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20 March 2006

RUSSIA: Blocks to acquiring places of worship

A Muslim community in southern Russia has been told to demolish its mosque by 1 May, or it will be demolished by the local authority, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The dispute in the city of Astrakhan revolves around the renovation of a disused silage tower and two-storey annexe for use as a mosque – which a regional court has described along with the municipal administration as "unauthorised construction" – and the construction of a new mosque on the site. Approval for the mosque construction was given in 2001, but construction only started in 2005 after sufficient funds had been collected; this too must now be removed. The Muslims claim that there was a sudden change in attitude by the local authority following a visit by President Vladimir Putin. Hare Krishna and Buddhist religious communities in Moscow have also recently complained to Forum 18 about attempts to block their acquisition of places of worship. Permission to build a Hare Krishna temple was withdrawn amid hostility from a Russian Orthodox Archbishop, and a Tibetan Buddhist group lost their city centre premises due to a municipal construction project.

20 February 2006

RUSSIA: Official and unofficial challenges to Protestant property ownership

Due to begin today (20 February) in Moscow Arbitration Court is a case challenging the 1997 purchase by the charismatic Kingdom of God Church of a factory's social club to use as a church. The Federal Property Agency is seeking the return of its "illegally occupied" property, although as church lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky pointed out to Forum 18 News Service the church has a valid ownership certificate and the deadline for legal challenges runs out after three years. Elsewhere local officials have refused to register Protestant churches' ownership of land, arbitrarily rejected approved construction plans and refused to redesignate property for religious use. This suggests that local authorities deliberately use bureaucratic and/or unofficial methods to challenge Protestant property ownership. Mikhail Odintsov of Russia's human rights ombudsperson's office noted in early February that while in the past complaints about religious freedom violations came from foreign organisations, "now it is ours, our Protestants", with the number of complaints rising. "The percentage of complaints resolved is miserable, and attempts to do so stop, start and go on for years."

9 February 2006

COMMENTARY: A murder in Turkey, missionaries and Turkish-language books

Since the murder of Italian Roman Catholic priest Fr Andrea Santoro, much discussion has taken place within Turkey as to why this happened. This mainly centred on the controversy over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, and on Fr Andrea's work helping Russian women caught up in organised prostitution. But some discussion focused on the presence of Christian literature, in Turkish, at the back of Fr Andrea's church, notes Canon Ian Sherwood, an Irish priest who has been Anglican Chaplain in Istanbul http://web.archive.org/web/20080229064600/http://www.anglicanistanbul.com/ since 1989. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, he observes that even "liberal" voices see any attempt to express or commend Christianity in Turkish as suspiciously criminal, or at least intellectually unacceptable, and the liberty to distribute non-Islamic texts has been seen as unacceptable in Turkey for centuries. Canon Sherwood asks whether the time has now come to shed this misplaced suspicion and fear of a reasonable liberty.

8 February 2006

RUSSIA: Muslim rivalry behind criminal charges?

A Muslim activist in the southern region of Astrakhan, Mansur Shangareyev, has been charged with incitement to religious hatred by the regional authorities, but his lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, insists to Forum 18 News Service that the charges are "absurd and very crudely falsified." He strongly maintains that the conduct of a police and Interior Ministry search of Shangareyev's home, and the quality of the evidence presented in court, is highly questionable. Mukaddas Bibarsov, who heads the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, expressed his doubts about the charges to Forum 18, and has claimed that one form of state discrimination against Muslims in Russia is "the fabrication of criminal cases" and that Mansur Shangareyev's case was "one of the most flagrant examples." Well known human rights activists and Rabbi Zinovy Kogan of KEROOR have signed an open letter supporting this. Some observers believe that the reason for the charges is rivalry between Muslim Spiritual Directorates, as well as charges of extremism levelled against the Al-Furkan madrassah founded by Mansur Shangareyev's brother Ismagil Shangareyev.

25 January 2006

CENTRAL ASIA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan close doors to UN Special Rapporteur

Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.

19 December 2005

RUSSIA: Moscow Chief Rabbi returns, but expulsion explanations are contradictory

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow's Chief Rabbi, has returned to the Russian capital after having his one-year multi-entry visa revoked without explanation in September. Speaking to Forum 18, Rabbi Goldschmidt said that he now holds a one-month single-entry religious work visa supported by an invitation from "one of the Jewish communities." He confirmed to Forum 18 that he thus has to leave Russia again in early January, but that he hopes to re-enter holding a one-year multi-entry religious work visa. He declined to comment on the possible reasons for his September deportation, but the Russian Foreign Ministry indicate that the visa revocation may have been linked with Rabbi Goldschmidt's possession of a business rather than a religious work visa. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has firmly reported that Russia's Interior Ministry stated in an official letter that the visa revocation was "for national security reasons." Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of the International Jewish Newspaper, indicated to Forum 18 that Rabbi Goldschmidt's expulsion may have been connected with a property dispute.

30 November 2005

RUSSIA: When can Moscow Chief Rabbi return?

Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is still in Israel, after his Russian visa was annulled without explanation at a Moscow airport in September. But his wife, Dara, told Forum 18 News Service that he may return to the Russian capital next week. "With God's help, we think the situation will be resolved shortly," she told Forum 18. Dara Goldschmidt, who is in Moscow with the couple's seven children, told Forum 18 that she had returned without problems from a visit to Israel in October and that she had no idea why her husband's visa had been annulled. Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of the Moscow-based International Jewish Newspaper, told Forum 18 that Israeli Vice-Premier Shimon Peres had raised the issue of Goldschmidt's deportation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 27 October. According to Golenpolsky, "Lavrov said that it sounded like a technical thing they could solve in several minutes." Swiss-born Rabbi Goldschmidt leads Moscow's Choral Synagogue and has lived in Moscow since 1989.

14 November 2005

UZBEKISTAN: When is postal censorship not postal censorship?

Uzbekistan's Post Office routinely opens parcels of religious books and magazines sent from abroad, sends examples to the state Religious Affairs Committee, then collects them with a Committee decision as to whether or not to ban the title, writes to the sender and the failed recipient to explain why titles have been rejected, and (sometimes) returns them at Uzbek Post Office expense, Forum 18 News Service has found. Kural Tulebaev, Director of the main Post Office which receives foreign parcels, as well as customs officials have both denied that this is censorship. "We're just following the law," Tulebaev told Forum 18. His Customs Service colleagues were just as adamant: "The law requires that all of it is checked by the Religion Committee," a senior inspector told Forum 18, "the law is the law." The Religious Affairs Committee has refused to explain how it makes censorship decisions, or why it censors religious literature in defiance of international human rights commitments.

18 October 2005

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, October 2005

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, including denials of the right of legally registered religious communities to worship. In a typical example of this approach - which other religious minorities have also experienced - police raided a legally registered Baptist church in northern Turkmenistan, claiming that "individuals can only believe alone on their own at home." Unregistered religious activity continues – in defiance of international human rights agreements – to be attacked. There has been an increase in attempts to impose a state religious personality cult of President Niyazov on all Turkmen citizens, with mosques being particularly targeted. Turkmenistan continues to fail to implement its international human rights commitments, and also continues to take direct governmental action to deny religious freedom to peaceful Turkmen citizens.

6 October 2005

RUSSIA: Why was Moscow's Chief Rabbi deported?

It remains unclear why Moscow's Chief Rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, was denied entry to Russia last week after returning from Israel. Rabbi Goldschmidt, who is Swiss-born and has lived in Moscow since 1989, stated that he was not given a reason by border guards at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. His wife and seven children are still in the city. Various factors have been suggested to Forum 18 News Service as influencing the entry denial, including: rivalry between the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations of Russia and the state-favoured Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia; proposed changes to visa rules; a dispute between Rabbi Goldschmidt and the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations of Russia; and his strong criticism of a petition signed by 19 Russian parliamentarians, which called for a ban on all Jewish religious and national organisations in Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry is not commenting on the case. Rabbi Goldshmidt is now in Israel and intends to apply for a new Russian visa following Yom Kippur, to be marked on 13 October 2005.

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