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18 April 2005

RUSSIA: Deported Lutheran bishop seeks early return

Lutheran Bishop Siegfried Springer and the 170 congregation-strong Evangelical-Lutheran Church in European Russia are baffled by the annulling of his multi-entry visa at a Moscow airport on 10 April and his deportation back to Germany the following day. "I want to return to Russia to our general synod to resume my pastoral work as soon as possible," Springer told Forum 18 from the German town of Bad Sooden-Allendorf. Although born in Russia, the 75-year-old bishop is a German citizen. A foreign Catholic bishop who was similarly expelled from Russia in 2002 has never been allowed to return to his diocese.

14 April 2005

RUSSIA: Unregistered religious groups

Russia's controversial 1997 Religion Law divides religious communities into two categories, restricting the rights of those with the unregistered status of "group", Forum 18 News Service notes in its submission to a 14 April hearing in Washington of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe http://www.csce.gov/ on unregistered religious groups in Russia. By requiring independent religious or belief groups seeking registration to have existed for 15 years, the Law effectively forced new individual religious or belief communities to join older unions, often a burdensome and expensive formality and not an option for some communities. Registration can be denied on arbitrary grounds, as for example with 39 of Stavropol region's 47 mosques. Denied registration, Belgorod's Catholic parish cannot reclaim its historical church. Communities that choose not to register can function freely, but only if they remain inconspicuous, Forum 18 has found. Council of Churches Baptists – who reject registration on principle – are often denied the possibility to rent property for services and fined for holding evangelistic campaigns.

30 March 2005

RUSSIA: Old Believers struggle for their historic churches

Old Believers in Samara have received no official response to requests for the return of their pre-1917 church building in the city. The municipal authorities orally told the parish that they should first meet representatives of the local Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) diocese to ascertain its archbishop's position on the issue. "As a lawyer, I know that this is not legal," Old Believer parishioner Irina Budkina told Forum 18 News Service, stating that archive documentation proves the church was built in 1913-15 by Belokrinitsa Old Believers and later confiscated: "It has nothing to do with the Moscow Patriarchate." In 2004, Samara city administration acquired the church after its previous occupant, a machine-tool factory, closed down. Sergei Vurgraft, the Church's press secretary, told Forum 18 that when Old Believer parishes request their historical buildings, the local state authorities often promise to return them "as long as they obtain confirmation that the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese is not opposed". Knowing this to be unconstitutional, officials normally do this orally, he told Forum 18.

21 February 2005

UZBEKISTAN: Illegally kidnapped Muslim jailed

An Uzbek former teacher of Arabic in a Russian mosque, kidnapped in 2004 and illegally taken to Uzbekistan without the consent of the Russian authorities, has been given a lengthy prison sentence on a wide range of terrorist-related charges, which his lawyer told Forum 18 News Service are "absurd". Mannobjon Rahmatullaev was sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment on 20 January, his lawyer telling Forum 18 that only one offence, under article 223 (illegal exit abroad or illegal entry), when he travelled on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1992. The imam-hatyb of the Saratov central mosque, Mukadas Bibarsov, where Rahmatullev worked, said he had been "shocked" by his colleague's abduction. "If Rahmatullaev had really been involved in politics then I would have been in favour of his deportation from Russia," Bibarsov told Forum 18 from Saratov on 17 February. "I knew this man well and I can testify that he was an honest faithful Muslim who never committed any crime."

14 February 2005

RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, February 2005

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Russia, Forum 18 News Service notes that fluctuation remains the distinguishing feature of state policy. Symbolic appearances of solidarity between President Putin and Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarch Aleksi II - sometimes with representatives of the other "traditional" confessions (Islam, Judaism and Buddhism) - often translate into regional state officials taking decisions in the interests of only these faiths, to the detriment of other confessions. This even takes place in areas, such as eastern Siberia, where Protestants have a longer tradition than some "traditional" confessions. It is unclear how deeply the symbiotic relationship between the state and "traditional" confessions will develop. Should a state policy against "non-traditional" confessions be pursued, Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals are likely targets. Some confessions have seen significant improvements in relations with the state, notably Catholic, Buddhist and Jewish religious organisations, but recent developments in state policy appear to be having an increasingly adverse affect upon Muslims.

3 February 2005

RUSSIA: Southern authorities side with Patriarchate against alternative Orthodox?

Despite the constitutional guarantee of equality before the law for all religious associations, state authorities in Stavropol appear to assist the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese against alternative Orthodox communities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Incidents known to Forum 18 have included an alternative Orthodox bishop, Andrei (Davidyan), who belongs to the recently formed Orthodox Russian (Rossiiskaya) Church, being held for questioning by police. This followed entry being forcibly made into a church by representatives of the local district administration, police officers, Moscow Patriarchate clergy and Cossacks, and the church's destruction reportedly being threatening whilst its contents were listed. The Moscow Patriarchal clergy present insisted that Bishop Andrei should submit to the authority of the local Moscow Patriarchate metropolitan. Neither state authorities nor Moscow Patriarchate representatives were willing to talk to Forum 18 about the incidents. Alternative Orthodox communities elsewhere in Russia, who are opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate, have also had problems with state authorities.

24 January 2005

RUSSIA: Church, mosque and synagogue kept by southern authorities

In southern Russia, three confessions regarded as "traditional" – the Greek Orthodox, Muslims and Jews – have all failed to win back places of worship confiscated by the state in Communist times, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Greek Orthodox community in the city of Krasnodar is part of the Moscow Patriarchate and has the support of its local Russian Orthodox bishop. Yet it has failed to get the authorities to return a church it can prove belonged to it, which now houses a state sanitation and disease control department. The city's Progressive Jewish community has now abandoned its nine year struggle to win back a pre-revolutionary synagogue in the city centre the community once used, which is now a government trade department. In the neighbouring region of Stavropol, the local Muslim community has similarly fought in vain for over ten years for the restitution of a pre-revolutionary city mosque, now used as the Stavropol city museum.

21 January 2005

UZBEKISTAN: Prisoner's wife on trial to show "who is boss here"

Halima Boltobayeva, a Muslim whose husband is in jail, was told by prison staff when visiting her husband that she dressed like a female Muslim terrorist, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Boltobayeva, who for religious reasons wears the hijab headscarf and a long garment that covers her entire body, retorted that she would dress as she believed was fitting. According to a local human rights activist, prison staff then decided to show her "who is boss here." She is now on trial accused of being a member of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, even though she has stated that "she hated Hizb ut-Tahrir as her husband had ended up in prison because of the organisation."

7 December 2004

RUSSIA: Southern Protestants' mixed fortunes

Protestants in the southern Krasnodar and Stavropol regions have all told Forum 18 News Service that their situation has improved since the 1990s, but several church leaders reported local obstructions in obtaining and using property for worship, similar to the problems faced by a local Christian university in conducting religious education. In early 2004, President Vladimir Putin's then representative in southern Russia praised Protestant social initiatives - especially alcoholism and drug addiction rehabilitation programmes - and one church leader told Forum 18 that his churches encounter no substantial state opposition to their activity. Cossack influence in southern Russia appears to be waning, after sometimes violent attacks in against Protestants during the 1990s. Local leaders of the (Nestorian) Assyrian Church of the East, Mountain Jews, and Yasin Muslims also reported variations in state policy towards their attempts to secure worship premises and provide religious education.

29 November 2004

RUSSIA: Governor links Jehovah's Witnesses and Islamic militants as "destructive cults"

Stavropol regional governor Aleksandr Chernogorov has linked Jehovah's Witnesses and Islamic militants as "destructive cults" at a major local conference on "Totalitarian Sects – the Path to the Destabilisation of the North Caucasus". Chernogorov maintained that "Wahhabism" and "Jehovism" [a Soviet-era term for the Jehovah's Witnesses' faith] had infiltrated into southern Russia and were now "attacking those confessions which provide the foundation of civil peace" – Orthodoxy and "traditional" Islam. Jehovah's Witnesses "think that this might be the beginning of something," local Jehovah's Witness representative Ivan Borshchevsky has told Forum 18 News Service. Recently, Jehovah's Witnesses have had increasing difficulties with the authorities. The Stavropol regional religious affairs official has declined to discuss these matters with Forum 18.

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