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14 July 2008

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness tracts feared harmful in asbestos town

The court in the Urals town of Asbest chose not to consider a lawsuit accusing the Jehovah's Witnesses of distributing "extremist" religious literature, as an assessment by FSB security service specialists did not qualify as evidence, the town's acting Public Prosecutor Aleksei Almayev told Forum 18 News Service. However, he said a criminal investigation is continuing and an analysis of several Jehovah's Witness publications – including their magazine "Watchtower" - is being conducted by a local university. "And when we file suit again, we think the court will be more sympathetic." The Prosecutor's Office warning to Asbest's Jehovah's Witnesses claims the publications are "overtly, clearly and directly aimed at inciting hatred, propaganda of exclusivity and humiliation of human dignity on account of a person's attitude towards religion". It claims that the Jehovah's Witnesses' "aggression" will incite others to react to "blasphemous pronouncements on things they consider sacred". If found "extremist" by Asbest court, the publications will be added to the ever-lengthening Federal List of Extremist Materials, which already includes traditional Mari pagan and Muslim literature. Those distributing literature on this list anywhere in Russia risk a five-year prison term.

30 June 2008

RUSSIA: Reprieve for Methodist Sunday school – but for who else?

In a crucial development for religious organisations, Russia's Supreme Court on 10 June ruled that a Smolensk Regional Court decision dissolving a local Methodist church was "unlawful and without foundation". The Regional Court had dissolved the church for running a Sunday school without an education licence. Had the Supreme Court not overturned the earlier decision, "every religious organisation in Russia would have to be shut down for operating such schools," the church's lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky told Forum 18 News Service. The Supreme Court noted that the Sunday school falls outside both the 1992 Education Law and state education regulations, so does not require a state licence. But confusion persists over what type of religious educational activity requires a state licence, and some adult Bible schools are fighting liquidation on similar grounds. One such case has been sent to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but no admissibility decision has yet been made.

29 May 2008

RUSSIA: Are Turkish teachers, traditional pagans and Jehovah's Witnesses religious extremists?

Tatar-Turkish lycees, traditional Mari paganism, and Jehovah's Witnesses are all being officially accused of religious extremism in Russia, Forum 18 News Service has found. Tatarstan Public Prosecutor's Office has warned a Tatar-Turkish Lycee that Turkish teachers – who make up one quarter of the staff - are holding secret discussions with pupils about religion. Marat Fattiyev, the headteacher, insisted that "there is no basis whatsoever for these accusations." Fattiyev told Forum 18 that "the lycees are secular institutions – there isn't even any tuition about religion here." The case is linked to the earlier ban on works by moderate Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Traditional pagan beliefs in Mari-El also face religious extremism allegations, as well as a media ban on advertising centuries-old ploughing festival worship. Also suspecting extremist activity, the Public Prosecutor's Office in Rostov-on-Don has ordered its local offices "to investigate local communities of Jehovah's Witnesses and to consider filing applications for their liquidation." Levelling religious extremism charges against such disfavoured religious - and non-religious – groupings undermines the charges' reliability.

22 May 2008

BELARUS: "We are reclaiming our history as a land of religious freedom"

Concern is growing across Europe about the deterioration of freedom of conscience in Belarus. Few are aware, however, that Belarus was once a haven of religious freedom for people fleeing persecution in Western Europe. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Antoni Bokun, pastor of Minsk's John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, describes how Belarusians' historical experience has taught them that "religious freedom elevates our nation, whereas religious un-freedom leads to the darkest and most tragic consequences." In 1573 - almost 400 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Belarusians adopted one of Europe's first legal declarations upholding religious freedom for all, when many other European states executed people for their faith. Pastor Antoni maintains that it is this deep-rooted experience which lies behind today's campaign against religious freedom restrictions. "Inspired by our long history of freedom of conscience, Belarusians continue to work and hope for the day that our country will reclaim its heritage as a land of religious freedom." In 2007 Pastor Bokun spent three days in prison and was heavily fined for leading worship services.

30 April 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Alarm at state-backed planned new Religion Law

Kazakhstan is planning more restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Human rights activists and some religious communities have expressed alarm at a planned new Religion Law penalising "unapproved" religious activities. The proposals include banning missionary activity by people who do not both represent registered religious communities and have state accreditation, and banning small religious communities from maintaining public places of worship or publishing religious literature. Prime Minister Karim Masimov has backed the latest draft, writing that "perfecting" legislation at the "contemporary phase of state-confessional relations" is "timely and necessary." Fr Aleksandr Ievlev of the Russian Orthodox Church vigorously defended the proposals, telling Forum 18 that "the current Law has allowed sectarians to spread in the country." He complained that "the proposed amendments do not at all restrict the rights and freedoms of religious organisations – those that say otherwise are lying." Accompanying the draft Law, the mass media is being used by officials and parliamentary deputies to promote intolerance of religious communitioes they dislike.

24 April 2008

RUSSIA: Visa changes leave religious communities in uncertainty

Visa rules introduced in October 2007 allow foreigners with a business or humanitarian visa – which includes religious work – to spend only 90 out of any 180 days in Russia. While not targeted at religious communities, they are having a harsh impact on many that depend upon foreigners. "Our priests are really, really suffering from this," one Russian Catholic told Forum 18 News Service. Many of the over 90 per cent of Catholic priests who are foreign citizens are now forced to spend long periods abroad or even commute into Russia for Sunday Mass. One foreign Protestant told Forum 18 that he and others are in three-month "exile" in Georgia as they have used up their time in Russia. Religious communities now need to get work permits for their foreign workers, but complain that these are subject to general regional quotas for all foreigners. "These criteria aren't acceptable for religious work," religious rights lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky told Forum 18. "The state shouldn't say who the leaders of a religious community should be; it's their internal decision." Government religious affairs official Andrei Sebentsov agrees. But, he told Forum 18, "There would need to be a change in the law for anything to happen."

23 April 2008

ABKHAZIA: Only Georgian Orthodox priest expelled

The internationally unrecognised entity of Abkhazia has expelled a Georgian Orthodox priest, Fr Pimen Kardava, after a "special decree" of the canonically unrecognised Abkhaz Orthodox Church. Independent sources who preferred not to be identified have told Forum 18 News Service that the expulsion was carried out by the entity's SSS security police. Fr Kardava's expulsion, just before the Orthodox celebration of Easter, leaves the entity's Georgian Orthodox believers without any priests. Yuri Ashuba, head of the SSS security police, declined to speak to Forum 18, but a subordinate stated that "You should speak to Fr Vissarion Aplia of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church." He admitted that Fr Aplia is not a state official but would not say why he was the appropriate person to answer questions. The Abkhaz diocesan administration's telephone was not answered. Also, Batal Kobakhia, chair of the entity's parliamentary Human Rights Committee, told Forum 18 that a Religion Law is being prepared.

26 March 2008

RUSSIA: Methodist church dissolved for having Sunday school

Because a United Methodist congregation in the western city of Smolensk has a Sunday school, which is attended by four children, the Regional Court dissolved the Church on 24 March, the church's pastor Aleksandr Vtorov told Forum 18 News Service. The court agreed with the Regional Organised Crime Police that the Methodists were breaking the law by conducting "educational activity in a Sunday school without a corresponding licence". Investigation into the congregation began after a complaint from local Russian Orthodox bishop Ignati (Punin). It originally focused on a planned missionary college, before switching to the Sunday school. Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice fears the Methodist congregation's liquidation increases the threat to other religious education. "Almost every religious organisation has a Sunday school," he told Forum 18. "I don't know of one that has a separate education licence. Do they intend to liquidate them all?" Elsewhere, adult religious education without a licence has already led to raids and enforced closures.

10 March 2008

RUSSIA: Methodist church dissolved for minor bureaucratic slip

A regional court in Russia has dissolved a functioning Methodist congregation because it did not file a report about its annual activities on time, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Deprived of legal personality status, the church may now only gather for worship at premises provided by its existing members and give them religious instruction. Methodist Pastor Vladimir Pakhomov told Forum 18 News Service that the Belgorod branch of the Federal Registration Service "even told me there was no point in attending court, as the church would be closed in any case." The court did not – contrary to a Constitutional Court decision - attempt to find out whether the church operates or not. "They could close us and others down in exactly the same way - many registered communities don't submit this information in time as they see it as a formality," a local Baptist pastor commented. The Methodists did not submit their report on time due to the near impossibility of Protestants finding a suitable legal address in Belgorod Region. "We sent them letters, two official warnings," a local official told Forum 18. "When we got no response we had no choice but to take them to court."

28 February 2008

RUSSIA: State investigates Methodists at Orthodox bishop's request

At the request of a Russian Orthodox bishop, the regional Public Prosecutor's Office, Organised Crime Police, Department for the Affairs of Minors, Education Department and ordinary police in Smolensk have made a series of check-ups on a local Methodist church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. They also forced the church to remove missionary college plans from its website. Bishop Ignati (Punin) of Vyazma claimed the college "aims not to bring about the rebirth of the spiritual-moral foundations of the life of our people, but its spiritual destruction." He then asked the Regional Public Prosecutor "to take the measures necessary in this situation to defend the inhabitants of our city, particularly youth, from this pseudo-religious organisation." Even though the Bishop's appeal contained no legal argument, the Public Prosecutor's Office explained to Forum 18 that it reacted because: "Any citizen or organisation may appeal to us." If a citizen suggests an organisation is harmful, but not in breach of the law, "we'll check the legality of its activity," Forum 18 was told. Methodist Pastor Aleksandr Vtorov has filed suit for moral damages against Bishop Ignati. Intimidated by the unprecedented wave of check-ups, only five Methodists attended last Sunday's worship service, instead of the usual 36.

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