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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.

26 September 2005

RUSSIA: Presbyterian church to be confiscated?

Its registration liquidated in 2003 for "administrative violations" and with subsequent registration applications denied, the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Mozdok in Russia's North Caucasus now faces the confiscation of its "beautiful Gothic-style" prayer house, church administrator Olga Mazhurova told Forum 18 News Service. The local administration told the congregation in early September that there is enough evidence to file suit for its confiscation, though no date for a court hearing has been set. The church admits it "made mistakes" over the way the church was built without planning permission, but claims it has been blocked from regularising its position due to local suspicion of its foreign connections. Officials at Mozdok district prosecutor's office have refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they are seeking to confiscate the church.

7 September 2005

RUSSIA: How many missionaries now denied visas?

While Moscow-based religious rights lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev believes the number of foreign religious workers barred from Russia is rising, this is difficult to corroborate as many prefer not to report visa denials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Catholic bishop Clemens Pickel told Forum 18 that the denial of a new visa to Fr Janusz Blaut in October 2004 after ten years in Russia (the eighth such Catholic visa denial) has left his Vladikavkaz parish without a priest. Yet Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer and Protestant overseer Hugo Van Niekerk – both denied visas this summer – have once more been granted them. Of the 52 excluded religious workers since 1998 known to Forum 18 – whether Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon - only a handful have been allowed to return to Russia. Officials and the media have often stoked fears of "religious expansion" which, they argue, represents a threat to Russia's "national security".

30 August 2005

RUSSIA: Who owns religious property?

One of the most troublesome issues for religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found, is gaining property. In places where historical worship buildings survive, there can be insufficient numbers of religious believers to claim or take care of them. This is particularly so for Orthodox churches in rural areas, and for Jewish and Lutheran communities. In cases where churches have been sold to private owners, or belong to a local authority, Catholic, Orthodox and Old Believer communities have often failed to regain them. But this situation is variable, Muslim communities, for example, having a mixed record of success in regaining mosques. Catholic and Old Believer churches have been sometimes given to Russian Orthodox dioceses, despite Catholic and Old Believer communities existing in these places. Some local authorities finance the construction of new worship premises for confessions they favour, but the cultural importance of historic Russian Orthodox property can prevent its return. Protestants, Old Believers, Molokans and Muslims have had problems in acquiring land for new building, as have other alternative Orthodox communities.

24 August 2005

RUSSIA: Growing obstruction to Protestant church property ownership

Protestant communities wanting to build a place of worship face increasing obstruction from state authorities, they have told Forum 18 News Service. Other religious confessions also encounter such problems. For example, a protracted series of discussions and protests have still not enabled Moscow's Emmanuel Pentecostal Church to either obtain a new construction site or official rights to the land beneath a building it owns. Similar problems have been encountered by Protestant churches elsewhere in Russia. Protestants have often told Forum 18 of their suspicions that local Orthodox clergy are instrumental in blocking Protestant construction plans, through private discussions between state officials and local Orthodox clergy. Unusually, in a letter seen by Forum 18, the Volga city of Saratov refused Word of Life Pentecostal Church permission to put an advertisement on its own outside wall, "on the basis of letter No. 490 dated 19 April 2005 from the Saratov diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church." Protestant communities also often speak of lengthy and energy-consuming battles to retain worship premises they acquire.

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