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2 November 2004

RUSSIA: Is State's treatment of southern Muslims unjust?

Mufti Ismail Berdiyev, who belongs to the presidential Council for Co-operation with Religious Organisations, has told Forum 18 News Service that he supports "the general idea of attacking Wahhabism and terrorism," but cannot fully endorse every anti-terrorist measure. "Some state officials don't know the first thing about religion and go too far," he remarked, "we don't accept their mistakes." In the area he comes from, the authorities compile lists of suspected "Wahhabis". "I'm opposed to that," he told Forum 18, "if people are conducting terrorist activity then they should be prosecuted." Local imams state that there is an Islamic militant problem, but imam Magomed Erkenov told Forum 18 that the problem's scale did not warrant negative treatment of the entire Muslim community. Commenting on those fighting in Chechnya, he told Forum 18 that "They may have said that they were fighting against Russia, but if paid they would have fought against Muslims, or their own relatives. There is nothing holy about that war."

1 November 2004

RUSSIA: Southern Muslims complain of fall-out from anti-terrorist moves

Since the start of the second Chechen conflict, Islamic representatives maintain to Forum 18 News Service that a "negative policy towards all Muslims" in parts of the northern Caucasus has intensified. Imam Magomed Erkenov, who oversees 15 mosques in the southern Karachai-Cherkessia republic, told Forum 18 that since 1999 it has become "much harder" to register new Muslim communities. Officials visit mosques about twice a month to conduct interrogations of worshippers, Erkenov stated, on one occasion accusing a worshipper of being a Wahhabi and arresting him. An imam in a neighbouring mosque, speaking of visits by officials, told Forum 18 that "people are afraid to be seen to be Muslim now." Regional religious affairs official Yevgeni Kratov insisted to Forum 18 that mosque check-ups take place "entirely within the framework of the law" and entail neither searches nor abuses of any kind. "A police officer might drop by and take an interest, especially following a terrorist attack," he explained.

11 October 2004

CHINA: Xinjiang - Linked religious practice and state control levels?

China maintains few controls on religious life in the mountainous Altai [Altay] region in the far north of Xinjiang, Forum 18 News Service has noted, apparently because there are only low levels of Islamic, Buddhist, Pagan, Orthodox and Pentecostal Christian religious practice among the majority ethnic Kazakhs, as well as among Chinese and most other local minorities. In contrast, Forum 18 has observed strict controls in nearby mosques amongst the Muslim Dungan people, and the visit of a Russian Orthodox priest, Fr Vianor Ivanov, was met by the authorities arresting him, as well as questioning virtually all the several dozen elderly Orthodox believers in the city Fr Ivanov visited, before deporting him.

27 September 2004

NORTH KOREA: Will local Orthodox dare to regularly attend new church?

Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, has two Protestant and one Catholic church, which are suspected of being "show churches" for display to foreigners, so it remains unclear whether any North Koreans will be able to or will dare to regularly attend an Orthodox church under construction. The building is funded by the North Korean state, and Forum 18 News Service has learnt that it is "65 per cent finished". By the early 1900s, about 10,000 Koreans had converted to Orthodoxy due to Russian missionaries in the now divided Korean peninsula. Dmitry Petrovsky, of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, expressed the hope to Forum 18 that links with this past missionary activity remain, as is the case with Orthodox churches in South Korea. Four North Koreans are studying at the Moscow Theological Seminary, and Petrovsky remarked to Forum 18 that they are displaying "zeal and a genuine interest in Orthodoxy".

22 September 2004

RUSSIA: Suspicious fire guts Baptist church after authorities break up meeting

As Baptists were putting up a tent on privately-rented land in a village near Moscow on 20 August, administration officials demanded they provide advance notice of their two-day meeting. The Baptists refused, arguing that they did not need to for a non-political event. Several hundred armed police and secret police officers, "prepared as if for a terrorist attack" as Pastor Nikolai Dudenkov told Forum 18 News Service, invaded the site after the local administration banned the event. Workers pulled down the tent, but 4,000 Baptists went ahead with the meeting under police surveillance. On 10 September, local Baptist Yelena Kareyev told Forum 18, her teenage sons saw one of the officers involved in the raid lurking in woods behind their church. Three days later the building went up in flames and Kareyev saw men running away. She said the fire brigade was in no hurry to put out the fire.

22 September 2004

CHINA: Will Orthodox Christians soon be allowed priests?

China's estimated 3,000 scattered Orthodox Christians may soon be able to have their own priests once again. Since 2003, 18 Chinese Orthodox have been studying in Orthodox seminaries in Russia with the permission of China's State Administration of Religious Affairs. "Now they are happy for Chinese to become priests," an Orthodox source from Shanghai told Forum 18 News Service. But Hong Kong-based Russian Orthodox priest Fr Dionisy Pozdnyayev told Forum 18 it has yet to be decided whether these seminarians will be allowed to become priests in China when they complete their theological education. Fr Dionisy can minister only to foreign citizens in Beijing and Shenzhen, but a Russian priest spent two weeks in June ministering to local Orthodox in Harbin with official permission.

14 September 2004

RUSSIA: Increasing crackdown on Muslim "extremist" books

Muslims have complained to Forum 18 News Service of increased scrutiny of their literature, often by "specialists" who know nothing of Islam. Among reasons given for banning an eighteenth century book by the Arabian founder of Wahhabism, a Moscow court ruled in April that it "disputes the truth" of atheism, Sufism and monasticism. After confiscating religious literature from two Muslim communities in the Urals in 2002, officials "didn't find anything which would form the basis of a criminal case - they were prayer books, introductions to Islam and commentaries on the Koran," one leader told Forum 18. Accusations that a Muslim community is "extremist" – and therefore liable for banning under Russia's 2002 extremism law – reportedly often originate from rival Muslim jurisdictions, and are taken up by the FSB secret police and prosecutors. "The law is very frequently used by officials as a convenient instrument for exerting pressure on Muslims," Sheikh Nafigulla Ashirov of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Asian Russia told Forum 18.

9 September 2004

OSCE COMMITMENTS: OSCE CONFERENCE ON DISCRIMINATION – A REGIONAL SURVEY

Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.

9 August 2004

RUSSIA: Urals Protestants kept out of sight?

Urals region Protestants sometimes encounter local state obstruction of evangelism, along with local state support of the Orthodox, but one local pastor told Forum 18 News Service that local authorities are, in the cases of Protestants who own their own buildings, "happy for us to do what we like in our own buildings." Local personal relationships have a key influence on the religious freedom situation, pastors in two areas telling Forum 18 that building and keeping church property was helped by their having good personal relationships with the authorities. Although local Orthodox opposition to local Protestants is strong, leading to media attacks, and in some cases physical attacks, one local commentator told Forum 18 that, "when people started to see the so-called 'sects' being helpful, their [negative] media image began to break down." Local Protestants have also found that negative campaigning by Orthodox has backfired, leading to the Orthodox gaining a negative public image.

2 August 2004

RUSSIA: Urals religious freedom like "football with only one set of goalposts"

Religious freedom in the Urals varies widely, even from village to village, restrictions being most common on public events with an evangelical purpose, Baptist and Pentecostal leaders have recently told Forum 18 News Service. Some local officials are very supportive of such events, and also of social care projects such as anti-drug initiatives, but one pastor estimated that over 50 per cent of local officials are hostile to any event run by Protestants. One local religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the problem is that churches have poor legal knowledge and said that his office is "open to dialogue". But a former religious affairs official told Forum 18 that close relationships between higher level politicians and the Moscow Patriarchate stopped lower officials working with Protestant churches. "Even if they could really do with a social project, they know that an Orthodox priest will kick up a fuss, and no fool would risk his career by being linked with support for a Protestant church."

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