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16 June 2006

RUSSIA: Property struggles of Protestants, Muslims and Hare Krishna devotees

"A negative attitude towards Evangelical churches" is blamed for the Russian city of Krasnodar's demand for the demolition of a private home intended to host worship. Its owner, Aleksei Yeropkin, told Forum 18 News Service that many religious communities, regionally and nationally, meet for worship in the legal residence of a member. No deadline has yet been set for the demolition, as a court appeal is pending. A linked church in Kalmykia complains of slander on local regional state TV, leading to hostility from local people. But a threatened mosque demolition in Astrakhan has not yet been carried out and an appeal has just been lodged with Russia's Supreme Court. In the Russian capital Moscow, there may be progress in a Hare Krishna temple's struggle for land, following an agreement between the city governments of the Indian capital Delhi and Moscow. But there has been no progress in resolving the similar struggle of a Pentecostal congregation to build a church.

7 June 2006

RUSSIA: Whose side are the police on?

Pentecostals, Catholics and Baptists are among religious communities to complain recently of police failure to protect them from attacks or other unwarranted intrusions during services or of police raids to prevent them conducting religious activity – such as giving out religious literature – which they regard as legitimate, Forum 18 News Service notes. Police failed to respond when 300 Pentecostals in Spassk in Siberia were terrorised by 20 drunken youths who attacked their service in April or when a Catholic service in St Petersburg was disrupted by intruders in late May. Only when church leaders complained did the authorities take belated action. In Ivanovo near Moscow, the FSB security service initiated a raid on a 14 May Baptist evangelisation event at a rented cinema and an investigation is underway over the fact that copies of the New Testament being handed out did not include the name of the publisher. "We are still trying to find out what will happen," Pastor Aleksandr Miskevich told Forum 18. "I can't imagine how they are going to check the authenticity and authorship of the Gospels!"

31 May 2006

RUSSIA: Sharing faith in public – a fundamental right

Recently, local officials have given Forum 18 News Service contrasting reactions to public preaching. This appears to indicate growing disagreement over whether or not the "free dissemination of religious convictions" - as upheld by the 1993 Russian Constitution - is a right subject to state permission. Unregistered Baptists have been the group that has encountered most state obstruction to public dissemination of their beliefs. The head of the southern Rodionovo-Nesvetaiskoye District Administration has insisted to Forum 18 that unregistered Baptists do not have the right to preach in public. She also maintained that unregistered religious groups may meet on private premises, "but they don't have the right to go outside." Forum 18 notes that there is no clear legal restriction of the right to conduct public religious events to registered religious organisations. Contrastingly, after a violent attack on unregistered Baptists in north-eastern Russia, the public prosecutor for Ust-Mai District (who is prosecuting the attackers) has confirmed to Forum 18 that there was nothing illegal about the Baptists preaching in public in a village.

31 May 2006

TURKMENISTAN: Official exit ban list confirmed

Former Baptist prisoner of conscience Shageldy Atakov is the latest person, known to Forum 18 News Service, banned from leaving Turkmenistan apparently because of their religious activity. "We blocked him from travelling – he's here on the list," a Migration Service officer told Forum 18. "People are only stopped from leaving if they have problems with the government," he added, without explaining what reasons trigger exit bans. As well as the Migration Service, the MSS secret police can also impose exit bans. "Sometimes we work together with them, sometimes separately," the official said. Forum 18 knows of an increasing number of Turkmen residents banned from leaving the country, because the authorities do not like their religious activity. Protestants are frequent victims of the exit ban policy, but others known to have been banned from exit are Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses. The number of Muslim haj pilgrims is also severely restricted.

18 May 2006

RUSSIA: Will southern Catholics win full rights to their churches?

Two southern Catholic parishes are unable to obtain official permission to use their new church buildings, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Priests in both parishes stressed, however, that worship has so far been unaffected, and that they do not believe Catholic ownership of the churches to be at stake. Religious organisations very often find it difficult to obtain official confirmation that their de facto complete houses of worship are fit for use, Natalya Gavrishova, a lawyer at the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice told Forum 18. Another problem for both Catholic parishes - in Rostov-on-Don and Sochi - is that changes to the Land Code have resulted in huge financial demands, which are a considerable burden for the parishes. Vitali Brezhnev, state Chief Specialist for Relations with Religious Organisations in Rostov-on-Don region, emphasised to Forum 18 that the authorities "bear no evil intent" towards Catholics and that bureaucracy has become more complicated: "Building my own house was an eight-month nightmare – and I'm a bureaucrat myself!"

18 May 2006

RUSSIA: Sochi Muslims without Mosque, Catholics hope for Chapel

In the Black Sea town of Sochi, close to the Georgian border, the authorities have persistently denied the Yasin Muslim community permission to construct a mosque, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The community has been trying to find a suitable site for 10 years but, "whenever I find somewhere, the [city] architectural department says that it's already sold, obstructed by pipes, or something else," Ravza Ramazanova, the organisation's chair, told Forum 18. The community's roughly 70 worshippers currently use three cramped cellar rooms – which Forum 18 has seen – to pray and study. Similarly, local Catholic priest Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski hopes that Sochi's bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 will assist plans for the construction of a Catholic chapel in the nearby town of Adler. This, he explained to Forum 18, was how the Catholic church in Sochi was built from 1995-97: "They were hoping to hold the Winter Olympics here in 2002." Forum 18 noted that the Russian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews and the New Apostolic Church all have prominent houses of worship in the Sochi area.

17 May 2006

RUSSIA: Step forward for Salvation Army, backward for Pentecostals

The Salvation Army's Russian national registration has been restored, but its Moscow city branch is still unregistered. "We're waiting on [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg," Territorial Commander Colonel Barry Pobjie told Forum 18 News Service. However, the Salvation Army does not face obstruction to its day-to-day Moscow activities, unlike Jehovah's Witnesses in the city, who sometimes face obstruction and are under a local court ban. In contrast, in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the Salvation Army has told Forum 18 that it has not had the registration difficulties faced in Moscow. "That didn't affect us at all," Captain Vladimir Tatiosov said, noting that the authorities support the Salvation Army's various social projects. Pentecostal Pastor Viktor Shvedov told Forum 18 that his church can provide social assistance to prisoners, but is unofficially barred from both helping local children's homes and conducting a March for Jesus through Rostov-on-Don city centre. Before 2005, Rostov-on-Don Pentecostals were able to provide clothes, toys and building materials to children's homes.

9 May 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Deported "for defending believers' rights"

Russian lawyer Kirill Kulikov has been barred from entering Uzbekistan to help local Jehovah's Witnesses with the numerous prosecutions and denial of registration to their communities they face, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Held at passport control on arrival at Tashkent airport early on 26 April, Kulikov was denied access to anyone, including the Russian Embassy, and forced to board a Moscow-bound flight that evening. "Entry to the Republic of Uzbekistan is closed," is the statement on his deportation document - the same wording used when Forum 18's correspondent was deported in 2005. "I am sure the reason for my deportation was the fact that I was defending believers' rights," Kulikov told Forum 18. He was deported a few days after three Turkmen Protestants, held when police raided a Protestant pastor's home in Urgench, were deported back to Turkmenistan, with stamps in their passports barring them also from future visits.

3 May 2006

RUSSIA: Religious work visa respite?

Catholics in southern Russia have told Forum 18 News Service it is getting easier for foreign Catholic priests to gain visas, citing the return to Russia of one of the eight Catholic clergy (including a bishop) barred since 1998. After being denied a visa in October 2004, Fr Janusz Blaut returned to his parish in Vladikavkaz last autumn, thanks to an invitation not from the parish but from the diocese in Saratov. Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski told Forum 18 in Sochi that Catholic priests in Krasnodar region – previously issued only three-month visas at a time – are now given one-year visas as elsewhere in southern Russia. Russia's Catholic Church, which was allowed no seminary in Soviet times, depends heavily on foreign clergy. Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and a Jew are also among the 55 known religious workers barred since 1998, though a handful have been allowed to return. A Pentecostal pastor in Rostov-on-Don told Forum 18 that far fewer foreign Protestant missionaries are now working locally than in the 1990s and they have to keep a low profile.

24 April 2006

RUSSIA: Muslim human rights activist linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir?

Mufti Ismagil Shangareyev, who heads the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Orenburg Region and the Moscow-based Islamic Human Rights Centre, has accused police of planting Hizb ut-Tahrir documents on him, after a search of his former Al-Furkan madrassah. "There's not even any sense in saying that they were planted – it's as clear as daylight," Shangareyev told Forum 18 News Service. His lawyer is Anatoli Pchelintsev of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, which stated that "the situation surrounding Ismagil Shangareyev "is a characteristic example of how the organs of the Interior Ministry and public prosecutors in various Russian regions subject Muslims to humiliation and undermine religious believers' trust in the authorities and the law." No formal charges have been brought against Shangareyev, who maintains that he does not and has never had any prohibited item in his apartment, car or office. He remains a witness in the criminal investigation opened after the discovery of the leaflets.

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