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30 May 2005

UKRAINE: People barred entry on religious grounds now free to appeal

In a new move, the SBU security police has told Forum 18 News Service that people barred entry by other CIS countries – including Russia – on religious and other grounds can now appeal against any visa bar to Ukraine. Appeals can be made either to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry or the SBU, Forum 18 was told. The move follows the ending of an entry ban against Japanese Buddhist monk Junsei Teresawa. The SBU refused to tell Forum 18 why Teresawa had originally been denied entry, but insisted it was not for religious reasons and denied that there is a religious category for blacklisting. Not every religious figure blacklisted by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been barred from Ukraine and Latvian-based Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev - barred by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is now in Ukraine. One of the most prominent recent deportees from Russia was Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen, but the SBU told Forum 18 that "no-one with the surname Mazur is on the Ukrainian blacklist".

26 May 2005

COMMENTARY: Religious freedom since 1905 – any progress in Russia?

One hundred years ago, Tsar Nicholas II's decree on religious tolerance formally freed Russia's religious minorities from state restriction and persecution. Today, Russia's religious minorities can legitimately ask how much progress has been achieved since then, argues Irina Budkina, an Old Believer and editor of a website on Old Belief in Samara region http://www.samstar.ucoz.ru, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. (The Old Believer movement rejected changes in the 17th century Russian Orthodox Church.) Officials – particularly at provincial level - continue to defer to the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate, and hand over historic Old Believer churches to the Moscow Patriarchate. Not just Old Believers, but members of other religious minorities in today's Russia believe some religious communities remain more equal than others.

4 May 2005

RUSSIA: Salvation Army officers denied entry "in the interests of state security"

Two British and Danish Salvation Army officers have been denied entry to Russia "in the interests of state security," Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Colonel Barry Pobjie told Forum 18 at the Church's Moscow headquarters that "the accusations are ludicrous – this is directed not against these individuals but the organisation as a whole," he maintained, pointing out that both officers had previously worked and travelled extensively in Russia for several years. The two were traveling to a congress celebrating the elevation in the status of the Salvation Army's operation covering Russia, Georgia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine from "Command" to "Territory". This allows greater independence from the Church's London headquarters. Five foreign Catholic clergy were denied entry to Russia in 2002, following a similar internal decision to elevate the status of its four apostolic administrations to dioceses. Meanwhile, German Lutheran Bishop Siegfried Springer, the head of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in European Russia who was recently denied entry to Russia, has been told he can make one brief return visit. No reason was given for the annulment of his multi-entry visa.

2 May 2005

BELARUS: Why no full TV broadcast of papal funeral and inauguration?

About 20 per cent of Belarus' population is Catholic, but less than an hour of the late Pope John Paul II's funeral mass and none of Pope Benedict XVI's inauguration was broadcast on state TV, Forum 18 News Service has found. The only Catholics able to view full live coverage of the funeral were those who can receive terrestrial Polish TV. Catholics were surprised by the small amount of TV coverage, but, "there was no outcry," a Catholic laywoman told Forum 18. That the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI was not shown on Belarusian television, and given next to no coverage in news broadcasts, "offended us a bit as we wanted to hear about who the new pope was," a Belarusian Catholic journalist remarked to Forum 18. She did not believe the lack of television coverage to be the result of Belarusian state policy, a view supported by Ilona Urbanovich-Sauka of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists. She told Forum 18 that her colleagues had encountered no evidence of a bar on broadcasting recent Vatican developments. Several believed that the minimal coverage simply reflected unprofessionalism.

25 April 2005

RUSSIA: Has bulldozing threat to Baptist church receded?

A 19 April court hearing against Yelena Kareyeva - owner of a Baptist church in the village of Lyubuchany near Moscow whose construction the authorities say was "unauthorised" - was cancelled. Moscow-based Baptist pastor Nikolai Dudenkov told Forum 18 News Service that no future hearing was mentioned nor was any explanation given at the courthouse for the cancellation. Local Baptists hope the authorities' threat to bulldoze the new church - built to replace the previous church destroyed last September in an arson attack some believe was state-initiated - have now receded. The plight of the Baptists has gained international attention, with two US congressmen writing to the local authorities in February to complain about official attempts to prevent the rebuilding of the church. But a 5 March letter from Moscow region prosecutor's office defends the actions of the local authorities.

22 April 2005

RUSSIA: Why did police raid Pentecostal church?

Twenty masked special and plain clothes police raided an evening seminar on 14 April at the Word of Faith church in Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurtia autonomous republic. Police forced the 70 people present outside, calling them "sectarians" and "prostitutes", while they searched the church. Nearly 50 church members were held for five hours at the police station and fingerprinted. Udmurtia's interior ministry claimed the Pentecostals had "distorted" details of the raid. Pentecostal bishop Yuri Degtyar told Forum 18 News Service from Izhevsk that he believes the public prosecutor has now "taken control of the situation" and that the investigation into police conduct during the raid will be "objective".

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."

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