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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".

27 June 2007

RUSSIA: Said Nursi ban brands moderate Muslims as extremist

Muslims popularising the work of Said Nursi, a Turkish Muslim theologian, may be at risk of criminal prosecution as extremists, Forum 18 News Service has been told. If an appeal – which may be heard in August - against a Moscow court ban on translations of Nursi's works fails, "anyone in Russia who publishes or distributes the banned publications of Said Nursi will be liable to criminal prosecution," Valeri Kuzmin of Tatarstan's Public Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. Sergei Sychev, a lawyer who is contesting the ban, estimates that millions of copies of Nursi's work Risale-i Nur - a popular missionary text – are currently in circulation in Russia. Kuzmin has stated that legal action was initiated in response to complaints from relatives "concerned by what was happening to those lured into the Nursi community." Its approximately 200 members in Tatarstan, Kuzmin estimated, "try to sever social ties" in just the same way as "totalitarian sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses." The ban relies solely upon analysis of the work by psychologists and linguists of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Russia's Ombudsman for Human Rights, Vladimir Lukin, and a wide range of Russia's Muslim leaders and scholars has condemned the ban.

26 April 2007

RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, April 2007

Senior Russian state representatives, such as President Putin, continue to project an image of supporting "traditional religions" such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Forum 18 News Service notes. But this does not translate into day-to-day decision making, as religious affairs are a low national priority. Decisions are normally made at a low level, so the religious freedom situation varies even between towns. One exception is support by senior state representatives for religious leaders who endorse them, such as Pentecostal bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky. Legal discrimination is rare, even against communities such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and where it exists does not completely halt religious activity. So-called "telephone law" and blocking some foreign religious workers have been the main sources of religious freedom violations. Acquiring or retaining worship buildings is a major problem, and affects Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hare Krishna devotees, Jehovah's Witnesses, Molokans and the Russian Orthodox Church. Widening the legal definition of terrorism and extremism is a particularly concern for Muslims. Russia's central authorities do not have a policy of restricting freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 can state. But their failure to actively tackle discrimination produces a slow erosion of religious freedom.

17 April 2007

RUSSIA: Religious communities' new NGO Law reporting requirements

New simplified reporting requirements for religious communities under the so-called NGO Law ask religious communities and organisations to specify whether they receive income from Russian legal personalities, foreign legal personalities, foreign states, any form of enterprise and "other" sources, Forum 18 News Service notes. But they are no longer asked whether they receive income from Russian individuals or the Russian state. Similarly, they no longer have to provide details of religious congresses, conferences or governing body meetings - including the number of participants. Nor are they required to stipulate the ways in which they publicise their activities. Each religious organisation still has to supply the full names, addresses and passport details of those members belonging to its governing body. Centralised religious organisations may submit all this information on behalf of their affiliate communities.

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