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25 July 2005

RUSSIA: What should Tuvan children believe?

The traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva, bordering north-west Mongolia, closed a Christian children's home, Forum 18 News Service was told by a religious affairs official, as "the children go to church and pray without the permission of their parents or guardians." This is disputed by a former resident, Anna Mongush, who told Forum 18 that the real reason for the closure was that the only non-Christian staff member alleged in court that the home was a "sect," after she was sacked for theft, and the state authorities "thought they could get something from its closure." Highlighting broader confusion over religious education policy, Bible translator Vitali Voinov noted that neither Russia's Constitution, nor the religion law, allow for faith-based orphanages and that much in school religious education depends upon individual teachers. Some tell pupils that they should be Buddhists and visit shamans, while forbidding them from attending Christian churches. Foundations of Orthodox Culture is an optional school subject and this causes controversy, the head of the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims told Forum 18.

18 July 2005

RUSSIA: Largest Tuvan Protestant church disbands to avoid liquidation

During a January check-up by the religious affairs department in the traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva, officials complained the charismatic Sun Bok Ym church in the regional capital Kyzyl had violated its charter by sending its pastor to a neighbouring region and failed to inform the department of its new address. Officials of the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service, set up last October, began moves to liquidate it through the courts, so the church decided to disband to avoid this fate. Pastor Bair Kara-Sal told Forum 18 News Service he believes a promise by local justice department officials in court that they will not oppose a new registration application. Both Catholic and Salvation Army leaders have complained to Forum 18 that the Federal Registration Service has made nit-picking objections to terminology in their documents and refused to allow them to make simple corrections.

11 July 2005

TURKMENISTAN: President attempts to meddle in Orthodox structures

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II has politely sidelined Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's attempt to split the dozen or so Russian Orthodox parishes in Turkmenistan away from the Central Asian diocese, and subordinate them directly to the Patriarch. A Moscow-based priest familiar with the situation, who preferred not to be identified, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the Church itself has to make such decisions, not the state. The priest told Forum 18 that he believes President Niyazov "wants the Orthodox Church to exist, but a Church that is in his hand, just as he has done with Islam." Stressing that the Moscow Patriarchate is keen to see an end to the tensions between the Church and the Turkmen government, the priest deplored the denial of visas to three or four priests who the diocese wished to send to serve in Turkmenistan, and the refusal of the Turkmen government so far to re-register Russian Orthodox parishes.

8 July 2005

RUSSIA: Orthodox pressure railway into cancelling JW congress

The head of the missionary and catechism department of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye Orthodox diocese, Fr Vladimir Zaitsev, has pressured Sverdlovsk Regional Railway into cancelling a three-day congress of 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It was due to happen in a railway-administered stadium, and Fr. Zaitsev requested, in a letter publicised on local state TV and seen by Forum 18, that the congress be barred. He names Russian and foreign academics and Russian state bodies and "numerous documents issued by the traditional Christian churches of Europe [unnamed]," who, he claims, see Jehovah's Witnesses as "a destructive religious organisation (totalitarian sect, destructive cult)." Zaitsev also wrote that they offered to collaborate with Hitler and so "you will agree that in the sixtieth anniversary year [of the end of the Second World War] our compatriots will find this [allowing the congress to happen] particularly provocative." Jehovah's Witnesses were the target of intense Nazi persecution, and it is estimated that about 10,000 were imprisoned for their faith in concentration camps.

22 June 2005

RUSSIA: Contrasting situations of Moscow Jehovah's Witnesses and Salvation Army

Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that they are experiencing "escalating and more overt" obstruction as a result of the local court ban on their activities in Moscow. They state that they have experienced police harassment in their door-to-door preaching, lost meeting places and "those who still provide them are becoming fearful of the consequences". In contrast, the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army - which also faced local court moves to ban their activities in Moscow – has told Forum 18 that its problems are now resolved. "We work calmly in the city without problems and can rent property freely. We are now simply waiting patiently for the re-registration documentation to come through," the Salvation Army told Forum 18. Jehovah's Witnesses have lodged an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, which separately decided in June 2004 to hear a May 2001 complaint from the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army.

13 June 2005

RUSSIA: Five-day prison for "illegally" demanding believers' rights

Three Pentecostals have been jailed and nine fined by a court for "illegally" demonstrating against the Moscow city authorities' refusal to allow Emmanuel Pentecostal Church to build or acquire a building, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Since the demonstration, Emmanuel Church appears to be making progress, as the vice-chairman of Moscow's Department for Building Policy, Development and Reconstruction, Aleksandr Kosovan, has reportedly ordered that a plot of land be found where Emmanuel can build a church centre, with all planning work paid for by the Moscow government. The demonstration was also to protest about discrimination against Protestants in Russia. Such discrimination has had the support of the Russian Orthodox Church's St Tikhon Theological Institute, which, in a letter seen by Forum 18, wrote to the local authority complaining that "unknown persons are collecting signatures in your district in support of a prayer house" and alleging that Pentecostals use "suggestive (hypnotic) techniques, trance occult-mystic practices and methods of controlling the consciousness of its adepts which endanger their mental health."

9 June 2005

RUSSIA: Changes to religion law?

In what seems the most serious proposal in recent years to tighten up Russia's 1997 religion law, parliament's religion committee has begun to consider four draft amendments, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. These would make it impossible for unregistered religious organisations to hold large-scale religious meetings and allow only centralised religious organisations to invite foreigners for religious work. "If we invite a priest to Moscow as the centre of the diocese and he is to work in a completely different place, such as Kaliningrad, it will take a long time to explain to officials there why the invitation came from Moscow," Catholic Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz warned. Aleksandr Verkhovsky, editor at Sova Centre in Moscow, complained of another "dangerous" amendment allowing all religious communities applying for registration to have their religious doctrines analysed. "This is undesirable by its very nature in a secular society – a state should not determine which Islam (Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism and so on) is right and which is not." But religious rights lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev remains sceptical that these proposed amendments stand a chance of being adopted.

8 June 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Conference cancelled after pastor's visa denied

The New Generation Pentecostal church in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty cancelled a conference due to have begun on 12 June after the church's Latvian-based chief pastor was denied a Kazakh visa. The Kazakh consulate in Latvia told Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev, who was born in Kazakhstan, that a visit to his homeland was "not desirable" but refused to give a reason. "We're asking the authorities for an explanation – and we'll lodge a fresh application for Pastor Aleksei to get a visa," Viktor Ovsyannikov, pastor of the Almaty church, told Forum 18 News Service. Ledyayev was blacklisted by Russia in 2002 and is also barred from Belarus. Others barred from Russia on religious grounds remain barred in Kazakhstan, though Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer, deported from Russia in April, told Forum 18 he has received a visa for Kazakhstan.

6 June 2005

RUSSIA: State-sponsored local Muslim monopoly in St Petersburg?

The Al-Fatkh Muslim community has told Forum 18 News Service that St Petersburg local authorities are supporting a rival mosque community by preventing Al-Fatkh – in contrast to the rival Cathedral Mosque community – from acquiring land to build a mosque. The St Petersburg Funeral Services Department stated to Forum 18 that Muslim religious funerals can only be conducted with the permission of the imam of the Cathedral Mosque community, not Al-Fatkh's imam. Al-Fatkh maintained to Forum 18 that one reason why it wants to build a separate mosque is that the Cathedral Mosque is only opened once a day, even during the final period of Ramadan, when a mosque should be open constantly. Forum 18 observed one Friday that the Cathedral Mosque was emptied of worshippers and closed 30 minutes after the main Friday meeting began. (Friday is the Muslim holy day.) Islam.ru reported that it was told that the mosque was normally closed "because it needs to be - who needs to know knows why." Forum 18 was unable to ask the same question as the phone was slammed down.

1 June 2005

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

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