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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.

27 May 2009

RUSSIA: Notorious "anti-cultists" on new "Inquisition"

Fears by religious minorities about the Justice Ministry's reconstituted Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis have been exacerbated by the Minister's choice of members, Forum 18 News Service notes. The chair is Aleksandr Dvorkin, Russia's most prominent "anti-cult" activist, who has described the faith of charismatic Protestants as "a crude magical-occult system with elements of psychological manipulation". In a Moscow courtroom in 2004, Forum 18 observed Dvorkin congratulate the Public Prosecutor's Office representative who successfully pushed for the ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses' Moscow organisation. Fellow Council member Aleksandr Kuzmin wrote a leaflet alleging that "Krishnaites are involved in the drugs and arms trade" and "are prepared to murder on religious grounds", and that "beatings and rapes of teenagers in closed children's homes are attributed to Krishnaites." A Siberian court declared the leaflet extremist in March 2009. Another Council member has urged Muslims to burn Islamic books banned as extremist. Forum 18 asked the Justice Ministry whether Council members will have the right to speak for the Ministry and whether Kuzmin will be excluded from the Council. The Ministry has not yet responded.

26 May 2009

RUSSIA: A new "Inquisition"

The powers of the Russian Justice Ministry's Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis were considerably widened in February 2009, allowing it to investigate the activity, doctrines, leadership decisions, literature and worship of any registered religious organisation and recommend action to the Ministry. The subsequent appointment of renowned "anti-cultists" and controversial scholars of Islam to the Council – and the choice of prominent "anti-cultist" Aleksandr Dvorkin as its chair - have led a wide range of religious representatives to liken the Council to a new "inquisition", Forum 18 News Service notes. If the Council is given free rein, it is likely to recommend harsh measures against certain religious organisations. At the Council's first meeting, Dvorkin named the Russian Bible Society as a possible target for investigation, but its executive director told Forum 18 no action has followed. Forum 18 asked the Justice Ministry how many commissions it is likely to give the Council each year, whether the Ministry will automatically accept its conclusions and, if not, who will decide. However, the Ministry has so far failed to respond.

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.

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