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13 March 2009

RUSSIA: Nationwide strike at Jehovah's Witnesses

Public prosecutors across Russia have conducted more than 500 check-ups on local Jehovah's Witness communities since mid-February. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service they believe prosecutors are "trawling" for information to shut down their headquarters in St Petersburg and over 400 dependent organisations. "Nothing else makes sense," their representative Yaroslav Sivulsky told Forum 18. Documents seen by Forum 18 show the nationwide sweep was ordered by First Assistant General Public Prosecutor Aleksandr Bastrykin. Forum 18 asked the General Prosecutor's Office in Moscow why the investigations were ordered and asked for a copy of the instruction to local prosecutors, but so far has received no response. In its instruction ordering check-ups locally, the Moscow Regional Public Prosecutor's Office complained that the Jehovah's Witnesses' missionary activity and rejection of military service and blood transfusions "provoke a negative attitude towards its activity from the population and traditional Russian confessions". Prosecutors have been investigating the St Petersburg Jehovah's Witness headquarters since 2004 but have failed to find any grounds to close it down.

2 March 2009

RUSSIA: Who should historical religious property belong to?

Several current cases show how the allocation of historical worship property can prove a minefield for the state, Forum 18 News Service notes. In Moscow Region, an Old Believer parish is being pushed out of a church to which it has no historical claim but has used for over 60 years: even Church representatives have different views on its fate. In Lipetsk, Baptists continue their fight for compensation for their renovation of an Orthodox church given them by the Soviet authorities and now claimed by the local Orthodox diocese. In Suzdal, the authorities have confiscated 11 churches and 2 bell-towers – all cultural monuments – from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, a competitor to the Moscow Patriarchate. Officials "must think of the consequences of hasty or wrong decisions" when transferring such property, Mikhail Odintsov, a state human rights official, told Forum 18. A draft law on the transfer of historical religious property would reignite the whole restitution issue and place the Russian Orthodox Church among Russia's top landowners.

26 February 2009

RUSSIA: Governor orders church land grab

Apparently unaware that he was giving a public address, the governor of Kaluga Region has ordered that land legally owned by Word of Life Pentecostal Church be seized by "any" means, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The order, made at a recent local government meeting broadcast live via the regional administration's website, has been captured and posted on the internet site YouTube by a church member. No official was prepared to comment to Forum 18. Word of Life has complained of frequent bureaucratic harassment ever since its land and building became an impediment to shopping mall construction plans in Kaluga. In Udmurtia, Philadelphia Pentecostal Church is the latest congregation to report similar bureaucratic obstruction, which state officials usually insist is lawful and routine. Such problems are usually encountered by Protestants, who are more likely to have unsecured worship premises.

24 February 2009

AZERBAIJAN: Literature censorship for export also?

Azerbaijan's wide-ranging religious literature censorship system has started to affect the export of such literature, Forum 18 News Service has found. Customs authorities recently confiscated Christian religious literature from Azerbaijani citizens leaving Azerbaijan. No mention is made in Azerbaijan's laws of censorship of religious literature taken out of the country. Similarly, Forum 18 was told by a customs official that customs regulations are also silent on this point. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, speaking after the confiscation of Muslim literature, told Forum 18 that "our society doesn't need books that don't suit our laws and our beliefs." He claimed that unspecified religious literature could cause unspecified "social harm and possibly inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence." Jehovah's Witnesses have filed three lawsuits specifically against the censorship system, which, they point out, is a violation of the right to religious freedom as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party.

17 February 2009

UZBEKISTAN: Muslims and Christians latest victims of religious literature crackdown

Uzbekistan continues to attack the sharing of information and opinion in religious literature, Forum 18 News Service notes. In the most recent known cases, contributors to two Islamic religious periodicals – Irmoq (Spring) and Yetti Iqlim (Seven Climates) – are facing criminal charges, allegedly for distributing information on the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. Obiddin Makhmudov of Uzbekistan's state Agency of Press and Information told Forum 18 that "I just found out yesterday from the national TV channel that the magazine's [Irmoq's] staff are suspected of having ties with a banned religious organisation." Baptists are being punished for distributing religious literature free-of-charge, in one case being questioned for seven hours without food or water. A different Baptist has been fired from his job as an electrician, after the NSS secret police and ordinary police confiscated his religious literature from his mother-in-law's flat. Asked by Forum 18 why police raided the flat, Police Inspector Alisher Umarov claimed they were "allowed" to do passport control "anywhere and anytime."

16 January 2009

RUSSIA: Banned "extremist" religious literature – who's next?

Although no Jehovah's Witness publication has been deemed "extremist" under Russia's 2002 Extremism Law, in the past two weeks police in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk have detained 14 Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing their tracts, Forum 18 News Service has found. Two of their local communities have already been warned, while a local investigation continues into whether Jehovah's Witness literature is extremist. The region's FSB security service has tried unsuccessfully to have a local Jehovah's Witness lawyer disbarred, which would prevent him from defending their community. Courts in two other Russian regions are also considering cases against Jehovah's Witness literature. Works deemed extremist by even a local court may not be distributed anywhere in Russia. A Moscow chain of bookstores was fined in December 2008 for distributing a non-violent Muslim title, the second fine in Russia for selling the work. Prosecutors have also investigated a Russian Orthodox website that had posted robust criticism of Islam. However, a draft Law prepared by the General Prosecutor's Office to make anti-extremism measures "more effective" was withdrawn from parliament in December 2008.

18 December 2008

RUSSIA: Chill begins to bite for Moscow Pentecostals

As the temperature in Moscow dips below zero, one of the city's largest Pentecostal churches meets for worship in a marquee on a rough patch of land in an outlying suburb. "We've nowhere else to go," Bakur Azaryan, Emmanuel Church's assistant pastor, explained to Forum 18 News Service. The land is tied to a former workers' club bought by Emmanuel seven years ago. But as the local authorities have still not drawn up the Church's land rights, it cannot use or reconstruct the building, gutted in a suspected arson attack in 2007. In April 2008, Emmanuel lost access to rented premises apparently due to state pressure – a familiar complaint by Moscow Protestant communities. A local official maintained to Forum 18 that Emmanuel may in fact use or reconstruct its building, but this was countered by a more senior Moscow official. Konstantin Blazhenov also insisted to Forum 18 that the land rights issue is being resolved but is just taking "a long time". Without stable premises, Emmanuel cannot licence its seminary, which the Justice Ministry this month tried to dissolve for being unlicensed.

18 December 2008

RUSSIA: Who can and cannot conduct religious education?

The seminary of Moscow's Emmanuel Pentecostal Church cannot gain a licence as it does not have stable premises, Forum 18 News Service has found. The seminary is one of 22 religious organisations on a Justice Ministry list whose liquidation has been sought through the courts. The Church itself has faced obstruction from local officials in attempting to use or reconstruct its building, and the seminary is one of a few religious organisations on the Justice Ministry list which is not defunct or otherwise obsolete. Ten of these organisations are Moscow-based religious educational organisations listed as liable for liquidation, apparently for unlicensed educational activity. Two of the 22 religious organisations decided to dissolve themselves: the Presbyterian Christian Theological Academy and the Institute of Contemporary Judaism. However, four others in the list have successfully challenged immediate liquidation. The latest update of a separate Justice Ministry list of centralised religious organisations slated for liquidation now features only 19 of the original 56 organisations, Forum 18 notes.

9 December 2008

RUSSIA: Why weren't violent church attackers convicted?

None of the alleged participants in two violent attacks on a Pentecostal church – by three people in the first attack and eight people in the second attack – has gained either a criminal or administrative record for the attacks, Forum 18 News Service has found. Asked why, given the seriousness of the attacks, no criminal case had been launched and no criminal trial had taken place, a senior investigatory official responded: "That's your subjective view." Only one attacker – Oleg Sumarukov - appears to have had any form of official action taken against him. However, a local newspaper thought to have encouraged the April 2008 attacks was given an official warning. During the attacks, slogans such as "Sectarians are everywhere!" and "You must be destroyed!" were shouted, parishoners were threatened with a pistol, the pastor was beaten up and threats were made to murder him, and a threat of an arson attack on the church was made. The attackers also tried to intimidate the church not to call the police. There have, however, been no attacks on the church since, and local police "even visit from time to time to check we're OK," a Pentecostal told Forum 18.

28 November 2008

RUSSIA: "Soon there won't be a single Baptist church in Lipetsk!"

Baptists in the town of Lipetsk south-east of Moscow complain that the authorities are using "a bureaucratic way" to restrict their activity. Two of their local congregations have lost legal status for failing to file tax returns on time, a claim Pastor Vladimir Boyev vigorously rejected to Forum 18 News Service. The tax office refused to speak to Forum 18. One of the congregations has been using a former Orthodox church for nearly twenty years and without legal status cannot now defend its interests in court as the Orthodox diocese wants the building back. The third has lost its rented place of worship it has used for nearly twenty years amid redevelopment plans. The court claimed it had invited the congregation to attend a hearing to set compensation, but the Baptists complain they never received an invitation. Lipetsk's regional religious affairs official, Olga Fyodorova, told Forum 18 the Baptists are deliberately rejecting possible solutions "in order to aggravate the situation". Asked how the Baptists would defend themselves in court after losing their legal status, she responded: "That's their problem!"

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