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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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MOLDOVA: Government repeatedly acts against ECtHR judgements

Moldova continues to refuse legal status to religious communities of a variety of faiths, despite European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg judgements that it must do this, Forum 18 News Service has found. The state has repeatedly refused registration to Muslim and Protestant communities, individual parishes of the Bessarabian Metropolitanate of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, and the Falun Gong movement. Without legal status, a community cannot seek land from the local authorities to place of worship, cannot run a bank account and cannot have an official stamp for legal documents. There are also great difficulties in burying members of unregistered communities. Asked why registrations are denied, Boris Galan, the Justice Ministry official responsible told Forum 18 that he had "a lot of work to do" and refused to answer more enquiries. Anatolie Munteanu, the official Parliamentary Human Rights Advocate, claimed to Forum 18 that "this is the first time" - despite the ECtHR judgements - he had heard about registration denials.

MOLDOVA: Bureaucratic obstacles bar religious volunteers

The expulsions of four Romanian Orthodox priests from Moldova are being overturned on appeal and the priests are returning to their parishes, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, the lawyer for the Bessarabian Orthodox Patriarchate warned that it was likely that there may be yet another case against a Bessarabian priest brought at the end of February. Also, visa renewals for foreign Jehovah's Witness volunteers are now being refused. The government now refuses to allow the volunteers to work without a salary. "We don't want to draw up such contracts and pretend to pay people," a Jehovah's Witness complained to Forum 18. "We want to be honest. Why should we be forced to lie?" The permits for two Italian volunteers expire on 27 February. Many religious communities – including all Muslim communities and some Protestant churches – do not have legal status and so cannot even apply to invite foreign citizens to work with them.

MOLDOVA: President attacks freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Brussels and Moscow

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin has attacked the Bessarabian Metropolitanate's religious freedom on visits to Brussels and Moscow, Forum 18 News Service notes. During a press conference with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on 14 January, Voronin stated that he had not ever threatened to revoke the registration of the Metropolitanate. He then claimed its existence could lead to a Kosovo-style conflict. Repeating his attacks after meeting Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy, Voronin claimed that the Metropolitanate "is part of Romania's aggressive policy." Presidential spokesperson Natalia Visanu told Forum 18 that "he merely said that if there are problems it could come to the point of looking again at its registration," she told Forum 18. Asked about the Kosovo-style conflict claim, Visanu stated that "the President said (..) the government could look at the question of not fulfilling the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)." The Metropolitanate only achieved registration after a fine imposed on Moldova by the ECtHR, as also happened with the True Orthodox Church. A wide range of Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim communities are still denied registration.

MOLDOVA: Were check-ups aimed at congregations or migrants?

Moldova's expulsion of Romanian priests serving in the Bessarabian Orthodox Metropolitanate is part of a campaign of harassment of the Church, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Church also faces check-ups by the police and the Information and Security Service (SIS), as do Orthodox parishes under the Moscow and Kiev Patriarchates. One Jehovah's Witness congregation has also been checked. The authorities insist that the check-ups were to catch illegal immigrants, however leaders of religious communities state that officials were much more interested in the functioning of congregations. More than 60 Bessarabian parish priests have faced intrusive check-ups. Deacon Andrei Deleu of the Bessarabian Metropolitanate told Forum 18 that officers said "they have instructions from the Prime Minister." The Jehovah's Witness congregation asked police to put their reasons in writing. After police were shown their statute specifying that the congregation functions in the district, the police went away.

MOLDOVA: Christmas expulsions of four Romanian Orthodox priests

Four Romanian Orthodox Church priests are being expelled from Moldova as their Bessarabian Orthodox Metropolitanate prepares to celebrate Christmas on 7 January, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Two parishes have been deprived of priests as Fr Ion Bigea and Fr Constantin Dumitrascu were denied entry to Moldova when they tried to return to their parishes, in Fr Bigea's case after earlier being fined. Two more priests, Fr Iulian Budescu and Fr Ion Tivlea, also face expulsion. Fr Budescu has been told by the authorities that he must leave by 6 January. Fr Tivlea has been told that he must leave after a trial for administrative offences on 9 January. Human rights activist Ion Manole, of Promo-Lex, told Forum 18 that "this was specially done close to the Christmas holiday when non-governmental organisations and the media are not working. They [Moldovan authorities] chose this period deliberately."

TRANSDNIESTER: Restrictive draft Religion Law proposed

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

MOLDOVA: Arbitrary legal status denials continue

In Moldova, all Muslim organisations, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, the Ukrainian Orthodox Kiev Patriarchate and a variety of Protestant congregations, have complained to Forum 18 News Service about arbitrary state denials of their right to legal status. The State Service for Religious Communities has even defied court orders to register specific denominations. The only religious community known to have gained registration in recent years is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormons), who only received legal status after five US Senators wrote to Moldova's President. "Many things in Moldova happen only because of foreign pressure," Serghei Ostaf of the Chisinau-based Resource Centre for Human Rights told Forum 18. "It is bad if those without important voices abroad can't get justice." Without legal status, religious communities are denied the legal possibility of a wide variety of normal activities.

ROMANIA: Controversial Law promulgated; legal challenges planned

Romanian President Traian Basescu has approved a controversial new Religion Law, despite calls from human rights activists and religious communities for it to be reconsidered. Challenges are planned in the Constitutional Court and, potentially, the European Court of Human Rights, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Adventist pastor Adrian Bocaneanu told Forum 18 that he is worried about the new ban on "religious defamation" and "public offence to religious symbols," as "the essence of religious freedom is to be able to express views on religious beliefs and to compare your religious beliefs with those of others." He stressed that the way the law is implemented is crucial. "If the law is interpreted to silence other religions and this becomes a pattern, this would be dangerous," he told Forum 18. "At present this does not seem probable." Other critics of the Law include the Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church, the Baha'i community and the Baptist Union.

ROMANIA: Controversial Religion Law's passing violated parliamentary processes

The passage of Romania's controversial new Religion Law broke parliamentary procedures, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Members of the Chamber of Deputies were not given the five days that Romanian law requires for them to consider the Law. Paul Negrut, who leads the Baptist Union and Evangelical Alliance, told Forum 18 that "it was totally against rules and procedures – like an avalanche." The Law – which has still not been published - now goes to Romanian President Traian Basescu, who has 20 days to sign the law, return it to parliament for further work, or refer it to the Constitutional Court. Negrut told Forum 18 that "If we get direct support from the international community, then the President will have the stamina to send it back to parliament." Adventist pastor Adrian Bocaneanu told Forum 18 of the need "to educate the political class on their responsibility to take a stand for the principle [of religious freedom] rather than an opportunistic approach."

ROMANIA: Sudden secretive rush to adopt controversial Religion Law

A sudden burst of speed to pass Romania's controversial new Religion Law through Parliament – which even the Romanian Orthodox Church was unaware of this morning (12 December) – is causing deep concern to religious minorities and human rights activists, they have told Forum 18 News Service. "Somehow, religious freedom has ended up being the tombstone of the nascent Romanian democracy," Romanita Iordache of Accept told Forum 18. Iustina Ionescu of the Centre for Legal Resources told Forum 18 that a coalition had appealed for the government to wait for an OSCE report, and that an appeal to the Constitutional Court will be made if the present draft Law is passed. The draft will be discussed in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies tomorrow (13 December). The government claims that the Law is a priority before Romania joins the European Union (EU) on 1 January 2007, but the EU Delegation in Bucharest has declined to confirm this to Forum 18.

UKRAINE: "Uncanonical and diabolical schismatics shouldn't exist"

Fr Anatol Curtev, a priest of the Bessarabian Metropolitanate of the Romanian Orthodox Church, is sceptical that the authorities will protect him and his parish in the village of Kamyshovka in the far south-west of Ukraine from violence. He and his parishioners claimed to Forum 18 News Service that the village's Russian Orthodox priest Fr Aleksei Grecu hit him on the head just before they started their separate liturgies on 12 March to mark the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and that Fr Grecu organised a brutal attack on him in the station of the nearby town of Izmail on 12 April. "It's a complete lie – I didn't hit him [Fr Curtev] or organise the attack," Fr Grecu told Forum 18, but admitted he was interviewed by police. "But if he's doing evil, what are we supposed to do? They're uncanonical and diabolical schismatics who shouldn't exist on Ukrainian territory." Fr Grecu dismissed any idea that the Bessarabian parish has any religious freedom rights. "We're not for democracy – we're Orthodox."

ROMANIA: Controversial religion bill goes to Chamber of Deputies

Religious minorities and human rights groups are worried over the proposed new religion law, which resumes its parliamentary progress in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, on 1 February. "This is a very critical time for religious liberty in Romania," Evangelical Alliance president Pastor Paul Negrut told Forum 18 News Service. He complained that the government-drafted law passed unchanged through the upper house, the Senate, in December. Peter Eckstein-Kovacs, head of the Senate's legal committee, recognises that the draft is "problematic" but denied to Forum 18 that its adoption by the Senate without a vote had been a "trick". Adventists, Baptists and other Protestants, Greek Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses and Baha'is have already complained about the draft law. "The draft law infringes many laws and the Constitution of Romania, as well as international human rights commitments to which Romania is subject," Iustina Ionescu of the Bucharest-based Centre for Legal Resources told Forum 18.

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