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
18 May 2006
RUSSIA: Will southern Catholics win full rights to their churches?
Two southern Catholic parishes are unable to obtain official permission to use their new church buildings, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Priests in both parishes stressed, however, that worship has so far been unaffected, and that they do not believe Catholic ownership of the churches to be at stake. Religious organisations very often find it difficult to obtain official confirmation that their de facto complete houses of worship are fit for use, Natalya Gavrishova, a lawyer at the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice told Forum 18. Another problem for both Catholic parishes - in Rostov-on-Don and Sochi - is that changes to the Land Code have resulted in huge financial demands, which are a considerable burden for the parishes. Vitali Brezhnev, state Chief Specialist for Relations with Religious Organisations in Rostov-on-Don region, emphasised to Forum 18 that the authorities "bear no evil intent" towards Catholics and that bureaucracy has become more complicated: "Building my own house was an eight-month nightmare – and I'm a bureaucrat myself!"
18 May 2006
RUSSIA: Sochi Muslims without Mosque, Catholics hope for Chapel
In the Black Sea town of Sochi, close to the Georgian border, the authorities have persistently denied the Yasin Muslim community permission to construct a mosque, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The community has been trying to find a suitable site for 10 years but, "whenever I find somewhere, the [city] architectural department says that it's already sold, obstructed by pipes, or something else," Ravza Ramazanova, the organisation's chair, told Forum 18. The community's roughly 70 worshippers currently use three cramped cellar rooms – which Forum 18 has seen – to pray and study. Similarly, local Catholic priest Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski hopes that Sochi's bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 will assist plans for the construction of a Catholic chapel in the nearby town of Adler. This, he explained to Forum 18, was how the Catholic church in Sochi was built from 1995-97: "They were hoping to hold the Winter Olympics here in 2002." Forum 18 noted that the Russian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews and the New Apostolic Church all have prominent houses of worship in the Sochi area.
17 May 2006
RUSSIA: Step forward for Salvation Army, backward for Pentecostals
The Salvation Army's Russian national registration has been restored, but its Moscow city branch is still unregistered. "We're waiting on [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg," Territorial Commander Colonel Barry Pobjie told Forum 18 News Service. However, the Salvation Army does not face obstruction to its day-to-day Moscow activities, unlike Jehovah's Witnesses in the city, who sometimes face obstruction and are under a local court ban. In contrast, in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the Salvation Army has told Forum 18 that it has not had the registration difficulties faced in Moscow. "That didn't affect us at all," Captain Vladimir Tatiosov said, noting that the authorities support the Salvation Army's various social projects. Pentecostal Pastor Viktor Shvedov told Forum 18 that his church can provide social assistance to prisoners, but is unofficially barred from both helping local children's homes and conducting a March for Jesus through Rostov-on-Don city centre. Before 2005, Rostov-on-Don Pentecostals were able to provide clothes, toys and building materials to children's homes.
9 May 2006
UZBEKISTAN: Deported "for defending believers' rights"
Russian lawyer Kirill Kulikov has been barred from entering Uzbekistan to help local Jehovah's Witnesses with the numerous prosecutions and denial of registration to their communities they face, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Held at passport control on arrival at Tashkent airport early on 26 April, Kulikov was denied access to anyone, including the Russian Embassy, and forced to board a Moscow-bound flight that evening. "Entry to the Republic of Uzbekistan is closed," is the statement on his deportation document - the same wording used when Forum 18's correspondent was deported in 2005. "I am sure the reason for my deportation was the fact that I was defending believers' rights," Kulikov told Forum 18. He was deported a few days after three Turkmen Protestants, held when police raided a Protestant pastor's home in Urgench, were deported back to Turkmenistan, with stamps in their passports barring them also from future visits.
3 May 2006
RUSSIA: Religious work visa respite?
Catholics in southern Russia have told Forum 18 News Service it is getting easier for foreign Catholic priests to gain visas, citing the return to Russia of one of the eight Catholic clergy (including a bishop) barred since 1998. After being denied a visa in October 2004, Fr Janusz Blaut returned to his parish in Vladikavkaz last autumn, thanks to an invitation not from the parish but from the diocese in Saratov. Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski told Forum 18 in Sochi that Catholic priests in Krasnodar region – previously issued only three-month visas at a time – are now given one-year visas as elsewhere in southern Russia. Russia's Catholic Church, which was allowed no seminary in Soviet times, depends heavily on foreign clergy. Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and a Jew are also among the 55 known religious workers barred since 1998, though a handful have been allowed to return. A Pentecostal pastor in Rostov-on-Don told Forum 18 that far fewer foreign Protestant missionaries are now working locally than in the 1990s and they have to keep a low profile.
24 April 2006
RUSSIA: Muslim human rights activist linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir?
Mufti Ismagil Shangareyev, who heads the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Orenburg Region and the Moscow-based Islamic Human Rights Centre, has accused police of planting Hizb ut-Tahrir documents on him, after a search of his former Al-Furkan madrassah. "There's not even any sense in saying that they were planted – it's as clear as daylight," Shangareyev told Forum 18 News Service. His lawyer is Anatoli Pchelintsev of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, which stated that "the situation surrounding Ismagil Shangareyev "is a characteristic example of how the organs of the Interior Ministry and public prosecutors in various Russian regions subject Muslims to humiliation and undermine religious believers' trust in the authorities and the law." No formal charges have been brought against Shangareyev, who maintains that he does not and has never had any prohibited item in his apartment, car or office. He remains a witness in the criminal investigation opened after the discovery of the leaflets.
20 April 2006
RUSSIA: Literary analyses key to Hizb ut-Tahrir convictions
Analyses of publications has been a key element in criminal prosecutions brought against alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members, some of whom have been jailed, Forum 18 News Service has found. These have been conducted by Russian academics, including a former scientific atheism lecturer. Vitali Ponomarev of the human rights group Memorial has closely followed many of the trials, and he commented to Forum 18 that "if someone speaks about the caliphate or has the organisation's literature, that would automatically be considered proof of membership. (..) in most cases this isn't examined – normally there is just a witness who says that the accused gave them literature and asked them to join, or talked about the caliphate." However Georgi Engelhardt, who researches militant Islam at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18 that, for him, dissemination of Hizb ut-Tahrir literature was sufficient proof of membership. "It demands a certain sharing of views – the person is not a paid postman. You need to be quite motivated to be connected with Hizb ut-Tahrir."
18 April 2006
RUSSIA: Muslims reject Hizb ut-Tahir membership charges
Many of the 46 Muslims convicted of membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir – a party which claims to reject violence, but which is banned in Russia – have denied that they are members of the organisation, Forum 18 News Service has noted. Mars Gayanov, for example, maintains that an official account of a police conversation, which he signed, "was substituted for one in which I said I belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir." He stated that his family was targeted simply because "we are serious Muslims – our women wear the hijab, we don't drink alcohol, we are trying to live in accordance with Islam." Vitali Ponomarev of human rights group Memorial told Forum 18 that after the Beslan school siege "there was a need to find terrorists" and that, as the only large Muslim political organisation with a definable membership, Hizb ut-Tahrir "filled a vacuum." However, Georgi Engelhardt, a researcher into militant Islam at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18 that it was not possible to say whether evidence was planted: "The rumours about the reputation of the police remain rumours."
10 April 2006
RUSSIA: Ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir not to be challenged?
Following Russia's ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organisation, a Moscow-based human rights organisation has been given an official warning, for publishing a Muslim leader's statement questioning the ban's soundness, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to reject violence – though the sincerity of this rejection has been strongly questioned – and those charged in Russia with membership claim that they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Following appeals from Muslims charged with membership, the Memorial Human Rights Centre published an analysis of Hizb ut-Tahrir's brochures by Sheikh Nafigulla Ashirov, head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Asiatic Russia. Ashirov wrote that the brochures contained nothing that "could be viewed as calls to violence," but rather contained "a theoretical point of view about a path towards creating an Islamic society." The Moscow Public Prosecutor's Office then demanded the removal of Ashirov's analysis from Memorial's website. Memorial has complied with the demand, and has since filed a legal challenge against it.
10 April 2006
RUSSIA: Division over Hizb ut-Tahrir
In Russia, there is much disagreement over how to respond to Hizb ut-Tahrir, Forum 18 News Service has found. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned as antisemitic in Germany, and its Danish spokesman was given a suspended jail sentence for distributing racist propaganda. Rejecting democracy and core human rights such as religious freedom and purporting to reject violence, it has made violently antisemitic statements but not publicly called for specific terrorist acts. In Russia, 29 alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been given jail terms, following a Supreme Court decision banning the organisation as terrorist. Some, such as Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center, think that monitoring and targeted prosecution of concrete cases of incitement to violence or hatred would be a more effective response. Mukaddas Bibarsov, co-chairman of Russia's Council of Muftis, told Forum 18 that he had only met three sympathisers, suggesting that, instead of prison terms, the Muslim community should challenge such people, but lamented that "there is no [Muslim] intellectual force to explain that (..) everyone must live by the Constitution here."
20 March 2006
RUSSIA: Blocks to acquiring places of worship
A Muslim community in southern Russia has been told to demolish its mosque by 1 May, or it will be demolished by the local authority, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The dispute in the city of Astrakhan revolves around the renovation of a disused silage tower and two-storey annexe for use as a mosque – which a regional court has described along with the municipal administration as "unauthorised construction" – and the construction of a new mosque on the site. Approval for the mosque construction was given in 2001, but construction only started in 2005 after sufficient funds had been collected; this too must now be removed. The Muslims claim that there was a sudden change in attitude by the local authority following a visit by President Vladimir Putin. Hare Krishna and Buddhist religious communities in Moscow have also recently complained to Forum 18 about attempts to block their acquisition of places of worship. Permission to build a Hare Krishna temple was withdrawn amid hostility from a Russian Orthodox Archbishop, and a Tibetan Buddhist group lost their city centre premises due to a municipal construction project.
20 February 2006
RUSSIA: Official and unofficial challenges to Protestant property ownership
Due to begin today (20 February) in Moscow Arbitration Court is a case challenging the 1997 purchase by the charismatic Kingdom of God Church of a factory's social club to use as a church. The Federal Property Agency is seeking the return of its "illegally occupied" property, although as church lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky pointed out to Forum 18 News Service the church has a valid ownership certificate and the deadline for legal challenges runs out after three years. Elsewhere local officials have refused to register Protestant churches' ownership of land, arbitrarily rejected approved construction plans and refused to redesignate property for religious use. This suggests that local authorities deliberately use bureaucratic and/or unofficial methods to challenge Protestant property ownership. Mikhail Odintsov of Russia's human rights ombudsperson's office noted in early February that while in the past complaints about religious freedom violations came from foreign organisations, "now it is ours, our Protestants", with the number of complaints rising. "The percentage of complaints resolved is miserable, and attempts to do so stop, start and go on for years."
9 February 2006
COMMENTARY: A murder in Turkey, missionaries and Turkish-language books
Since the murder of Italian Roman Catholic priest Fr Andrea Santoro, much discussion has taken place within Turkey as to why this happened. This mainly centred on the controversy over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, and on Fr Andrea's work helping Russian women caught up in organised prostitution. But some discussion focused on the presence of Christian literature, in Turkish, at the back of Fr Andrea's church, notes Canon Ian Sherwood, an Irish priest who has been Anglican Chaplain in Istanbul http://web.archive.org/web/20080229064600/http://www.anglicanistanbul.com/ since 1989. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, he observes that even "liberal" voices see any attempt to express or commend Christianity in Turkish as suspiciously criminal, or at least intellectually unacceptable, and the liberty to distribute non-Islamic texts has been seen as unacceptable in Turkey for centuries. Canon Sherwood asks whether the time has now come to shed this misplaced suspicion and fear of a reasonable liberty.
8 February 2006
RUSSIA: Muslim rivalry behind criminal charges?
A Muslim activist in the southern region of Astrakhan, Mansur Shangareyev, has been charged with incitement to religious hatred by the regional authorities, but his lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, insists to Forum 18 News Service that the charges are "absurd and very crudely falsified." He strongly maintains that the conduct of a police and Interior Ministry search of Shangareyev's home, and the quality of the evidence presented in court, is highly questionable. Mukaddas Bibarsov, who heads the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, expressed his doubts about the charges to Forum 18, and has claimed that one form of state discrimination against Muslims in Russia is "the fabrication of criminal cases" and that Mansur Shangareyev's case was "one of the most flagrant examples." Well known human rights activists and Rabbi Zinovy Kogan of KEROOR have signed an open letter supporting this. Some observers believe that the reason for the charges is rivalry between Muslim Spiritual Directorates, as well as charges of extremism levelled against the Al-Furkan madrassah founded by Mansur Shangareyev's brother Ismagil Shangareyev.
25 January 2006
CENTRAL ASIA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan close doors to UN Special Rapporteur
Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.
19 December 2005
RUSSIA: Moscow Chief Rabbi returns, but expulsion explanations are contradictory
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow's Chief Rabbi, has returned to the Russian capital after having his one-year multi-entry visa revoked without explanation in September. Speaking to Forum 18, Rabbi Goldschmidt said that he now holds a one-month single-entry religious work visa supported by an invitation from "one of the Jewish communities." He confirmed to Forum 18 that he thus has to leave Russia again in early January, but that he hopes to re-enter holding a one-year multi-entry religious work visa. He declined to comment on the possible reasons for his September deportation, but the Russian Foreign Ministry indicate that the visa revocation may have been linked with Rabbi Goldschmidt's possession of a business rather than a religious work visa. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has firmly reported that Russia's Interior Ministry stated in an official letter that the visa revocation was "for national security reasons." Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of the International Jewish Newspaper, indicated to Forum 18 that Rabbi Goldschmidt's expulsion may have been connected with a property dispute.
30 November 2005
RUSSIA: When can Moscow Chief Rabbi return?
Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is still in Israel, after his Russian visa was annulled without explanation at a Moscow airport in September. But his wife, Dara, told Forum 18 News Service that he may return to the Russian capital next week. "With God's help, we think the situation will be resolved shortly," she told Forum 18. Dara Goldschmidt, who is in Moscow with the couple's seven children, told Forum 18 that she had returned without problems from a visit to Israel in October and that she had no idea why her husband's visa had been annulled. Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of the Moscow-based International Jewish Newspaper, told Forum 18 that Israeli Vice-Premier Shimon Peres had raised the issue of Goldschmidt's deportation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 27 October. According to Golenpolsky, "Lavrov said that it sounded like a technical thing they could solve in several minutes." Swiss-born Rabbi Goldschmidt leads Moscow's Choral Synagogue and has lived in Moscow since 1989.
14 November 2005
UZBEKISTAN: When is postal censorship not postal censorship?
Uzbekistan's Post Office routinely opens parcels of religious books and magazines sent from abroad, sends examples to the state Religious Affairs Committee, then collects them with a Committee decision as to whether or not to ban the title, writes to the sender and the failed recipient to explain why titles have been rejected, and (sometimes) returns them at Uzbek Post Office expense, Forum 18 News Service has found. Kural Tulebaev, Director of the main Post Office which receives foreign parcels, as well as customs officials have both denied that this is censorship. "We're just following the law," Tulebaev told Forum 18. His Customs Service colleagues were just as adamant: "The law requires that all of it is checked by the Religion Committee," a senior inspector told Forum 18, "the law is the law." The Religious Affairs Committee has refused to explain how it makes censorship decisions, or why it censors religious literature in defiance of international human rights commitments.
18 October 2005
TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, October 2005
In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, including denials of the right of legally registered religious communities to worship. In a typical example of this approach - which other religious minorities have also experienced - police raided a legally registered Baptist church in northern Turkmenistan, claiming that "individuals can only believe alone on their own at home." Unregistered religious activity continues – in defiance of international human rights agreements – to be attacked. There has been an increase in attempts to impose a state religious personality cult of President Niyazov on all Turkmen citizens, with mosques being particularly targeted. Turkmenistan continues to fail to implement its international human rights commitments, and also continues to take direct governmental action to deny religious freedom to peaceful Turkmen citizens.
6 October 2005
RUSSIA: Why was Moscow's Chief Rabbi deported?
It remains unclear why Moscow's Chief Rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, was denied entry to Russia last week after returning from Israel. Rabbi Goldschmidt, who is Swiss-born and has lived in Moscow since 1989, stated that he was not given a reason by border guards at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. His wife and seven children are still in the city. Various factors have been suggested to Forum 18 News Service as influencing the entry denial, including: rivalry between the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations of Russia and the state-favoured Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia; proposed changes to visa rules; a dispute between Rabbi Goldschmidt and the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations of Russia; and his strong criticism of a petition signed by 19 Russian parliamentarians, which called for a ban on all Jewish religious and national organisations in Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry is not commenting on the case. Rabbi Goldshmidt is now in Israel and intends to apply for a new Russian visa following Yom Kippur, to be marked on 13 October 2005.
26 September 2005
RUSSIA: Presbyterian church to be confiscated?
Its registration liquidated in 2003 for "administrative violations" and with subsequent registration applications denied, the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Mozdok in Russia's North Caucasus now faces the confiscation of its "beautiful Gothic-style" prayer house, church administrator Olga Mazhurova told Forum 18 News Service. The local administration told the congregation in early September that there is enough evidence to file suit for its confiscation, though no date for a court hearing has been set. The church admits it "made mistakes" over the way the church was built without planning permission, but claims it has been blocked from regularising its position due to local suspicion of its foreign connections. Officials at Mozdok district prosecutor's office have refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they are seeking to confiscate the church.
7 September 2005
RUSSIA: How many missionaries now denied visas?
While Moscow-based religious rights lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev believes the number of foreign religious workers barred from Russia is rising, this is difficult to corroborate as many prefer not to report visa denials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Catholic bishop Clemens Pickel told Forum 18 that the denial of a new visa to Fr Janusz Blaut in October 2004 after ten years in Russia (the eighth such Catholic visa denial) has left his Vladikavkaz parish without a priest. Yet Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer and Protestant overseer Hugo Van Niekerk – both denied visas this summer – have once more been granted them. Of the 52 excluded religious workers since 1998 known to Forum 18 – whether Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon - only a handful have been allowed to return to Russia. Officials and the media have often stoked fears of "religious expansion" which, they argue, represents a threat to Russia's "national security".
30 August 2005
RUSSIA: Who owns religious property?
One of the most troublesome issues for religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found, is gaining property. In places where historical worship buildings survive, there can be insufficient numbers of religious believers to claim or take care of them. This is particularly so for Orthodox churches in rural areas, and for Jewish and Lutheran communities. In cases where churches have been sold to private owners, or belong to a local authority, Catholic, Orthodox and Old Believer communities have often failed to regain them. But this situation is variable, Muslim communities, for example, having a mixed record of success in regaining mosques. Catholic and Old Believer churches have been sometimes given to Russian Orthodox dioceses, despite Catholic and Old Believer communities existing in these places. Some local authorities finance the construction of new worship premises for confessions they favour, but the cultural importance of historic Russian Orthodox property can prevent its return. Protestants, Old Believers, Molokans and Muslims have had problems in acquiring land for new building, as have other alternative Orthodox communities.
24 August 2005
RUSSIA: Growing obstruction to Protestant church property ownership
Protestant communities wanting to build a place of worship face increasing obstruction from state authorities, they have told Forum 18 News Service. Other religious confessions also encounter such problems. For example, a protracted series of discussions and protests have still not enabled Moscow's Emmanuel Pentecostal Church to either obtain a new construction site or official rights to the land beneath a building it owns. Similar problems have been encountered by Protestant churches elsewhere in Russia. Protestants have often told Forum 18 of their suspicions that local Orthodox clergy are instrumental in blocking Protestant construction plans, through private discussions between state officials and local Orthodox clergy. Unusually, in a letter seen by Forum 18, the Volga city of Saratov refused Word of Life Pentecostal Church permission to put an advertisement on its own outside wall, "on the basis of letter No. 490 dated 19 April 2005 from the Saratov diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church." Protestant communities also often speak of lengthy and energy-consuming battles to retain worship premises they acquire.
19 August 2005
RUSSIA: Growing restrictions on rental by Protestants
Russian law does not prevent religious communities from renting premises for worship, but Protestants have told Forum 18 News Service that in recent months they are increasingly barred from doing so. Most Protestant communities in Russia do not have their own church buildings and so have to rent buildings for worship, the majority of which are state-owned. Examples of this problem known to Forum 18 come from many parts of the Russian Federation. Anatoli Pchelintsev and Sergei Sychev, two Moscow-based lawyers specialising in religious believers' rights, have suggested to Forum 18 that possible reasons include state administrators not informing the federal authorities of official leases, so avoiding the need to give reasons for refusing to lease, and stepped-up pressure by the Moscow Patriarchate on local authorities and cultural institutions not to lease buildings to Protestants.
16 August 2005
RUSSIA: Police and fire inspector try to close JW Congress
Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that they can see a pattern of obstruction to their regional congresses. This month (August 2005), for example, an Arkhangelsk newspaper asked "Is there really anything to stop Jehovists from killing hundreds of people - in Arkhangelsk, for example - in the name of a deity or some crazy idea?" Two attempts to rent buildings for a regional congress in the city were thwarted. At the third venue, police stepped onto the stage demanding that all 714 delegates leave "in view of the threat of terrorist attacks." Police then began to conduct a search, and a fire department inspector announced that the building was unsafe. When Jehovah's Witnesses refused to leave, the fire inspector ordered the stage lighting and then the entire electricity supply to be switched off. A Jehovah's Witness speaker continued by torchlight and the police couldn't search the building in darkness, so power was switched back on. The fire inspector then ordered the building's closure. Arkhangelsk regional public prosecutor's office told Forum 18 that they are investigating the Jehovah's Witnesses' complaint.
11 August 2005
UZBEKISTAN: Forum 18 reporter detained at Tashkent airport
Igor Rotar, Forum 18 News Service's Central Asia Correspondent, was this morning (11 August) detained by the Uzbek authorities on arrival at Tashkent Airport. He is still being held by the Uzbek authorities, who are forcibly preventing him from communicating with anyone. Reliable sources indicate that the detention was ordered "for political reasons at the highest levels" and that the detention was carried out by the Immigration Service and Border Guards, on the instructions of the National Security Service secret police. The Uzbek authorities are refusing to comment on the case, but the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other international diplomats are following Igor Rotar's continuing detention closely.
3 August 2005
RUSSIA: Altai officials prefer eyedrops and cattle to Catholics
In the Siberian Altai region, Catholics have encountered persistent obstacles, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Catholic parish in Barnaul's attempts to regain its church – dating from 1908 – have been blocked since 1992. After the parish began its struggle with the local authority, a café was built onto the church and on top of the cemetery, along with an Orthodox chapel. The local governor claimed his main contribution to Orthodoxy had been in keeping Catholics out. The authorities in the neighbouring Altai Republic have similarly barred a Catholic church being built, despite local support for the church, citing the negative attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church who are "tired from the dominance of sects." In a striking contrast, the Moscow Patriarchate is currently seeking to build churches in the predominantly Catholic Irish cities of Galway and Limerick, where the first-ever Russian Orthodox liturgy was held in a Catholic church in 2002. Reasons given to the Irish ambassador for the Galway plan, to build a traditional Russian wooden church, were tourism and bearing "witness to Orthodox tradition and culture" to immigrants "and to Irish people."
2 August 2005
RUSSIA: When will Dalai Lama next visit Tuva?
The Dalai Lama's only visit to the traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva was in 1992. Since then, none of the "very many attempts" to invite him to the republic has come close to success, a former kamby-lama (head Buddhist of Tuva) told Forum 18 News Service. "Religion shouldn't interfere in politics, but we want to see him," Norbu-Sambuu Mart-Ool noted to Forum 18. The Dalai Lama has several times visited Russia's two other traditionally Buddhist republics of Buryatia and Kalmykia. But the main obstacle to a visit to Tuva - which borders Mongolia – seems to be Russian relations with China, which opposes a visit taking place. Mart-Ool told Forum 18 that the efforts of Kalmykia's president were instrumental in ensuring the Dalai Lama's two-day visit to that republic, following several years of visa denials, but lamented that "our council of ministers is not so active." Tuva's main religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the republic's Buddhist community alone issues invitations to its Tibetan spiritual leader, while adding that the Tuvan government would provide assistance with transport and premises.
27 July 2005
RUSSIA: Violence, arson and religious believers
Police in the traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva seem to be indifferent to violent attacks on Protestants. Pastor Aleksandr Degtyarev of Gospel Light Baptist Church, told Forum 18 News Service that "for them it is minor - they have too many murders to solve." The republic's crime rate is amongst the highest in Russia, with two-and-a-half times more murders than the national average. Physical attacks against religious believers are uncommon elsewhere in Russia, but there has in recent years been an apparent increase in cases of arson attacks on places of worship reported by Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Jewish and Muslim communities. In some cases, police investigations have resulted in prosecution, but in others police either fail to investigate or refuse to acknowledge that arson has taken place. The director of the Moscow-based Baptist Association for Spiritual Renewal, Valentin Vasilizhenko, suggested to Forum 18 that arsonists might prefer to attack places of worship, because the repercussions against them would be far less serious than if they attacked a bank or a business.
25 July 2005
RUSSIA: What should Tuvan children believe?
The traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva, bordering north-west Mongolia, closed a Christian children's home, Forum 18 News Service was told by a religious affairs official, as "the children go to church and pray without the permission of their parents or guardians." This is disputed by a former resident, Anna Mongush, who told Forum 18 that the real reason for the closure was that the only non-Christian staff member alleged in court that the home was a "sect," after she was sacked for theft, and the state authorities "thought they could get something from its closure." Highlighting broader confusion over religious education policy, Bible translator Vitali Voinov noted that neither Russia's Constitution, nor the religion law, allow for faith-based orphanages and that much in school religious education depends upon individual teachers. Some tell pupils that they should be Buddhists and visit shamans, while forbidding them from attending Christian churches. Foundations of Orthodox Culture is an optional school subject and this causes controversy, the head of the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims told Forum 18.
18 July 2005
RUSSIA: Largest Tuvan Protestant church disbands to avoid liquidation
During a January check-up by the religious affairs department in the traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva, officials complained the charismatic Sun Bok Ym church in the regional capital Kyzyl had violated its charter by sending its pastor to a neighbouring region and failed to inform the department of its new address. Officials of the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service, set up last October, began moves to liquidate it through the courts, so the church decided to disband to avoid this fate. Pastor Bair Kara-Sal told Forum 18 News Service he believes a promise by local justice department officials in court that they will not oppose a new registration application. Both Catholic and Salvation Army leaders have complained to Forum 18 that the Federal Registration Service has made nit-picking objections to terminology in their documents and refused to allow them to make simple corrections.
11 July 2005
TURKMENISTAN: President attempts to meddle in Orthodox structures
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II has politely sidelined Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's attempt to split the dozen or so Russian Orthodox parishes in Turkmenistan away from the Central Asian diocese, and subordinate them directly to the Patriarch. A Moscow-based priest familiar with the situation, who preferred not to be identified, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the Church itself has to make such decisions, not the state. The priest told Forum 18 that he believes President Niyazov "wants the Orthodox Church to exist, but a Church that is in his hand, just as he has done with Islam." Stressing that the Moscow Patriarchate is keen to see an end to the tensions between the Church and the Turkmen government, the priest deplored the denial of visas to three or four priests who the diocese wished to send to serve in Turkmenistan, and the refusal of the Turkmen government so far to re-register Russian Orthodox parishes.
8 July 2005
RUSSIA: Orthodox pressure railway into cancelling JW congress
The head of the missionary and catechism department of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye Orthodox diocese, Fr Vladimir Zaitsev, has pressured Sverdlovsk Regional Railway into cancelling a three-day congress of 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It was due to happen in a railway-administered stadium, and Fr. Zaitsev requested, in a letter publicised on local state TV and seen by Forum 18, that the congress be barred. He names Russian and foreign academics and Russian state bodies and "numerous documents issued by the traditional Christian churches of Europe [unnamed]," who, he claims, see Jehovah's Witnesses as "a destructive religious organisation (totalitarian sect, destructive cult)." Zaitsev also wrote that they offered to collaborate with Hitler and so "you will agree that in the sixtieth anniversary year [of the end of the Second World War] our compatriots will find this [allowing the congress to happen] particularly provocative." Jehovah's Witnesses were the target of intense Nazi persecution, and it is estimated that about 10,000 were imprisoned for their faith in concentration camps.
22 June 2005
RUSSIA: Contrasting situations of Moscow Jehovah's Witnesses and Salvation Army
Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that they are experiencing "escalating and more overt" obstruction as a result of the local court ban on their activities in Moscow. They state that they have experienced police harassment in their door-to-door preaching, lost meeting places and "those who still provide them are becoming fearful of the consequences". In contrast, the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army - which also faced local court moves to ban their activities in Moscow – has told Forum 18 that its problems are now resolved. "We work calmly in the city without problems and can rent property freely. We are now simply waiting patiently for the re-registration documentation to come through," the Salvation Army told Forum 18. Jehovah's Witnesses have lodged an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, which separately decided in June 2004 to hear a May 2001 complaint from the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army.
13 June 2005
RUSSIA: Five-day prison for "illegally" demanding believers' rights
Three Pentecostals have been jailed and nine fined by a court for "illegally" demonstrating against the Moscow city authorities' refusal to allow Emmanuel Pentecostal Church to build or acquire a building, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Since the demonstration, Emmanuel Church appears to be making progress, as the vice-chairman of Moscow's Department for Building Policy, Development and Reconstruction, Aleksandr Kosovan, has reportedly ordered that a plot of land be found where Emmanuel can build a church centre, with all planning work paid for by the Moscow government. The demonstration was also to protest about discrimination against Protestants in Russia. Such discrimination has had the support of the Russian Orthodox Church's St Tikhon Theological Institute, which, in a letter seen by Forum 18, wrote to the local authority complaining that "unknown persons are collecting signatures in your district in support of a prayer house" and alleging that Pentecostals use "suggestive (hypnotic) techniques, trance occult-mystic practices and methods of controlling the consciousness of its adepts which endanger their mental health."
9 June 2005
RUSSIA: Changes to religion law?
In what seems the most serious proposal in recent years to tighten up Russia's 1997 religion law, parliament's religion committee has begun to consider four draft amendments, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. These would make it impossible for unregistered religious organisations to hold large-scale religious meetings and allow only centralised religious organisations to invite foreigners for religious work. "If we invite a priest to Moscow as the centre of the diocese and he is to work in a completely different place, such as Kaliningrad, it will take a long time to explain to officials there why the invitation came from Moscow," Catholic Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz warned. Aleksandr Verkhovsky, editor at Sova Centre in Moscow, complained of another "dangerous" amendment allowing all religious communities applying for registration to have their religious doctrines analysed. "This is undesirable by its very nature in a secular society – a state should not determine which Islam (Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism and so on) is right and which is not." But religious rights lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev remains sceptical that these proposed amendments stand a chance of being adopted.
8 June 2005
KAZAKHSTAN: Conference cancelled after pastor's visa denied
The New Generation Pentecostal church in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty cancelled a conference due to have begun on 12 June after the church's Latvian-based chief pastor was denied a Kazakh visa. The Kazakh consulate in Latvia told Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev, who was born in Kazakhstan, that a visit to his homeland was "not desirable" but refused to give a reason. "We're asking the authorities for an explanation – and we'll lodge a fresh application for Pastor Aleksei to get a visa," Viktor Ovsyannikov, pastor of the Almaty church, told Forum 18 News Service. Ledyayev was added to the entry ban list by Russia in 2002 and is also barred from Belarus. Others barred from Russia on religious grounds remain barred in Kazakhstan, though Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer, deported from Russia in April, told Forum 18 he has received a visa for Kazakhstan.
6 June 2005
RUSSIA: State-sponsored local Muslim monopoly in St Petersburg?
The Al-Fatkh Muslim community has told Forum 18 News Service that St Petersburg local authorities are supporting a rival mosque community by preventing Al-Fatkh – in contrast to the rival Cathedral Mosque community – from acquiring land to build a mosque. The St Petersburg Funeral Services Department stated to Forum 18 that Muslim religious funerals can only be conducted with the permission of the imam of the Cathedral Mosque community, not Al-Fatkh's imam. Al-Fatkh maintained to Forum 18 that one reason why it wants to build a separate mosque is that the Cathedral Mosque is only opened once a day, even during the final period of Ramadan, when a mosque should be open constantly. Forum 18 observed one Friday that the Cathedral Mosque was emptied of worshippers and closed 30 minutes after the main Friday meeting began. (Friday is the Muslim holy day.) Islam.ru reported that it was told that the mosque was normally closed "because it needs to be - who needs to know knows why." Forum 18 was unable to ask the same question as the phone was slammed down.
30 May 2005
UKRAINE: People barred entry on religious grounds now free to appeal
In a new move, the SBU security police has told Forum 18 News Service that people barred entry by other CIS countries – including Russia – on religious and other grounds can now appeal against any visa bar to Ukraine. Appeals can be made either to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry or the SBU, Forum 18 was told. The move follows the ending of an entry ban against Japanese Buddhist monk Junsei Teresawa. The SBU refused to tell Forum 18 why Teresawa had originally been denied entry, but insisted it was not for religious reasons and denied that there is a religious category for issuing entry bans. Not every religious figure banned from entry by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been barred from Ukraine and Latvian-based Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev - barred by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is now in Ukraine. One of the most prominent recent deportees from Russia was Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen, but the SBU told Forum 18 that "no-one with the surname Mazur is on the Ukrainian entry ban list".
26 May 2005
COMMENTARY: Religious freedom since 1905 – any progress in Russia?
One hundred years ago, Tsar Nicholas II's decree on religious tolerance formally freed Russia's religious minorities from state restriction and persecution. Today, Russia's religious minorities can legitimately ask how much progress has been achieved since then, argues Irina Budkina, an Old Believer and editor of a website on Old Belief in Samara region http://www.samstar.ucoz.ru, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. (The Old Believer movement rejected changes in the 17th century Russian Orthodox Church.) Officials – particularly at provincial level - continue to defer to the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate, and hand over historic Old Believer churches to the Moscow Patriarchate. Not just Old Believers, but members of other religious minorities in today's Russia believe some religious communities remain more equal than others.
4 May 2005
RUSSIA: Salvation Army officers denied entry "in the interests of state security"
Two British and Danish Salvation Army officers have been denied entry to Russia "in the interests of state security," Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Colonel Barry Pobjie told Forum 18 at the Church's Moscow headquarters that "the accusations are ludicrous – this is directed not against these individuals but the organisation as a whole," he maintained, pointing out that both officers had previously worked and travelled extensively in Russia for several years. The two were traveling to a congress celebrating the elevation in the status of the Salvation Army's operation covering Russia, Georgia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine from "Command" to "Territory". This allows greater independence from the Church's London headquarters. Five foreign Catholic clergy were denied entry to Russia in 2002, following a similar internal decision to elevate the status of its four apostolic administrations to dioceses. Meanwhile, German Lutheran Bishop Siegfried Springer, the head of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in European Russia who was recently denied entry to Russia, has been told he can make one brief return visit. No reason was given for the annulment of his multi-entry visa.
2 May 2005
BELARUS: Why no full TV broadcast of papal funeral and inauguration?
About 20 per cent of Belarus' population is Catholic, but less than an hour of the late Pope John Paul II's funeral mass and none of Pope Benedict XVI's inauguration was broadcast on state TV, Forum 18 News Service has found. The only Catholics able to view full live coverage of the funeral were those who can receive terrestrial Polish TV. Catholics were surprised by the small amount of TV coverage, but, "there was no outcry," a Catholic laywoman told Forum 18. That the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI was not shown on Belarusian television, and given next to no coverage in news broadcasts, "offended us a bit as we wanted to hear about who the new pope was," a Belarusian Catholic journalist remarked to Forum 18. She did not believe the lack of television coverage to be the result of Belarusian state policy, a view supported by Ilona Urbanovich-Sauka of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists. She told Forum 18 that her colleagues had encountered no evidence of a bar on broadcasting recent Vatican developments. Several believed that the minimal coverage simply reflected unprofessionalism.
25 April 2005
RUSSIA: Has bulldozing threat to Baptist church receded?
A 19 April court hearing against Yelena Kareyeva - owner of a Baptist church in the village of Lyubuchany near Moscow whose construction the authorities say was "unauthorised" - was cancelled. Moscow-based Baptist pastor Nikolai Dudenkov told Forum 18 News Service that no future hearing was mentioned nor was any explanation given at the courthouse for the cancellation. Local Baptists hope the authorities' threat to bulldoze the new church - built to replace the previous church destroyed last September in an arson attack some believe was state-initiated - have now receded. The plight of the Baptists has gained international attention, with two US congressmen writing to the local authorities in February to complain about official attempts to prevent the rebuilding of the church. But a 5 March letter from Moscow region prosecutor's office defends the actions of the local authorities.
22 April 2005
RUSSIA: Why did police raid Pentecostal church?
Twenty masked special and plain clothes police raided an evening seminar on 14 April at the Word of Faith church in Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurtia autonomous republic. Police forced the 70 people present outside, calling them "sectarians" and "prostitutes", while they searched the church. Nearly 50 church members were held for five hours at the police station and fingerprinted. Udmurtia's interior ministry claimed the Pentecostals had "distorted" details of the raid. Pentecostal bishop Yuri Degtyar told Forum 18 News Service from Izhevsk that he believes the public prosecutor has now "taken control of the situation" and that the investigation into police conduct during the raid will be "objective".
18 April 2005
RUSSIA: Deported Lutheran bishop seeks early return
Lutheran Bishop Siegfried Springer and the 170 congregation-strong Evangelical-Lutheran Church in European Russia are baffled by the annulling of his multi-entry visa at a Moscow airport on 10 April and his deportation back to Germany the following day. "I want to return to Russia to our general synod to resume my pastoral work as soon as possible," Springer told Forum 18 from the German town of Bad Sooden-Allendorf. Although born in Russia, the 75-year-old bishop is a German citizen. A foreign Catholic bishop who was similarly expelled from Russia in 2002 has never been allowed to return to his diocese.
14 April 2005
RUSSIA: Unregistered religious groups
Russia's controversial 1997 Religion Law divides religious communities into two categories, restricting the rights of those with the unregistered status of "group", Forum 18 News Service notes in its submission to a 14 April hearing in Washington of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe http://www.csce.gov/ on unregistered religious groups in Russia. By requiring independent religious or belief groups seeking registration to have existed for 15 years, the Law effectively forced new individual religious or belief communities to join older unions, often a burdensome and expensive formality and not an option for some communities. Registration can be denied on arbitrary grounds, as for example with 39 of Stavropol region's 47 mosques. Denied registration, Belgorod's Catholic parish cannot reclaim its historical church. Communities that choose not to register can function freely, but only if they remain inconspicuous, Forum 18 has found. Council of Churches Baptists – who reject registration on principle – are often denied the possibility to rent property for services and fined for holding evangelistic campaigns.
30 March 2005
RUSSIA: Old Believers struggle for their historic churches
Old Believers in Samara have received no official response to requests for the return of their pre-1917 church building in the city. The municipal authorities orally told the parish that they should first meet representatives of the local Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) diocese to ascertain its archbishop's position on the issue. "As a lawyer, I know that this is not legal," Old Believer parishioner Irina Budkina told Forum 18 News Service, stating that archive documentation proves the church was built in 1913-15 by Belokrinitsa Old Believers and later confiscated: "It has nothing to do with the Moscow Patriarchate." In 2004, Samara city administration acquired the church after its previous occupant, a machine-tool factory, closed down. Sergei Vurgraft, the Church's press secretary, told Forum 18 that when Old Believer parishes request their historical buildings, the local state authorities often promise to return them "as long as they obtain confirmation that the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese is not opposed". Knowing this to be unconstitutional, officials normally do this orally, he told Forum 18.
21 February 2005
UZBEKISTAN: Illegally kidnapped Muslim jailed
An Uzbek former teacher of Arabic in a Russian mosque, kidnapped in 2004 and illegally taken to Uzbekistan without the consent of the Russian authorities, has been given a lengthy prison sentence on a wide range of terrorist-related charges, which his lawyer told Forum 18 News Service are "absurd". Mannobjon Rahmatullaev was sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment on 20 January, his lawyer telling Forum 18 that only one offence, under article 223 (illegal exit abroad or illegal entry), when he travelled on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1992. The imam-hatyb of the Saratov central mosque, Mukadas Bibarsov, where Rahmatullev worked, said he had been "shocked" by his colleague's abduction. "If Rahmatullaev had really been involved in politics then I would have been in favour of his deportation from Russia," Bibarsov told Forum 18 from Saratov on 17 February. "I knew this man well and I can testify that he was an honest faithful Muslim who never committed any crime."
14 February 2005
RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, February 2005
In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Russia, Forum 18 News Service notes that fluctuation remains the distinguishing feature of state policy. Symbolic appearances of solidarity between President Putin and Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarch Aleksi II - sometimes with representatives of the other "traditional" confessions (Islam, Judaism and Buddhism) - often translate into regional state officials taking decisions in the interests of only these faiths, to the detriment of other confessions. This even takes place in areas, such as eastern Siberia, where Protestants have a longer tradition than some "traditional" confessions. It is unclear how deeply the symbiotic relationship between the state and "traditional" confessions will develop. Should a state policy against "non-traditional" confessions be pursued, Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals are likely targets. Some confessions have seen significant improvements in relations with the state, notably Catholic, Buddhist and Jewish religious organisations, but recent developments in state policy appear to be having an increasingly adverse affect upon Muslims.