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29 November 2007

RUSSIA: Will Moscow mayor help Molokans?

In what Russia's Ombudsman for Human Rights has called "a scandalous case," plans by Moscow's Molokan community to build a prayer house have met persistent obstruction. "There was no constitution or religion law back in 1805, but then it took the tsar just ten days to sort out our problem. Now we have all that, but we're nowhere after ten years!" Yakov Yevdokimov, of Moscow's Molokan community, remarked to Forum 18 News Service. The Molokans are an indigenous Russian Christian confession closely resembling Protestants. Moscow's Molokans first requested land in December 1996. The first active – and initially positive - response by the city authorities came in November 2000, but since then some city officials have blocked plans, citing various reasons. One reason cited has been a survey of 1,142 out of 1,829 local residents that found public opinion to be opposed to the prayer house. Russia's Ombudsman for Human Rights found that only 297 people took part in the survey, and that some of those recorded as opposed did not participate at all. The Ombudsman suggests that the poll - "in any case only recommendatory" - was "probably crudely falsified."

15 November 2007

RUSSIA: Pentecostal and Muslim organisations dissolved

Among the commonest reasons for religious organisations losing legal status is unlicensed educational activity, or the late submission of a tax return, Viktor Korolev, the official in charge of religious organisations at the Federal Registration Service has told Forum 18 News Service. Liquidated organisations known to Forum 18 include both Pentecostal and Muslim organisations. An official who heads the department responsible for registration at a regional branch of the Federal Registration Service, Rumiya Bagautdinova, told Forum 18 that religious organisations must provide information about their activity every year. Check-ups take place every two years at most, she said. Two such check-ups of the now liquidated Bible Centre in Novocheboksarsk took place in April. They involved the Public Prosecutor's Office, local police and the FSB security service. "Their first question," Fyodor Matlash told Forum 18 "was whether we were publishing extremist literature! We explained that we don't publish literature of any kind; we don't have the equipment." Particularly since the Federal Registration Service was allocated wider monitoring powers, religious communities have complained of a marked increase in state scrutiny and bureaucracy.

8 November 2007

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed, Jehovah's Witness threatened with new sentence

Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been freed after being amnestied from a three year labour camp sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "My wife Valentina wrote an official statement that I will not violate the law," he told Forum 18. "I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me and my family during my imprisonment." Asked about his health in the wake of his eight months in prison, Kalataevsky responded: "God strengthened me physically." Two Jehovah's Witnesses, who are serving suspended sentences have not been amnestied. Begench Shakhmuradov received a two year sentence in September 2007, and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev was given an 18 month sentence in July 2007. Ashirgeldyyev has been threatened with a new sentence, even though he is still serving his current suspended sentence. He has been barred from work unless he receives a stamp from the Military Commissariat, which refuses to give him this. Another Jehovah's Witness, Ashirgeldy Taganov, also faces prosecution for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

31 October 2007

TRANSDNIESTER: Restrictive draft Religion Law proposed

A restrictive draft Religion Law is being proposed in the parliament of the unrecognised entity of Transdniester, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The new draft – if adopted – would stop any new religious communities, unaffiliated to existing registered denominations, from gaining legal status for ten years. This would deny them the right to produce and import literature, set up religious colleges, and invite religious workers from outside Transdniester. Independent Protestant congregations or faiths such as the Jehovah's Witnesses are likely to be most affected. But also hard hit is likely to be a newly-established diocese of the Bessarabian Orthodox Church. Local Russian Orthodox Church officials, as well as Transdniester state officials, have already signalled their strong opposition to the new Bessarabian diocese. Vyacheslav Tobukh, the Supreme Soviet deputy who wrote the draft Law, declined to discuss specific concerns with Forum 18 but defended his text.

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.

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