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8 February 2007

RUSSIA: Will church and mosque demolition threats be carried out?

Local authorities in widely separated parts of Russia are demanding the demolition of several Protestant churches and mosques, Forum 18 News Service has noted. This follows an apparently unusual level of interest in their buildings' fire safety and other technical factors in recent months. In one example, Glorification Pentecostal Church – which is threatened with demolition - in the central Siberian city of Abakan questions the validity of numerous claimed violations, such as a failure to keep the storage area under the staircase clear, as "the only thing present under the stairs during the fire safety inspection was a jar of gherkins," Forum 18 was told. Amongst Muslim communities facing problems is Mosque No. 34 in the southern city of Astrakhan. This has been claimed to be "unauthorised construction" and so should be demolished. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has decided to hear the case, after an unannounced hearing in Russia's Supreme Court upheld a demolition order. But in a positive development in Samara, a pre-1917 Belokrinitsa Old Believer Church has been regained by the corresponding local parish.

17 January 2007

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witnesses "very glad" about ECtHR victory

Russian Jehovah's Witnesses are "very glad" about a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that Russian authorities unlawfully interrupted the worship of 103 predominately deaf Jehovah's Witnesses in Chelyabinsk. Spokesperson Yaroslav Sivulsky told Forum 18 News Service that the ruling is also important because "deaf people in Russia often feel that they are of inferior worth, outside society, but this has made them feel rehabilitated and aware that their rights are respected." He regretted that the case had not been resolved within Russia. Both parties in the case have three months in which to appeal against the ECtHR decision. The community currently rents premises for worship without obstruction. Following another ECtHR ruling that Russia had violated the rights of the Salvation Army's Moscow branch by refusing to give it legal status and by branding it a "militarised organisation", the judgement became final on 5 January 2007 and so Russia must make its compensation payment to the Salvation Army by 5 April. There is also a pending ECtHR case about a ban on the Jehovah's Witness organisation in Moscow.

9 January 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Biggest expulsion in eight years

In the biggest expulsion of foreigners involved in religious activity in Azerbaijan since 1999, two Georgian and two Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported, with a Dutch and a British citizen about to follow, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The administrative deportation orders – which do not require any court proceedings – followed a massive police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, which only four of the six foreign residents were attending. Jeyhun Mamedov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed to Forum 18 that "it wasn't a raid – you can't call it that." He refused to state what law the Jehovah's Witnesses had allegedly broken. Mamedov claimed on local public TV – which accompanied the raid - that "specialised equipment" was confiscated which "could be used for communicating secretly with secret services of other countries". Jehovah's Witnesses totally reject these allegations. A steady trickle of foreigners have in recent years been deported for their religious activity.

28 November 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Despite official denials, religious freedom violations continue

Repression of religious communities from the majority community Islam to religious minorities such as Christians has increased, Forum 18 News Service notes. Protestants have been attacked in state-controlled mass media, such as a student, Tahir Sharipov, accused of holding "secretive meetings with singing," and pressure is applied to stop ethnic Uzbeks attending Protestant churches. Andrei Shirobokov, a Jehovah's Witness spokesperson, told Forum 18 that he has had to leave the country as "my friends in the law enforcement agencies warned me that an attempt was to be made on my life." Religious minority sources have told Forum 18 that schoolteachers have been instructed to find out the religious communities schoolchildren attend and where their parents work. US designation of Uzbekistan as a "Country of Particular Concern" for religious freedom violations has drawn a harsh response. Forum 18 has itself been accused of trying "at every opportunity to accuse Uzbekistan without foundation of repressing believers."

15 November 2006

RUSSIA: How likely are missionary restrictions?

In early September 2006 Russian Justice Ministry proposals for a draft law, aimed at "Counteracting Illegal Missionary Activity," were published by the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice. The draft proposes wide-ranging restrictions on all "missionary activity." Vladimir Ryakhovsky, a lawyer with the Centre, told Forum 18 News Service this month that he hoped that it would not be considered by the Duma, Russia's parliament, "because it's absurd." Andrei Sarychev, a senior Justice Ministry official, stressed that the draft has no formal status. "It is still a proposal – it hasn't been taken up by the Duma or anything," adding that he did not know who was responsible for it. Stepan Medvedko, a consultant to the Duma Committee on Religious and Social Organisations, told Forum 18 that no such proposals have been taken up by his Committee for Duma consideration. "We are not considering any changes to the 1997 Religion Law right now." He also stressed that the Justice Ministry text was "just a proposal – it hasn't been sent to us so we can't comment on it" and added that all other suggested amendments "have either gradually been rejected or else became no longer necessary."

14 November 2006

RUSSIA: Will NGO regulations restrict religious communities?

Fulfilling the requirements of Russia's January 2006 legal amendments – commonly referred to as the NGO Law – will be practically impossible for many religious organisations, a Russian religious rights lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, has suggested to Forum 18 News Service. He thinks that "there will be selective application of the law – right up to liquidation – for those not to the authorities' liking." However, a senior Federal Registration Service official has stressed to Forum 18 that the deadline for religious organisations to submit the first annual accounts of their activity - 15 April 2007 – is still far off. "We're not dealing with it yet," Andrei Sarychev told Forum 18. The bureaucratic requirements are very detailed. "A charitable foundation might manage this, but how can a religious organisation say how many people were at its events? Or whether a Russian or foreign citizen put money in its collection box? What constitutes 'charter activity' for a religious organisation?" questioned Ryakhovsky. Religious organisations sometimes complain about petty checks made by local Federal Registration Service departments.

12 October 2006

RUSSIA: Will Salvation Army's European Court victory set a precedent?

Finding against the Russian state for violating the rights of the Salvation Army's Moscow branch by refusing to give it legal status and by branding it a "militarised organisation", the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg ruled on 5 October that the state must pay the Church compensation of 10,000 Euros. Reacting "very positively" to the ruling, which came five years after it lodged the case, Aleksandr Kharkov of the Salvation Army told Forum 18 News Service: "We would have preferred to have come to an agreement in a friendly manner, without recourse to the courts." Forum 18 has been unable to find out whether the Russian state will appeal against the judgment, though it has three months to do so. In what could serve as a precedent in other cases, the ECtHR ruling criticised the state's evaluation of the legitimacy of the Salvation Army's beliefs, the way officials used petty faults and subjective demands to deny registration applications, and the 1997 Religion Law's discrepancy between the religious rights of local citizens and foreigners.

21 August 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Massive fines and jail proposed for sharing beliefs

Uzbekistan intends to impose massive fines and jail people – and the leaders of their religious communities – for sharing their beliefs outside places of worship, Forum 18 News Service has been told. The proposals were made to a meeting of leaders of registered religious communities, in the capital Tashkent, by the state Religious Affairs Committee. For a first "offence," Forum 18 was told, it is intended to impose a fine of between 200 and 600 times the minimum monthly salary. The second time this "offence" is committed, it is intended to jail the offender and the leader of their religious community for between 3 and 8 years. These proposals are the latest harshening of penalties for peaceful religious activity and, like for example the ban on unregistered religious activity, directly break the international human rights standards Uzbekistan is formally committed to. The country has also – in the latest use of deportation against religious believers – deported to Russia a Baptist who grew up in Tashkent, Forum 18 has learnt.

15 August 2006

CHINA: Isolated Xinjiang religious minorities

Three strands of Christianity are officially recognised in China's north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Forum 18 News Service notes: the Three Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), the Patriotic Catholic Association, and two state-registered Orthodox communities. The authorities in Xinjiang appear to be eager to isolate these communities, along with Xinjiang's Buddhists, from links with their fellow believers in other countries. Missionary activity that the authorities become aware of, especially by foreign missionaries, is swiftly halted. Orthodox believers have been advised by the authorities not to communicate with foreigners, Forum 18 has been told. No Orthodox priests are permitted to work in Xinjiang, and it does not appear likely that this will change soon, or that Orthodox men from Xinjiang will be permitted to study at a seminary abroad.

4 August 2006

TRANSDNIESTER: Why are authorities summoning Orthodox priests?

The Russian Orthodox bishop responsible for the unrecognised Transdniester Republic, in eastern Moldova, is not allowing priests of his diocese to attend meetings called by the unrecognised entity's senior religious affairs official, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pyotr Zalozhkov, who reports to Transdniester's President Igor Smirnov, has in recent weeks ordered priests to bring to meetings copies of the parish statute, the document from the bishop appointing them to their position, their certificate as a priest and their personal identity document. Religious affairs official Tamara Kovalchuk, Zalozhkov's assistant, has dismissed Orthodox concerns. "We've had these meetings last year and this," she told Forum 18. "All religious leaders must be accredited. We need to know who the leader of any religious organisation is." Other faiths too, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, also face obstruction from the Transdniester authorities.

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