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7 June 2010

RUSSIA: Ghostlike existence for Dagestan's Protestants

The Hosanna Church – the largest Pentecostal Church in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan – had a five-year agreement allowing prison visits abruptly cancelled in early 2010, Pastor Artur Suleimanov told Forum 18 News Service. The authorities have also changed their earlier positive assessment of the church's work with drug addicts. He believes such problems result from the personal initiative of individual officials. Rasul Gadzhiyev of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs insists that the authorities impose no restrictions on churches' social work. "If the Protestants' activity is in line with the law, there are no problems at all," he told Forum 18. Three Pentecostal pastors told Forum 18 that their congregations' lack of freedom was overwhelmingly due to public attitudes, which prevent some church members from attending Sunday worship even at openly functioning churches in urban locations. One village police chief who stopped Protestants meeting pointed to the mosque and told Pastor Suleimanov: "That's my law."

3 June 2010

RUSSIA: Dagestan's religious freedom policy changing?

Islamist insurgents from Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have stepped up their attacks in recent months. However, Forum 18 News Service notes that the local state authorities appear to have realised that responding to this with harsh restrictions on the religious freedom of Muslims has proved futile and counter-productive. "The authorities are beginning to understand that they can't keep raiding everywhere and trying to control things in that way, that constant pressure doesn't make people regard them positively," local human rights lawyer Ziyautdin Uvaisov told Forum 18. "Physical elimination doesn't go anywhere," Shamil Shikhaliyev of the Dagestan branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences agreed, "we've been destroying them [alleged Islamist militants] for ten years now but there are more and more - like the Hydra, you chop off one head and two more appear." Nevertheless, under current republican law the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan still has a monopoly on all Muslim life in the republic, including on religious literature distribution and education. Many in Dagestan's political and Muslim establishment also remain wary of a change in policy, due to frequent insurgent murders of their colleagues.

2 June 2010

RUSSIA: Dagestan's controls on Islamic education

Legal provisions in the Russian North Caucasus republic of Dagestan restricting religious education are a major element in the near monopoly on Muslim public life enjoyed by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Some local Muslims maintain that the restrictions prevent qualified people from teaching. "You might have a very well-educated imam returning from Syria or Egypt who is a classic convinced Shafi'i Muslim in line with Dagestan's tradition," Shamil Shikhaliyev, head of the Oriental Manuscripts Department at the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Dagestan branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18. "But he won't get a position at a mosque because it is the unwritten law of the Directorate that anyone who studied abroad is Wahhabi and can't become an imam." One local human rights defender, Ziyautdin Uvaisov, has described how those disagreeing with the Directorate's line who have tried to study in its educational institutions usually ended up either leaving or being expelled.

26 May 2010

RUSSIA: Dagestan's controls on Islamic literature

Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan does not formally ban particular items of Islamic literature, but it grants the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan exclusive vetting powers over what is circulated, Forum 18 News Service has found. The restrictions are not always enforced. In practice, Islamic literature which does not display an endorsement from the Directorate is regarded with suspicion. There are limited opportunities to buy or sell such literature, as all mosques and prominent Islamic bookshops come under Directorate control. For Dagestan's many practising Muslims, easy access to information on Islam is thus limited to a relatively narrow range of viewpoints. Possession of "unapproved" books may mean the authorities identify their owner as a "Wahhabi extremist". Directorate bookshops carry many pamphlets condemning so-called Wahhabism in a way similar to Orthodox anti-sectarian brochures, with titles such as "Caution, Wahhabism!" and "Confessions of An English Spy". Only Arabic texts of the Koran are on sale. This starkly contrasts with the stock of a small independent Islamic bookshop visited by Forum 18.

25 May 2010

RUSSIA: Dagestan's Sufi monopoly

The authorities in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have imposed a near monopoly on Islam by a narrow strand of Sufism, Forum 18 News Service has found. The monopoly – imposed in an effort to counter the local Islamist insurgency - is not absolute, but it dramatically reduces the public space allowed for Muslims who do not wish to subjugate themselves to the one permitted Spiritual Directorate. By reinforcing the perception that only Muslims with legal status under the Spiritual Directorate are legitimate, it has fuelled persecution of other Muslims by law-enforcement agencies, local Muslims told Forum 18. A series of local provisions combine to give the Directorate legal control over Muslim public life in Dagestan, permitting only one umbrella organisation per confession. Local religious communities require the endorsement of this umbrella organisation – in Islam's case, the Directorate - to register. Religious literature and education are particularly restricted, although to varying degrees in practice. However, there are signs that the authorities are considering loosening the Directorate's control.

5 May 2010

RUSSIA: Does Dagestan need its anti-Wahhabi law?

Rasul Gadzhiyev, departmental head of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs, defends the southern Russian republic's 1999 local law banning Wahhabism: "no one's talking about annulling it – no way," he insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Yet he could not state definitively why it was needed in addition to Russia's 2002 Extremism Law. Local scholar of the Russian Academy of Sciences Shamil Shikhaliyev told Forum 18 that many in Dagestan now believe the Law to be a mistake "because in practice it determines the state's priorities in the religious sphere". By outlawing Wahhabism as a religious trend, he explained, the state in effect endorsed other forms of Islam. "But who gave the state the right to judge what is correct and what is incorrect in Islam?"

4 May 2010

RUSSIA: Muslim community leader kidnapped by Dagestan authorities?

Sirazhudin Shafiyev, a Muslim who led negotiations on behalf of the Salafi group in a divided mosque community in 2005 in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, was abducted in September 2009 and has not been seen since. Family members told Forum 18 News Service they suspect he was seized and killed by the security services in connection with his religious activity, complaining that those who follow their interpretation of Islam are "persecuted". Rasul Gadzhiyev of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs rejects such allegations of kidnapping and murder, telling Forum 18 "no one is going to pursue you if you haven't committed a crime prosecutable by law." Yet the authorities admit maintaining lists of suspected "Wahhabis". Even Dagestan's state-backed Muslim Spiritual Directorate objects to the lists. Its spokesman complained to Forum 18 that anyone who attends a mosque morning and evening "goes on a police list".

25 March 2010

RUSSIA: Who initiated anti-Jehovah's Witness and anti-Nursi campaigns?

Despite many enquiries, Forum 18 News Service has been unable to establish which Russian government agency or individual initiated the campaign against the Jehovah's Witnesses and readers of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, and why. An Interior Ministry official – who did not give his name – told Forum 18 that "the police don't decide these things for themselves. Someone else has to give the order, perhaps a prosecutor. The police just carry out the order." The official insisted that the moves against Jehovah's Witnesses are "centralised", but declined to speculate on which agency or agencies were involved. The official ended the call before Forum 18 could ask about the campaign against Nursi readers. Contrary to this, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev of the presidential Council for Co-operation with Religious Organisations rejected any suggestion of a "centralised" campaign. Jehovah's Witnesses have documented increasing numbers of short-term police detentions of their members.

23 March 2010

RUSSIA: Lutheran extremists?

After initially denying it, Officer Senichev (who refused to give his first name) of Kaluga Police in central Russia admitted to Forum 18 News Service that eleven armed officers with dogs had interrupted the 28 February Sunday morning service of St George's Lutheran congregation. "We had a call on the hotline that extremist literature was there. We're obliged by law to investigate all such calls." He was unable to specify which Russian law requires the police to respond to anonymous calls. Senichev was also unable to say why, if extremist literature was believed to be present, police officers conducting a search needed to be armed and accompanied by dogs. Nor was he able to explain why the search was conducted during the church's Sunday worship service. The preacher at the service, Pastor Igor Knyazev, later wrote an article entitled "How to behave during raids". Meanwhile, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that an administrative fine on two members in Krasnodar Region was accompanied by the first official order in post-Soviet Russia to destroy their confiscated literature.

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.

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