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30 October 2007

RUSSIA: Threats to demolish churches and mosques continue

In Astrakhan, a mosque community fears its unfinished building could be demolished despite a pending case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Mosque chairwoman Asya Makhmudova told Forum 18 News Service that "a bailiff at the Regional Court told me recently that it was quite possible they could receive an order to demolish the mosque any day, and that they wouldn't hesitate to follow it". The Glorification Pentecostal Church in the Siberian city of Abakan was forced to demolish its worship building after a court ruled that it did not conform to building regulations. Threats to take away the land have now been overcome, but the regional religious affairs official told Forum 18 that he has stopped the distribution of a leaflet from city officials among local residents opposing the building of a replacement church on the site. Yet Nikolai Volkov was unable to explain why the church has been unable to regain its licence to run a secondary school after the church brought the school building into line with fire safety standards. A Pentecostal church in Kaluga has faced repeated criminal investigations into its school after it narrowly avoided having its church building confiscated. The church's electricity supply is about to be cut off.

23 October 2007

RUSSIA: Orthodox parish forced out of hospital church

A Moscow Patriarchate parish in Russia is being forced out of a pre-1917 hospital church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. St Nicholas' parish, in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, is widely known for its missionary youth work. It has been worshipping in the church, which is part of a hospital complex sold for redevelopment, since 1997. The case is unusual as the parish is being evicted from an historical Orthodox church which had been returned by the state. It seems to be symptomatic, Forum 18 notes, of the commercial pressures beginning to dominate in some parts of Russia. In Orthodoxy, consecration of a church building is irrevocable, so that its secular use is regarded as desecration. Officials have been unsympathetic to the parish's case, one parishioner complaining to Forum 18 that "for government officials, a church doesn't differ from a prayer room, they don't understand its significance." However, a regional official insisted to Forum 18 that a hospital or house church differs from an ordinary parish church. In many parts of Russia, surviving historical Orthodox, Old Believer and Catholic churches have not always been returned.

25 September 2007

RUSSIA: Compulsory Orthodox lessons to continue, Belgorod official insists

Pastor Andrei Karchev of Kingdom of God Pentecostal Church objects to the compulsory Orthodox Culture classes which have just begun again in schools in his home region of Belgorod for the second year running. "When only one confession is taught - when the textbook emphasises that only Orthodox Christians are Christians while others are sects – in our opinion, this is bad," he complained to Forum 18 News Service. However, Karchev notes that although the subject is officially compulsory, unofficially he and other parents have been able to withdraw their children from the classes. Such children's grades suffer as they get no mark for the subject. Another local Protestant pastor pointed out to Forum 18 that not all teachers in Belgorod Region follow the Russian Orthodox line. "One said openly that she doesn't believe in God, but they've been told to teach the subject." Olga Yeliseyeva, the specialist on Orthodox Culture at Belgorod Regional Education Authority, insisted to Forum 18 that the region has no intention of halting teaching of the subject.

25 September 2007

RUSSIA: Patchy local provision of Orthodox culture classes

On 1 September, the start of the school year, a seven-year-old Protestant pastor's son in Voronezh Region was beaten up by fellow-students for refusing to cross himself during prayers in school led by a Russian Orthodox priest. But provision of the controversial Foundations of Orthodox Culture course in state schools remains patchy, Forum 18 News Service notes. Belgorod Region has gone the furthest in imposing it as a compulsory subject for all grades. A Public Chamber survey found that 12 regions have 10,000 pupils or more studying Foundations of Orthodox Culture, though other regions have none. Mukaddas Bibarsov of the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims complained to Forum 18 in 2005 that the subject represents "the Christianisation of our children". More recently Vsevolod Lukhovitsky of the Teachers for Freedom of Conviction group cited complaints from Orthodox parents who believe religious education is their and their priest's responsibility. "They don't want some half-trained teacher who is officially secular taking over."

24 September 2007

RUSSIA: Putin sounds final bell for Orthodox culture classes?

Non-Orthodox parents – whether of other faiths or no faith – have long complained that the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course in schools is compulsory and catechetical, not culturological. But Forum 18 News Service notes that the Russian Orthodox Church's efforts to promote it could now flounder after President Vladimir Putin's remarks in mid-September in Belgorod – the region where imposition of the subject has gone furthest. Stressing Russia's constitutional separation of religion and state, Putin added, "if anyone thinks that we should proceed differently, that would require a change to the Constitution. I do not believe that is what we should be doing now." But it remains unclear how religion will be taught in state schools. Reforms now in parliament would abolish the regional mechanism through which the Foundations of Orthodox Culture has been introduced. In a position paper sent to Forum 18, however, the Education Ministry says that the reforms will also allow each individual school to determine curriculum content, "taking into account regional or national particularities, school type, educational requirements and pupils' requests".

8 August 2007

RUSSIA: Islamic extremists, real and imagined

Russia's pursuit of religious and other extremists has intensified with recent amendments to the Extremism, Media and other laws, Forum 18 News Service notes. The legal definition of incitement to religious hatred is no longer restricted to activity involving violence or the threat of violence. Journalists describing a religious or other organisation that has been banned as extremist must now state this or face a heavy fine. Some prominent Russian Muslim representatives are deeply unhappy about state policy on extremism. They allege that justice has been misapplied in some recent trials and that, at the middle and lower tiers of authority, "state policy has become distorted and turned into the opposite of what it is meant to be." Mikhail Ostrovsky of the Presidential Administration responded that most of the cases raised lie within the competency of the judiciary and urged Muslims to refer concrete violations to the law enforcement agencies "in the prescribed manner". Opinion on Islamic extremism in Russia is polarised, being influenced by shifting and ambiguous definitions, rivalry between Islamic groups and state preferences for some Muslim organisations over others.

1 August 2007

RUSSIA: European Court victory for Evangelical pastor

Pastor Petr Barankevich of the Christ's Grace Evangelical Church is the latest Russian citizen to win a freedom of religion or belief case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. The Court unanimously ruled that it was not lawful to ban the Church from meeting for worship in a public park, and that the authorities should uphold their right to meet in public. Pastor Barankevich told Forum 18 News Service that he thinks the financial compensation due from the Russian Government is "not as important" as upholding his rights. Ever since the Church was denied permission to meet for worship in a park in the town of Chekhov (Moscow Region) in 2002, it has not held any public events. "We thought there was no point in trying until the European Court resolved the issue." The Russian Government has not yet paid a group of Jehovah's Witnesses compensation due by 11 July under an earlier ECtHR judgment. However, after another 2007 ECtHR judgment became final, this time in favour of the Salvation Army, they were paid compensation. But the situation which led to that ECtHR judgment has not been addressed. Aleksandr Kharkov, of the Salvation Army, told Forum 18 that they are very concerned to get the original Moscow court ruling overturned, because it suggests the church is a paramilitary formation.

18 July 2007

TURKMENISTAN: Another Baptist deported to Russia

Seven weeks after being arrested for religious activity, Baptist pastor Yevgeni Potolov has been deported to Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Potolov's deportation separates him from his wife and seven children. While he was in prison, the MSS secret police gave the Migration Service a document declaring the Pastor to be a "dangerous person." Forum 18 has been unable to find out from officials why Potolov was deported and why arrests, raids and deportations in punishment for peaceful religious activity are increasing. Others deported in earlier years for their religious activity have not been allowed to return to their homes. After Baptist leader Aleksandr Frolov was deported in June 2006, his wife Marina, a Turkmen citizen, appealed for him to be allowed back to live with her and their two young children. But in the face of Turkmenistan's refusal of family re-unification, she has now joined him in Russia. "I hadn't seen my husband for a year and didn't want our family to be split," she told Forum 18.

11 July 2007

RUSSIA: Officials deny harassing Muslim women's study group

Exactly two years ago, officials in the Volga republic of Tatarstan began harassing a group of 50 women who study the writings on the Koran of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Group members have told Forum 18 News Service that flats were raided and searched, often without a warrant, books and notes confiscated and several of the women subjected to forced psychiatric examinations. After ailing 62-year-old Fakhima Nizamutdinova was warned in autumn 2006 that she would be taken to the FSB secret police if she failed to cooperate, she suffered two heart attacks. One group member told Forum 18 that Nizamutdinova has still not recovered and rarely leaves her flat. Asked why sweeping searches, involving the FSB and a helicopter, had been conducted at the group's meeting places, Valeri Kuzmin of Tatarstan Public Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18 that "the aim of the searches was to find the literature", even though no court had then deemed it "extremist".

11 July 2007

RUSSIA: Tatar Muslim women fear purge following Said Nursi ban

Following extensive state harassment and a ban imposed by a Moscow court in May on the Russian translation of Said Nursi's book Risale-i Nur (Messages of Light), a group of 50 women in Tatarstan who study the late Turkish theologian's writings on the Koran fear a new crackdown. "We Muslims who read Said Nursi's books are afraid for our lives and the lives of our loved ones," they told Forum 18 News Service. Although no reprisals have occurred since the Moscow ban, they note that television stations have reported that if the appeal against the ban fails anyone reading the banned work will be liable to prosecution. Eduard Ismagilov of the Tatarstan branch of the FSB secret police staunchly denied to Forum 18 the women's allegations of abuse. Valeri Kuzmin of Tatarstan Public Prosecutor's Office – who initiated the case that led up to the Moscow ban – also denied that officials used coercion against Nursi followers. However, he told Forum 18 they are dangerous "because their literature harms people's health" and "because they lure children into their activity".

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