanov spoke to Forum 18 approvingly of the Directorate's monthly meetings with the city's imams where "ideology is explained to them". Imam Ildus Faizov of the Directorate's Propaganda Department defended "good censorship" of Islamic thought, including the federal ban on many works of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. One Muslim told Forum 18 some Muslim women locally are afraid to wear the hijab and men are afraid to attend mosque for fear of being branded "religious extremists".
8 July 2009
RUSSIA: Detained and tortured for faith, Tatar Muslims claim
Dina Amirova, on trial in Tatarstan's capital Kazan, insists that she and her husband have been targeted as devout Muslims trying to find out more about their faith, after leaflets of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir political movement were found among a wide range of Islamic-related literature at her home. She told Forum 18 News Service she and her husband have never had personal contact with any of the group's members. Her husband Renat Amirov told Forum 18 he was arrested, beaten and tortured to try to force him to testify against 12 local Muslims on trial for alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir membership. From the town of Elabuga, Taliya Gabdulkhakova insists charges including murder and religious extremism against her son and three other relatives have been fabricated. "My son obeyed Russian laws and paid taxes – he just stood out because he never missed a prayer time, wore a beard and wasn't dressed like everybody else," she told Forum 18. Her son has alleged "medieval torture" against the four while in detention, including heavy beatings, threatened rape and execution. Irek Arslanov, who is responsible for relations with religious organisations at Kazan City Government, dismissed suggestions to Forum 18 that torture and intimidation are practised.
2 June 2009
RUSSIA: Widespread protests at new "Inquisition"
Widespread protests by Russian religious communities and human rights defenders followed the appointment of "anti-cultists" and controversial scholars of Islam to a state body with sweeping powers to investigate religious organisations, Forum 18 News Service notes. Particularly striking opposition to the Justice Ministry's Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis has come from the Old Believers, a group not directly threatened. They view the body's re-organisation as "a direct threat to the constitutional rights of the citizens of Russia to freedom of confession [which] could serve as a dangerous catalyst for inter-confessional strife, a prologue to the beginning of struggle against religious dissent, oppression of believers, the restoration of religious censorship and inquisition." The Old Believers have called for the complete abolition of the Council. The Justice Ministry has failed to respond to Forum 18's questions, including why the Council is needed. The state's position is not unanimously supportive of the Council, and if the authorities heed the widespread protests its activity may be significantly curtailed.
27 May 2009
RUSSIA: Notorious "anti-cultists" on new "Inquisition"
Fears by religious minorities about the Justice Ministry's reconstituted Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis have been exacerbated by the Minister's choice of members, Forum 18 News Service notes. The chair is Aleksandr Dvorkin, Russia's most prominent "anti-cult" activist, who has described the faith of charismatic Protestants as "a crude magical-occult system with elements of psychological manipulation". In a Moscow courtroom in 2004, Forum 18 observed Dvorkin congratulate the Public Prosecutor's Office representative who successfully pushed for the ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses' Moscow organisation. Fellow Council member Aleksandr Kuzmin wrote a leaflet alleging that "Krishnaites are involved in the drugs and arms trade" and "are prepared to murder on religious grounds", and that "beatings and rapes of teenagers in closed children's homes are attributed to Krishnaites." A Siberian court declared the leaflet extremist in March 2009. Another Council member has urged Muslims to burn Islamic books banned as extremist. Forum 18 asked the Justice Ministry whether Council members will have the right to speak for the Ministry and whether Kuzmin will be excluded from the Council. The Ministry has not yet responded.
26 May 2009
RUSSIA: A new "Inquisition"
The powers of the Russian Justice Ministry's Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis were considerably widened in February 2009, allowing it to investigate the activity, doctrines, leadership decisions, literature and worship of any registered religious organisation and recommend action to the Ministry. The subsequent appointment of renowned "anti-cultists" and controversial scholars of Islam to the Council – and the choice of prominent "anti-cultist" Aleksandr Dvorkin as its chair - have led a wide range of religious representatives to liken the Council to a new "inquisition", Forum 18 News Service notes. If the Council is given free rein, it is likely to recommend harsh measures against certain religious organisations. At the Council's first meeting, Dvorkin named the Russian Bible Society as a possible target for investigation, but its executive director told Forum 18 no action has followed. Forum 18 asked the Justice Ministry how many commissions it is likely to give the Council each year, whether the Ministry will automatically accept its conclusions and, if not, who will decide. However, the Ministry has so far failed to respond.
28 April 2009
RUSSIA: The battle with "religious extremism" - a return to past methods?
A turning point in the Russian authorities' drive against "religious extremism" came in 2007, when two previous unsuccessful attempts to ban Islamic literature were finally successful, as this analysis – the second part of a presentation given at a seminar at the Kennan Institute in Washington DC – notes. Also initiated that year was the Federal List of Extremist Materials, which now contains 367 items. Anyone who distributes these works can be fined. Alongside genuinely extremist material are some works Forum 18 News Service has seen which appear to contain no calls to extremism. "The Personality of a Muslim", a popular work among Russian Muslims, was deemed extremist in August 2007 and several distributors of it have since been fined. Indigenous pagans and Jehovah's Witnesses are facing accusations of extremism on the basis of their literature, even though none of it is on the banned list. The appointment of Aleksandr Dvorkin, a prominent "anti-cult" activist, to head the Justice Ministry's Expert Religious Studies Council has alarmed those who hoped officials would curb the widespread use of extremism accusations.
27 April 2009
RUSSIA: How the battle with "religious extremism" began
The formation of Russia's policy towards one particular form of extremism – religious extremism – may have begun hesitantly, Forum 18 News Service notes. But the June 2002 Extremism Law eventually led to a wideranging crackdown on religious literature the authorities deemed "extremist", as this analysis – the first part of a presentation given at a seminar at the Kennan Institute in Washington DC – notes. In late 2002, literature confiscated from a mosque community in an FSB security service and Prosecutor's Office raid led to the first known warning for religious literature under the Law. Yet convictions – often handed down in secret and based on literary analyses of confiscated books – soon mounted. Mainstream Muslim works – such as Russian translations of the writings of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi – were banned outright, even though they contain no calls to commit crimes. A typical expert analysis suggested that Nursi's work – banned by a Moscow court in 2007 – is extremist because its reference to "the sword of strong faith" might lead to "defensive behaviour".
19 March 2009
KAZAKHSTAN: Drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre closed down
State actions against freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan continue, Forum 18 News Service has found. Latest actions include the closure of a Christian-run rehabilitation centre for alcoholics and drug-addicts, and continuing prosecutions, fines and property confiscations against Baptists for holding unregistered worship services. Officials' "narrow interpretation" of the law in relation to the rehabilitation centre was condemned by Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee. "Non-commercial organisations must be social organisations, religious organisations or political parties and officials insist that all three be kept separate," she told Forum 18. "But this is absurd, as everything that is not forbidden should be allowed." Meanwhile, Elizaveta Drenicheva, a missionary for the Unification Church (commonly known as the Moonies) has been freed after two months' imprisonment. She had been sentenced to two years in jail for sharing her beliefs, and her criminal record has not been cancelled. Officials are also continuing to try to pressure the Hare Krishna commune near Almaty to leave its site.
13 March 2009
RUSSIA: Nationwide strike at Jehovah's Witnesses
Public prosecutors across Russia have conducted more than 500 check-ups on local Jehovah's Witness communities since mid-February. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service they believe prosecutors are "trawling" for information to shut down their headquarters in St Petersburg and over 400 dependent organisations. "Nothing else makes sense," their representative Yaroslav Sivulsky told Forum 18. Documents seen by Forum 18 show the nationwide sweep was ordered by First Assistant General Public Prosecutor Aleksandr Bastrykin. Forum 18 asked the General Prosecutor's Office in Moscow why the investigations were ordered and asked for a copy of the instruction to local prosecutors, but so far has received no response. In its instruction ordering check-ups locally, the Moscow Regional Public Prosecutor's Office complained that the Jehovah's Witnesses' missionary activity and rejection of military service and blood transfusions "provoke a negative attitude towards its activity from the population and traditional Russian confessions". Prosecutors have been investigating the St Petersburg Jehovah's Witness headquarters since 2004 but have failed to find any grounds to close it down.
2 March 2009
RUSSIA: Who should historical religious property belong to?
Several current cases show how the allocation of historical worship property can prove a minefield for the state, Forum 18 News Service notes. In Moscow Region, an Old Believer parish is being pushed out of a church to which it has no historical claim but has used for over 60 years: even Church representatives have different views on its fate. In Lipetsk, Baptists continue their fight for compensation for their renovation of an Orthodox church given them by the Soviet authorities and now claimed by the local Orthodox diocese. In Suzdal, the authorities have confiscated 11 churches and 2 bell-towers – all cultural monuments – from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, a competitor to the Moscow Patriarchate. Officials "must think of the consequences of hasty or wrong decisions" when transferring such property, Mikhail Odintsov, a state human rights official, told Forum 18. A draft law on the transfer of historical religious property would reignite the whole restitution issue and place the Russian Orthodox Church among Russia's top landowners.
26 February 2009
RUSSIA: Governor orders church land grab
Apparently unaware that he was giving a public address, the governor of Kaluga Region has ordered that land legally owned by Word of Life Pentecostal Church be seized by "any" means, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The order, made at a recent local government meeting broadcast live via the regional administration's website, has been captured and posted on the internet site YouTube by a church member. No official was prepared to comment to Forum 18. Word of Life has complained of frequent bureaucratic harassment ever since its land and building became an impediment to shopping mall construction plans in Kaluga. In Udmurtia, Philadelphia Pentecostal Church is the latest congregation to report similar bureaucratic obstruction, which state officials usually insist is lawful and routine. Such problems are usually encountered by Protestants, who are more likely to have unsecured worship premises.
24 February 2009
AZERBAIJAN: Literature censorship for export also?
Azerbaijan's wide-ranging religious literature censorship system has started to affect the export of such literature, Forum 18 News Service has found. Customs authorities recently confiscated Christian religious literature from Azerbaijani citizens leaving Azerbaijan. No mention is made in Azerbaijan's laws of censorship of religious literature taken out of the country. Similarly, Forum 18 was told by a customs official that customs regulations are also silent on this point. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, speaking after the confiscation of Muslim literature, told Forum 18 that "our society doesn't need books that don't suit our laws and our beliefs." He claimed that unspecified religious literature could cause unspecified "social harm and possibly inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence." Jehovah's Witnesses have filed three lawsuits specifically against the censorship system, which, they point out, is a violation of the right to religious freedom as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party.
17 February 2009
UZBEKISTAN: Muslims and Christians latest victims of religious literature crackdown
Uzbekistan continues to attack the sharing of information and opinion in religious literature, Forum 18 News Service notes. In the most recent known cases, contributors to two Islamic religious periodicals – Irmoq (Spring) and Yetti Iqlim (Seven Climates) – are facing criminal charges, allegedly for distributing information on the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. Obiddin Makhmudov of Uzbekistan's state Agency of Press and Information told Forum 18 that "I just found out yesterday from the national TV channel that the magazine's [Irmoq's] staff are suspected of having ties with a banned religious organisation." Baptists are being punished for distributing religious literature free-of-charge, in one case being questioned for seven hours without food or water. A different Baptist has been fired from his job as an electrician, after the NSS secret police and ordinary police confiscated his religious literature from his mother-in-law's flat. Asked by Forum 18 why police raided the flat, Police Inspector Alisher Umarov claimed they were "allowed" to do passport control "anywhere and anytime."
16 January 2009
RUSSIA: Banned "extremist" religious literature – who's next?
Although no Jehovah's Witness publication has been deemed "extremist" under Russia's 2002 Extremism Law, in the past two weeks police in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk have detained 14 Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing their tracts, Forum 18 News Service has found. Two of their local communities have already been warned, while a local investigation continues into whether Jehovah's Witness literature is extremist. The region's FSB security service has tried unsuccessfully to have a local Jehovah's Witness lawyer disbarred, which would prevent him from defending their community. Courts in two other Russian regions are also considering cases against Jehovah's Witness literature. Works deemed extremist by even a local court may not be distributed anywhere in Russia. A Moscow chain of bookstores was fined in December 2008 for distributing a non-violent Muslim title, the second fine in Russia for selling the work. Prosecutors have also investigated a Russian Orthodox website that had posted robust criticism of Islam. However, a draft Law prepared by the General Prosecutor's Office to make anti-extremism measures "more effective" was withdrawn from parliament in December 2008.
18 December 2008
RUSSIA: Chill begins to bite for Moscow Pentecostals
As the temperature in Moscow dips below zero, one of the city's largest Pentecostal churches meets for worship in a marquee on a rough patch of land in an outlying suburb. "We've nowhere else to go," Bakur Azaryan, Emmanuel Church's assistant pastor, explained to Forum 18 News Service. The land is tied to a former workers' club bought by Emmanuel seven years ago. But as the local authorities have still not drawn up the Church's land rights, it cannot use or reconstruct the building, gutted in a suspected arson attack in 2007. In April 2008, Emmanuel lost access to rented premises apparently due to state pressure – a familiar complaint by Moscow Protestant communities. A local official maintained to Forum 18 that Emmanuel may in fact use or reconstruct its building, but this was countered by a more senior Moscow official. Konstantin Blazhenov also insisted to Forum 18 that the land rights issue is being resolved but is just taking "a long time". Without stable premises, Emmanuel cannot licence its seminary, which the Justice Ministry this month tried to dissolve for being unlicensed.
18 December 2008
RUSSIA: Who can and cannot conduct religious education?
The seminary of Moscow's Emmanuel Pentecostal Church cannot gain a licence as it does not have stable premises, Forum 18 News Service has found. The seminary is one of 22 religious organisations on a Justice Ministry list whose liquidation has been sought through the courts. The Church itself has faced obstruction from local officials in attempting to use or reconstruct its building, and the seminary is one of a few religious organisations on the Justice Ministry list which is not defunct or otherwise obsolete. Ten of these organisations are Moscow-based religious educational organisations listed as liable for liquidation, apparently for unlicensed educational activity. Two of the 22 religious organisations decided to dissolve themselves: the Presbyterian Christian Theological Academy and the Institute of Contemporary Judaism. However, four others in the list have successfully challenged immediate liquidation. The latest update of a separate Justice Ministry list of centralised religious organisations slated for liquidation now features only 19 of the original 56 organisations, Forum 18 notes.
9 December 2008
RUSSIA: Why weren't violent church attackers convicted?
None of the alleged participants in two violent attacks on a Pentecostal church – by three people in the first attack and eight people in the second attack – has gained either a criminal or administrative record for the attacks, Forum 18 News Service has found. Asked why, given the seriousness of the attacks, no criminal case had been launched and no criminal trial had taken place, a senior investigatory official responded: "That's your subjective view." Only one attacker – Oleg Sumarukov - appears to have had any form of official action taken against him. However, a local newspaper thought to have encouraged the April 2008 attacks was given an official warning. During the attacks, slogans such as "Sectarians are everywhere!" and "You must be destroyed!" were shouted, parishoners were threatened with a pistol, the pastor was beaten up and threats were made to murder him, and a threat of an arson attack on the church was made. The attackers also tried to intimidate the church not to call the police. There have, however, been no attacks on the church since, and local police "even visit from time to time to check we're OK," a Pentecostal told Forum 18.
28 November 2008
RUSSIA: "Soon there won't be a single Baptist church in Lipetsk!"
Baptists in the town of Lipetsk south-east of Moscow complain that the authorities are using "a bureaucratic way" to restrict their activity. Two of their local congregations have lost legal status for failing to file tax returns on time, a claim Pastor Vladimir Boyev vigorously rejected to Forum 18 News Service. The tax office refused to speak to Forum 18. One of the congregations has been using a former Orthodox church for nearly twenty years and without legal status cannot now defend its interests in court as the Orthodox diocese wants the building back. The third has lost its rented place of worship it has used for nearly twenty years amid redevelopment plans. The court claimed it had invited the congregation to attend a hearing to set compensation, but the Baptists complain they never received an invitation. Lipetsk's regional religious affairs official, Olga Fyodorova, told Forum 18 the Baptists are deliberately rejecting possible solutions "in order to aggravate the situation". Asked how the Baptists would defend themselves in court after losing their legal status, she responded: "That's their problem!"
12 November 2008
RUSSIA: 56 major religious organisations to be shut down?
Following the surprise mid-October publication of a list of 56 centralised religious organisations scheduled for liquidation, apparently for not submitting correct accounts, Russia's Justice Ministry has refused to reveal what stage any plans for liquidation are at and precisely why the 56 organisations are on the list. Old Believer, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, Protestant, Nestorian, Muslim and Buddhist organisations are among those listed. None of 15 of the named organisations Forum 18 News Service spoke to had received any warning from the Ministry before the list's publication. Two organisations were found by Forum 18 to be defunct. None of the 56 listed organisations are from the Moscow Patriarchate, even though 309 of 562 centralised religious organisations belong to it. Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice claimed to Forum 18 that Moscow Patriarchate organisations were told in advance how to correct their submissions. Fr Vsevolod Chaplin of the Moscow Patriarchate confirmed that the Ministry had made "certain comments" on their organisations' accounts, but was unable to say when this was. A Justice Ministry official told the Adventist Church: "the aim of the list is 'to call religious organisations to discipline'."
24 October 2008
RUSSIA: Police search publisher of controversially banned Islamic book
The Moscow-based publisher of "The Personality of a Muslim" by Arab theologian Muhammad ali Al-Hashimi, placed in December 2007 on the list of banned extremist literature, is now facing criminal prosecution. Aslambek Ezhayev told Forum 18 News Service the Economic Crimes Police searched the publishing department offices at Moscow's Islamic University for six hours on 8 October. "But it was clear from the beginning that they weren't really looking for anything financial." Computers and books were seized. The accounts were then deemed in order, but the materials passed to the Prosecutor's Office for the criminal case. The Prosecutor's Office refused to talk to Forum 18. Ezhayev complains of the way books are put on the banned list by local courts without the possibility of challenging their verdicts: "a book can't defend itself". Andrei Sebentsov, vice-chair of the government's Commission for Issues Concerning Religious Associations, told Forum 18 federal officials cannot act: "The executive cannot interfere with the judiciary." Fighting two separate attempts to ban their literature, the Jehovah's Witnesses are among the latest targets of the widening religious extremism allegations.
1 October 2008
RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, October 2008
The gravest current threat to freedom of religion or belief in Russia comes from the federal government's approach to combating religious extremism, Forum 18 News Service finds in its survey analysis of religious freedom. In the wake of the 2002 Extremism Law, moderate Muslim literature has been outlawed as inciting religious extremism - despite the reasoning behind this being questionable. This has led to harassment and sometimes prosecution of alleged authors, distributors or simply readers. The authorities have subsequently begun to level religious extremism charges against other confessions, including traditional pagans, Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baptist. Some religious communities continue to complain of restriction through petty bureaucracy, such as the loss of legal status for unlicensed educational work or not engaging in financial activity, even though the law is ambiguous on these points. Long-running problems – such as state disruption of religious events, obstruction of access to and retention of property for worship and bureaucratic visa problems for foreign religious personnel - persist.
22 September 2008
RUSSIA: Unregistered Baptists pressured
Baptists in different parts of Russia have experienced state harassment in recent months, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This has included interrogation by the FSB security service, defamatory state television coverage, a warning for home worship and a fine for preaching in public. The congregations concerned all belong to the Baptist Council of Churches, whose communities do not register with state authorities. In one example, two FSB security service officers in Kurgan Region separately questioned two Yurgamysh church members for four hours about internal church matters. Regional state TV later broadcast a programme on the church called "Criminal News". This made unsubstantiated allegations, such as that children from the church are "retarded, downtrodden, dress differently from other [school] pupils and often have to repeat the year," and that church members live off illegal business. The region's parliament is to consider proposals "to protect citizens from religious sects" on 30 September. Proposals include compulsory notification of the existence of an unregistered religious group and compulsory registration for communities with ten or more members.
10 September 2008
RUSSIA: Were religious organisations wrongly de-registered?
The vast majority of the hundreds of Russian religious organisations to have had their legal status annulled in recent years are believed to be defunct. But several – especially religious education institutions – believe their loss of legal status is wrong and are fighting to retain it. Nine religious educational organisations are slated to lose legal status in Moscow for unlicensed educational activity, including Torat Khaim yeshiva (Jewish school). "Things are getting stricter and stricter," the director Iosif Susaikov told Forum 18 News Service. However, education has continued there. However, Good Shepherd Baptist Church in the Black Sea port of Tuapse had its liquidation cancelled by a court in May 2008. Officials had stripped it of registration for failing to file a tax-return, a common reason for de-registration. The church argued that it had no financial transactions so did not need to file one. Despite the abolition of the Federal Registration Service in July and the transfer of its duties back to the Justice Ministry, Ministry officials were unable to tell Forum 18 who – in addition to the tax inspectorate – has the power to initiate liquidations of religious organisations.
2 September 2008
RUSSIA: Did Kabardino-Balkaria authorities stoke Islamist threat?
The authorities in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria have deliberately inflated the threat from Islamic extremism, local people in the capital, Nalchik, have told Forum 18 News Service. "If only five per cent of the population understand Islam (..) you can't go out on the streets and create an Islamic state," one local Muslim pointed out. By exaggerating the threat, they suggested, local officials are able to secure anti-terrorism funding from the Kremlin, divert public attention away from the republic's systemic corruption and poor economic performance, and keep people too afraid to protest. A former contender for the Kabardino-Balkaria presidency has documented the questionable speed with which the alleged Islamist threat appeared in the republic. Local Muslims claim the state persecuted ordinary mosque-goers on the pretext of fighting Islamic extremism, but local state representatives insist the threat is genuine. "There are still people trying to destabilise the situation with extremist ideology," one official dealing with religious affairs assured Forum 18.
28 August 2008
RUSSIA: Did Kabardino-Balkaria authorities turn peaceful Muslims into terrorists?
Sustained and brutal state persecution of Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria has pushed some into terrorist activity, Forum 18 News Service has been told in the regional capital Nalchik. Two popular Islamic preachers now wanted by police in connection with a failed 2005 uprising in the capital used to advocate non-violence, local Muslims said. Reports suggest that at least one began launching armed attacks against the state authorities by late 2004. Republican officials – who have denied reports of abuse – claimed to Forum 18 that the pair were conducting "military-methodological preparations" from the beginning, but could not be convicted due to insufficient evidence.
26 August 2008
RUSSIA: Religious dispute fuels state oppression of Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims
Conflict between Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria led to the local authorities' repressive policy towards one party, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Returning from Islamic study abroad in the 1990s, young Kabardin and Balkars insisted upon the removal of what they learnt to be corrupt local customs. While criticism could centre on trivial details – such as the wearing of a hat during prayer – "you only need to strike a match to light a fire," one local Muslim pointed out to Forum 18. Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate and the older generation responded to the younger Muslims' demands by branding them "Wahhabi" extremists. In part because they saw adherents of stricter Islam as a threat to local traditional and political culture, the republic's authorities backed these claims and instigated a brutal crackdown against them.
22 August 2008
RUSSIA: Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims still afraid
Little has changed for practising Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria since a state crackdown on alleged Islamic extremists culminated in a failed 2005 uprising, Forum 18 News Service has been told. The capital of what is a traditionally Muslim region still has only two functioning mosques. In violation of Russia's federal Religion Law, organised Islamic activity is possible only within the republic's Muslim Spiritual Directorate. Mosque-goers report that they are still watched by the state or turned in to police by older worshippers, forcing many young Muslims to pray at home. "The Soviet times have come back," the widow of one remarked to Forum 18. Mufti Anas Pshikhachev defended police surveillance of mosques, telling Forum 18, "The state must know everything." State representatives have rejected allegations of abuse.
21 August 2008
RUSSIA: One Muslim's blighted life in Kabardino-Balkaria
Until 2004, Kabardian radio presenter Ali Pshigotyzhev enthusiastically spread Islam with the assistant directors of the Islamic Research Institute, the main rival to Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate. Then, at the height of the North Caucasus republic's crackdown on active Muslims and a few years before his retirement, he was sacked for religious reasons, he told Forum 18 News Service. "But praise be to Allah, now I can devote the rest of my life to studying and writing about Islam." Ali's son Zaur was similarly laid off from his police job in 2003, and wrongly convicted of distributing extremist literature and possession of firearms in 2004, his father insists. Zaur Pshigotyzhev was also detained and allegedly tortured following the 2005 uprising in the capital, Nalchik, but released due to numerous witness statements in his defence. Kabardino-Balkaria Public Prosecutor's Office has refused to comment to Forum 18.
20 August 2008
RUSSIA: Kabardino-Balkaria mosque-goers listed as extremist
Names of those detained or wanted for Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria were culled from "Wahhabi lists" – police records of regular mosque-goers, local Muslims have told Forum 18 News Service. The republic's late President, Valeri Kokov, in 2002 announced the compilation of a list of 400 Islamic extremists and the authorities' readiness "to take any measures against them, including physical elimination." At the top of the list were the three leaders of the main rival organisation to Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate, all of whom have since gone missing. A state representative denied the existence of the "Wahhabi lists" to Forum 18. The head of the Spiritual Directorate acknowledged to Forum 18 the possibility that some ordinary Muslims may have been targeted by police, but added that, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."
19 August 2008
RUSSIA: State persecution wrecked religious life, Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims claim
A sustained crackdown on Muslims by the local authorities in the traditionally Muslim North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria preceded the bloody uprising three years ago in the capital, Nalchik, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Local Muslims report mosque closures, arbitrary detentions and police brutality. "The police would keep rounding them up, beating them up, then throwing them out again," the mother of two young Muslims killed in the 2005 attack told Forum 18. State representatives have denied to Forum 18 that this was the case, while admitting that, "maybe some police spoke roughly, but it was interrogation, and interrogation isn't dancing." Contrary to the state's claims, local Muslims insist that mosques were not centres for extremist activity.
18 August 2008
RUSSIA: Detained and tortured for faith, Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims claim
Some young Muslims facing trial for a militant attack on the state security services in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria three years ago were in fact arrested due to their active faith, Forum 18 News Service has been told. As frequent mosque-goers, they and relatives say they were already listed as Islamic extremists by police, who used torture to extract confessions. These claims are "lies" and "rubbish", Forum 18 was told at the detention centre in Nalchik where they are currently held by that institution's assistant head. Unproven suspicions of Islamic militancy resulted in the arrest of one detainee, former Guantanamo Bay inmate Rasul Kudayev, his mother told Forum 18.
22 July 2008
RUSSIA: Is mass disruption to Jehovah's Witness congresses coordinated?
The authorities have prevented about eight Jehovah's Witness congresses from taking place so far this summer while about thirty have gone ahead despite official attempts to obstruct them, Marina Topuriya of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. The FSB security service, local administrations and Prosecutor's Offices have all been involved. Congresses in Kemerovo and Kirov due to have begun on 25 July are the latest to be abruptly cancelled. "We suspect it's co-ordinated, because everywhere the methods are the same," she noted. "It's difficult to say where the wind is blowing from. But we can see the results." The FSB security service in Moscow refused to discuss with Forum 18 their role in the cancellations, but an officer in Vladikavkaz denied that the FSB had obstructed the local Jehovah's Witness congress. A pending legal case in Sverdlovsk Region could see many Jehovah's Witness books and magazines – including "Watchtower" – declared extremist and banned. Acting Public Prosecutor Aleksei Almayev denied that this was a "witch hunt" and dismissed Jehovah's Witness fears that the magazine could be banned in its entirety. Religious freedom lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev shares the Jehovah's Witnesses' concerns. "I feel [the authorities] want to close down the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, though of course they physically couldn't do this."
17 July 2008
RUSSIA: What evidence that banned Islamic books are extremist?
The recently-released Buguruslan City Court decision banning 16 Islamic publications fails to identify which parts of the texts are extremist, Forum 18 News Service has found. The local ruling resulted in the titles being added to the national Federal List of Extremist Materials. Under the Extremism Law, the Criminal Code can be invoked so that anyone carrying out mass distribution, preparation or storage with the aim of mass distribution of the texts risks a five-year prison term. Handed a list of the titles and asked if any support terrorism, leading Islam specialist Aleksei Malashenko told Forum 18: "If you say this, then every book, including the Bible, may be called pro-terrorist. The problem is not the books, but one of commentary – how they are used." Forum 18 has read one of the banned publications, Muhammad Ali al-Hashimi's "The Personality of a Muslim". The book's sole emphasis is on kindness and generosity, including towards non-Muslims – but a criminal case has now been opened against the head of Moscow Islamic University's publishing department for distributing it. The chairman of Buguruslan City Court has declined to answer Forum 18's questions about his court's ruling.
14 July 2008
RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness tracts feared harmful in asbestos town
The court in the Urals town of Asbest chose not to consider a lawsuit accusing the Jehovah's Witnesses of distributing "extremist" religious literature, as an assessment by FSB security service specialists did not qualify as evidence, the town's acting Public Prosecutor Aleksei Almayev told Forum 18 News Service. However, he said a criminal investigation is continuing and an analysis of several Jehovah's Witness publications – including their magazine "Watchtower" - is being conducted by a local university. "And when we file suit again, we think the court will be more sympathetic." The Prosecutor's Office warning to Asbest's Jehovah's Witnesses claims the publications are "overtly, clearly and directly aimed at inciting hatred, propaganda of exclusivity and humiliation of human dignity on account of a person's attitude towards religion". It claims that the Jehovah's Witnesses' "aggression" will incite others to react to "blasphemous pronouncements on things they consider sacred". If found "extremist" by Asbest court, the publications will be added to the ever-lengthening Federal List of Extremist Materials, which already includes traditional Mari pagan and Muslim literature. Those distributing literature on this list anywhere in Russia risk a five-year prison term.
30 June 2008
RUSSIA: Reprieve for Methodist Sunday school – but for who else?
In a crucial development for religious organisations, Russia's Supreme Court on 10 June ruled that a Smolensk Regional Court decision dissolving a local Methodist church was "unlawful and without foundation". The Regional Court had dissolved the church for running a Sunday school without an education licence. Had the Supreme Court not overturned the earlier decision, "every religious organisation in Russia would have to be shut down for operating such schools," the church's lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky told Forum 18 News Service. The Supreme Court noted that the Sunday school falls outside both the 1992 Education Law and state education regulations, so does not require a state licence. But confusion persists over what type of religious educational activity requires a state licence, and some adult Bible schools are fighting liquidation on similar grounds. One such case has been sent to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but no admissibility decision has yet been made.
29 May 2008
RUSSIA: Are Turkish teachers, traditional pagans and Jehovah's Witnesses religious extremists?
Tatar-Turkish lycees, traditional Mari paganism, and Jehovah's Witnesses are all being officially accused of religious extremism in Russia, Forum 18 News Service has found. Tatarstan Public Prosecutor's Office has warned a Tatar-Turkish Lycee that Turkish teachers – who make up one quarter of the staff - are holding secret discussions with pupils about religion. Marat Fattiyev, the headteacher, insisted that "there is no basis whatsoever for these accusations." Fattiyev told Forum 18 that "the lycees are secular institutions – there isn't even any tuition about religion here." The case is linked to the earlier ban on works by moderate Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Traditional pagan beliefs in Mari-El also face religious extremism allegations, as well as a media ban on advertising centuries-old ploughing festival worship. Also suspecting extremist activity, the Public Prosecutor's Office in Rostov-on-Don has ordered its local offices "to investigate local communities of Jehovah's Witnesses and to consider filing applications for their liquidation." Levelling religious extremism charges against such disfavoured religious - and non-religious – groupings undermines the charges' reliability.
22 May 2008
BELARUS: "We are reclaiming our history as a land of religious freedom"
Concern is growing across Europe about the deterioration of freedom of conscience in Belarus. Few are aware, however, that Belarus was once a haven of religious freedom for people fleeing persecution in Western Europe. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Antoni Bokun, pastor of Minsk's John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, describes how Belarusians' historical experience has taught them that "religious freedom elevates our nation, whereas religious un-freedom leads to the darkest and most tragic consequences." In 1573 - almost 400 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Belarusians adopted one of Europe's first legal declarations upholding religious freedom for all, when many other European states executed people for their faith. Pastor Antoni maintains that it is this deep-rooted experience which lies behind today's campaign against religious freedom restrictions. "Inspired by our long history of freedom of conscience, Belarusians continue to work and hope for the day that our country will reclaim its heritage as a land of religious freedom." In 2007 Pastor Bokun spent three days in prison and was heavily fined for leading worship services.