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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".

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.

26 April 2007

RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, April 2007

Senior Russian state representatives, such as President Putin, continue to project an image of supporting "traditional religions" such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Forum 18 News Service notes. But this does not translate into day-to-day decision making, as religious affairs are a low national priority. Decisions are normally made at a low level, so the religious freedom situation varies even between towns. One exception is support by senior state representatives for religious leaders who endorse them, such as Pentecostal bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky. Legal discrimination is rare, even against communities such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and where it exists does not completely halt religious activity. So-called "telephone law" and blocking some foreign religious workers have been the main sources of religious freedom violations. Acquiring or retaining worship buildings is a major problem, and affects Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hare Krishna devotees, Jehovah's Witnesses, Molokans and the Russian Orthodox Church. Widening the legal definition of terrorism and extremism is a particularly concern for Muslims. Russia's central authorities do not have a policy of restricting freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 can state. But their failure to actively tackle discrimination produces a slow erosion of religious freedom.

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.

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.

29 July 2003

RUSSIA: Religious Freedom Survey, July 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Russia, Forum 18 News Service reports on the extensive variations of religious freedom policy in Russia, noting that when decisions are made which violate believers' rights, they are largely informed by the political agendas and personal loyalties of local politicians. The particular nature of a religious belief seems to play little role in restrictions – such as visa bars being imposed - groups being far more likely to be targeted if they are dynamic and visible, whatever their beliefs. Centrally, the state is not so much concerned about actual control over the legitimate activity of citizens as in having potential control over activity, so violations of religious freedom may not appear as dramatic as in many other states in the region. The trend of low-level discrimination looks set to continue unchallenged.

27 May 2003

RUSSIA: Orthodox becoming first among equals

Without any change in the law or Constitution to provide for them, the steady increase in concordat-style agreements between the Russian Orthodox Church and various organs of state at federal and local level has given the Orthodox Church increased power, Forum 18 News Service reports after a wide-ranging survey. These agreements give the Church special access to institutions such as prisons, the police, the FSB, the army, schools and hospitals, and emphasise Orthodoxy as the legitimate ideology of Russian state tradition. It is open to question whether they violate Russia's international human rights commitments, but in practice these mini-concordats can render illegitimate the social activity of other religious organisations in the state sphere, thus leading to discrimination on religious grounds.

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