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15 January 2010

RUSSIA: Supreme Court ban on Jehovah's Witnesses begins to bite

Although 34 Jehovah's Witness publications described as extremist have not yet been added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, public prosecutors in several Russian regions have begun issuing extremism warnings to Jehovah's Witness communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Also, in what is thought to be the first instance in post-Soviet Russia of extended detention in connection with sharing beliefs, two Jehovah's Witnesses informally accused of distributing extremist literature in Bryansk Region were detained for six days for "petty hooliganism". Mikhail Odintsov of the office of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman told Forum 18 – in what he stressed was his personal view – that there was a realistic chance Jehovah's Witnesses could appeal successfully to President Dmitry Medvedev to defend their rights, if complaints were formulated in purely legal terms. He characterised the overall situation as "threatening", maintaining that "reverse Sovietisation" was taking place. "We are returning to the ideological roots of state dislike of certain religious organisations," he remarked. "These people [Jehovah's Witnesses] have no defence. What defence do they have when a court is negatively predisposed towards them, pro-Orthodox, believes that one religion should be protected from another?"

8 December 2009

RUSSIA: 34 Jehovah's Witness publications and one congregation banned

Russia's Supreme Court has today (8 December) upheld a Rostov-on-Don Regional Court ruling finding 34 Jehovah's Witness publications "extremist", ensuring that their distribution will be banned nationwide. The Supreme Court also upheld, as part of the ruling, the liquidation of the Taganrog Jehovah's Witness congregation as extremist. The congregation's property will now be confiscated, and it will be banned from meeting as a community. Asked why the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision, the secretary for the Supreme Court's Civil Cases Division, who would not give her name, told Forum 18 News Service: "The Jehovah's Witnesses are extremist." Asked if they have for example killed anyone, she responded: "To a certain extent, yes." The court ruling opens the way for the distribution of all Jehovah's Witness literature in Russia to be banned in future. Grigory Martynov of the Jehovah's Witnesses expressed disappointment, telling Forum 18 that "the decision was taken very quickly and they gave no explanation as to why they upheld the Rostov decision." He also stated that they will consider whether to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.

23 November 2009

RUSSIA: Proposed missionary restrictions - a paper tiger?

Justice Ministry proposed amendments to the 1997 Religion Law and the Administrative Violations Code imposing draconian controls on religious activity have provoked protest from religious communities and have now been removed from the Ministry's website. Andrei Sebentsov, secretary of the government's Commission for Issues Concerning Religious Associations, told Forum 18 News Service that the parliamentary Religion Committee has refused to consider the proposals, leading the Ministry to approach the parliamentary Security Committee. He says the proposed draft is "so clearly against the demands of the Constitution that the presidential administration would hardly support it." Yet Muslims, Old Believers, Protestants and some Russian Orthodox remain concerned. The draft echoes proposals the Ministry made unsuccessfully in 2006, but Vitali Vlasenko of the Baptist Union believes the threat of their adoption is now greater, since "society is scared by religious extremism".

23 October 2009

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witnesses to be banned?

Following more than 500 check-ups on Jehovah's Witness communities across Russia, prosecutors in several regions are going to court to have various of their publications declared extremist. This would see their distribution banned in Russia and cripple the organisation, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah's Witnesses believe state agencies want a total ban. Rostov-on-Don Regional Court ruled 34 texts extremist on 11 September, the first court to do so. The court ruling, seen by Forum 18, claims that the sentence "true Christians do not celebrate Christmas or other festivals based on false religious ideas" represents incitement to religious hatred, while another publication which quoted Tolstoy – described as "an opponent of Orthodoxy" - created "a negative attitude towards the Russian Orthodox Church". The court also declared a local congregation extremist and ordered it liquidated. The Jehovah's Witnesses have appealed to Russia's Supreme Court. Customs continue to seize their books. The public prosecutor who raided a meeting in St Petersburg alleging "extremist activity" was going on refused to talk to Forum 18: "You could be some kind of spy."

2 October 2009

RUSSIA: "You have the law, we have orders"

Two Baptist preachers in Russia's Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad have been fined after their community "sang psalms and spoke about Christ" in the street, they have told Forum 18 News Service. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in the Kaliningrad police told Forum 18 that all public gatherings – whether political or religious – must be authorised by the municipal authorities in advance. "But they didn't have permission and they had no intention of getting it!" he remarked, clearly irritated by the Baptists' actions. Asked why permission is necessary, the source replied, "That's the law in Russia!" Aleksandr Legotin, one of the two Baptists, insisted that, as the Baptists held a religious service and not a demonstration, the legal requirement to notify the authorities in advance should not have applied. "We follow the law very carefully," he told Forum 18. "And under the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] we have the right to freedom of conscience – the law should be doing the opposite, protecting us from such arbitrariness."

23 July 2009

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness lawyers deported for defending extremism cases?

Four lawyers defending Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported since March, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The deportations of the two American and two Canadian lawyers seriously hinder the Witnesses' attempts to defend themselves in seven local court cases seeking to ban their literature as extremist. Also, a recent police detention allegedly involving torture and a raid on a Sunday service – after which one worshipper had a miscarriage and another was sent to a children's shelter – suggest the law enforcement agencies continue to view Jehovah's Witnesses as religious extremists even without a ban. A leaflet by a traditional Mari-El pagan priest is among the latest additions to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, meaning it is banned throughout Russia. The priest, Vitali Tanakov, has told Forum 18 that he thinks the strongly ecological nature of the Mari religious worldview makes it a threat to those who wish to exploit the republic's timber resources. Recently interviewed in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of Mari El, he suggested that whereas many strive to become rich and happy through business, the Mari faith teaches that "you won't become happy by becoming a businessman, by felling the forests."

16 July 2009

RUSSIA: Raids continue as doubts grow over Nursi ban

Russian customs officials, Prosecutor's Office officials and FSB security service officers are continuing to seize works by Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, most recently in Siberia and Bashkortostan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Russian translations of many of Nursi's works have been banned in Russia, as they have been placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Yet local state officials in Tatarstan maintained to Forum 18 that federal accusations against a Tatar-Turkish lycee in the regional capital Kazan that it was linked with "religious extremism" were unfounded. Tatarstan's senior religious affairs official Renat Valiullin also told Forum 18 that the Moscow court decision banning Nursi translations was taken "without any strong expert analysis". Lycee headteacher Marat Fattiyev, who was accused of being a Nursi follower without his having read any of Nursi's works, suggested to Forum 18 that the move followed false information passed to the FSB about the Turkish ultra-nationalist Ergenekon conspiracy. Federal officials have not yet replied to Forum 18's questions about why Tatarstan officials do not agree with the federal claims of "religious extremism".

9 July 2009

RUSSIA: Any school of Islam, as long as it's Hanafi

Not only do leaders of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Tatarstan support a local monopoly over all Muslim activity in the traditionally majority Muslim republic, so too do state officials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Renat Valiullin, the republic's top religious affairs official, acknowledged to Forum 18 that a requirement in Tatarstan's 1999 Religion Law that all Muslim religious organisations be subject to the Directorate had been struck down as unconstitutional. Yet he insisted all Muslim organisations must be subject to it "so as to keep the argument" of the 1999 Law, adding that they must also be of the Hanafi school of Islam. Kazan City Government religious affairs official Irek Arslanov spoke to Forum 18 approvingly of the Directorate's monthly meetings with the city's imams where "ideology is explained to them". Imam Ildus Faizov of the Directorate's Propaganda Department defended "good censorship" of Islamic thought, including the federal ban on many works of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. One Muslim told Forum 18 some Muslim women locally are afraid to wear the hijab and men are afraid to attend mosque for fear of being branded "religious extremists".

8 July 2009

RUSSIA: Detained and tortured for faith, Tatar Muslims claim

Dina Amirova, on trial in Tatarstan's capital Kazan, insists that she and her husband have been targeted as devout Muslims trying to find out more about their faith, after leaflets of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir political movement were found among a wide range of Islamic-related literature at her home. She told Forum 18 News Service she and her husband have never had personal contact with any of the group's members. Her husband Renat Amirov told Forum 18 he was arrested, beaten and tortured to try to force him to testify against 12 local Muslims on trial for alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir membership. From the town of Elabuga, Taliya Gabdulkhakova insists charges including murder and religious extremism against her son and three other relatives have been fabricated. "My son obeyed Russian laws and paid taxes – he just stood out because he never missed a prayer time, wore a beard and wasn't dressed like everybody else," she told Forum 18. Her son has alleged "medieval torture" against the four while in detention, including heavy beatings, threatened rape and execution. Irek Arslanov, who is responsible for relations with religious organisations at Kazan City Government, dismissed suggestions to Forum 18 that torture and intimidation are practised.

2 June 2009

RUSSIA: Widespread protests at new "Inquisition"

Widespread protests by Russian religious communities and human rights defenders followed the appointment of "anti-cultists" and controversial scholars of Islam to a state body with sweeping powers to investigate religious organisations, Forum 18 News Service notes. Particularly striking opposition to the Justice Ministry's Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis has come from the Old Believers, a group not directly threatened. They view the body's re-organisation as "a direct threat to the constitutional rights of the citizens of Russia to freedom of confession [which] could serve as a dangerous catalyst for inter-confessional strife, a prologue to the beginning of struggle against religious dissent, oppression of believers, the restoration of religious censorship and inquisition." The Old Believers have called for the complete abolition of the Council. The Justice Ministry has failed to respond to Forum 18's questions, including why the Council is needed. The state's position is not unanimously supportive of the Council, and if the authorities heed the widespread protests its activity may be significantly curtailed.

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