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2 January 2013

RUSSIA: Is anti-Jehovah's Witness campaign slowing?

Russia's efforts to convict Jehovah's Witnesses for criminal "extremism" appear to be weakening, Forum 18 News Service notes. "But we can't say the authorities have become more relaxed in principle," Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov he remarked to Forum 18 in Moscow. "It's not clear how they will react next, what other methods they will seek." Incidents of police harassment against Jehovah's Witnesses are also reducing. Martynov's continued concern stems primarily from a criminal case against 16 Jehovah's Witnesses in the southern Russian town of Taganrog. Forum 18 notes that local prosecutors have so far found it easier to convict Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works than Jehovah's Witnesses because they are deemed to belong to a banned "extremist" organisation. Even with Nursi readers - although one trial and several other criminal investigations continue - no "extremism" criminal convictions have been handed down since October 2011.

14 December 2012

RUSSIA: Why is Falun Gong literature banned?

Russian Falun Gong practitioners have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg after their core spiritual text was ruled "extremist", Mikhail Sinitsyn, Falun Gong practitioner and lawyer, has told Forum 18 News Service. The appeal followed failure to overturn a December 2011 rejection of an earlier appeal by Krasnodar Regional Court. Extraordinarily, the Regional Court ruling directly contradicts its own earlier decision in Falun Gong's favour as "expert analyses" were "unfounded" and "one-sided". But in its December 2011 ruling, Krasnodar Regional Court ruled that Falun Gong texts are "extremist" on the basis that other "experts" in a report "confirm the conclusions" the same Court had earlier rejected.  "We thought our case was so obvious that we could rely on our own courts, but it turned out not to be a legal issue but a political one", Sinitsyn commented to Forum 18. One of those involved, Sergei Shipshin, works for a state institution belonging to the Justice Ministry. However he insisted to Forum 18 that "we are independent experts".

10 December 2012

RUSSIA: China-led restrictions on Falun Gong

Russia's small community of followers of the Chinese spiritual practice of Falun Gong face increasing state pressure, Forum 18 News Service notes. In 2005, officials refused to register a newspaper, citing provisions of the 2001 China-Russia treaty "On Neighbourly Relations, Friendship and Co-operation". The movement's core spiritual text "Zhuan Falun" has been included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials and courts have blocked access to websites containing the text. Four practitioners were detained in Vladivostok in July, while "anti-extremism" police summoned three local leaders in southern European Russia. In the latest deportations, two Ukrainian Falun Gong practitioners were barred from Russia in September when they tried to attend the movement's annual conference near Moscow. One had to move his wedding from Russia to Ukraine, as he told Forum 18. A similar Russian desire not to alienate the Chinese lies behind repeated denials of a Russian visa to the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

6 November 2012

RUSSIA: Religious freedom "the only viable option for consolidating Russia's extraordinary diversity"

This is the second of two abridged extracts from a book by Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18's Russia and Belarus Correspondent, "Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism" (Routledge, 2013). The book presents a comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life and revealing how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition. The book argues that continuing failure to resolve the question of whether Russia is to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state is destabilising the nation. More details on the book are available from http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415490023/.

1 November 2012

RUSSIA: "The Kremlin's failure to uphold its own constitutional commitment to religious freedom"

This is the first of two abridged extracts from a book by Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18's Russia and Belarus Correspondent, "Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism" (Routledge, 2013). The book presents a comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life and revealing how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition. The book argues that continuing failure to resolve the question of whether Russia is to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state is destabilising the nation. More details on the book are available from http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415490023/.

15 October 2012

RUSSIA: Pussy Riot, blasphemy, and freedom of religion or belief

The way that Russia has handled the Pussy Riot case indicates that the authorities are using it to intensify restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. A shift from the Kremlin's initial response to the case suggests that a claimed moral outrage was not the motivation to prosecute, and that support for the Moscow Patriarchate is tactical. Since the Extremism Law was adopted in 2002, officials have used the same selective determination of what causes offence to persons of one worldview to restrict the freedom of religion or belief of people with a different worldview, as can be seen in prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses. This approach now also targets supporters of atheism. Arbitrary state prosecutions of some manifestations of religion or belief – such as by Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works - may soon be further strengthened by controversial proposed "blasphemy" amendments to the Criminal Code and Code of Administrative Offences. The legal chaos proposed by state representatives after the Pussy Riot trial thus continues a well-established trend.

11 October 2012

RUSSIA: Article 20.29 causes 60-day community ban, fines, and bookshop closure

Prosecutors often use Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offences to try to punish individuals, religious communities and bookshops found to have religious literature which has controversially been banned, Forum 18 News Service has found. A court in Primorsky Region banned a Jehovah's Witness community for 60 days after a raid found 16 copies of their publications which have been placed on Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials. A Muslim bookshop in Tolyatti was fined 50,000 Roubles (nearly 11 months' minimum wage) after a prosecutor and officers of the Police's Anti-Extremism Centre found two copies of books by a Turkish Sufi teacher. "The books have been banned and are on the Federal List, so they have to be seized. That's all," a Prosecutor's Office official told Forum 18. Verdicts often order confiscated literature to be destroyed.

10 October 2012

RUSSIA: "The crime he is being accused of does not envisage the existence of victims"

Two separate criminal trials in Russia, on "extremism"-related charges, have started of Muslims who read the works of theologian Said Nursi, Forum 18 News Service notes. The sixth hearing in the trial of Ramil Latypov is due to begin in the southern Urals city of Orenburg on 22 October, and the trial of Farida Ulmaskulova, Gulnaz Valeyeva and Venera Yuldasheva in Chelyabinsk east of the Urals is due to resume on 26 November. Asked who had been the victims of Latypov's alleged "extremist" activity, a Prosecutor's Office official told Forum 18 that there had been no victims, and none were appearing at the trial. Also, the criminal trial of a Jehovah's Witness in the southern Astrakhan Region has been adjourned. However, in Chuvashia in the central part of European Russia, Jehovah's Witnesses Igor Yefimov and Aleksei Nikolaev were freed from pre-trial detention. They are among five local Jehovah's Witnesses still facing "extremism" criminal charges for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.

3 October 2012

RUSSIA: No more mosques outside "Muslim areas"?

Just as in the Russian capital, Muslims in other parts of Russia considered ethnically Russian face persistent difficulties building mosques to meet the growing numbers of Muslim worshippers, Forum 18 News Service has found. Jamaletdin Makhmudov, a St Petersburg Muslim, told Forum 18 that the municipal authorities do not prevent Muslims from meeting in approximately six rented premises besides the two official mosques. But he says the city's long-standing refusal to allow construction of further mosques remains unchanged. A Muslim community in Sochi – the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics - has lobbied fruitlessly for a mosque for over 15 years. Rejecting one appeal, an official pointed to a mosque in a village two hours' drive away. In Maloyaroslavets, officials rejected the community's latest application, claiming all sites for places of worship are already taken.

26 September 2012

RUSSIA: No more mosques for Moscow?

With only four official mosques in the Russian capital (one of which is being reconstructed), Moscow's Muslim community has long sought to open new places of worship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Police estimated 170,000 worshippers at the end-of-Ramadan festival Eid-ul-Fitr (locally known as Uraza-bairam) in August, close to the numbers who attend Russian Orthodox churches at Easter. Yet one of just two new mosque sites approved in early September was withdrawn on 20 September after street protests. A Council of Muftis official told Forum 18 "we're just asking for the number of mosques to be raised from four to 10 at least – that would be just". Anton Ignatenko, Vice-chair of Moscow's Department for Relations with Religious Organisations, apologised to Forum 18 that he was currently not authorised to comment on this issue.

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