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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."

30 July 2004

UZBEKISTAN: Baptist denied permission to live in own home

In what he describes as "a vicious circle", Baptist Vsevolod Kalinin has again been refused a residence permit to live in his own home in the capital Tashkent, Forum 18 News Service has been told. In an open court hearing, a representative of the commission of the Tashkent city administration responsible for residence permits said that Kalinin's religious convictions were the main reason for refusing him a residence permit. It is unusual for Uzbek authorities to take a close interest in residential addresses, but Kalinin has since 2002 been the target of close scrutiny by authorities in Tashkent. As well as visits from the police, a military recruitment office has told Kalinin that he could be detained while his place of residence was checked. All Kalinin's appeals, including to Uzbek president Karimov, are met with the reply that he should appeal again to the commission which denied him a residence permit.

27 July 2004

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness congress broken up

Since 1996, Jehovah's Witnesses have held an annual Urals regional congress in the Yekaterinburg city stadium. But last Friday (23 July), the stadium management abruptly demanded four times the agreed fee, then, on Saturday, men claiming to be security guards tried to block the entrance, then the electricity supply was switched off, then 1,000 delegates were evicted from their accommodation, then the stadium management played loud music to drown out speakers, and finally the management with the security guards told delegates to disperse. Jehovah's Witness leaders then called off the congress. In April, the authorities in the neighbouring Urals region of Tyumen cancelled a similarly large-scale Protestant Easter service in a city stadium. Also in April, the Jehovah's Witness Yekaterinburg congregation had its rental contract with the 'house of culture' abruptly cancelled, following the court decision barring Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow 1,500 km (930 miles) west.

14 July 2004

RUSSIA: Religious leaders' concern as intrusive state check-ups rise

Samara regional Pentecostal leader Vasili Lyashevsky is among religious leaders complaining about the local justice department's request to religious organisations for full names, ages and addresses of church members. "Everyone knows that the aim of the request was to get hold of the names of parishioners in order to put pressure on them later," he told Forum 18 News Service, citing similar requests by justice departments in the regions of Irkutsk, Perm, Tambov, Udmurtia and Yekaterinburg. The Catholic priest in Samara told Forum 18 he refused to give the names, ages and other details of all his parishioners. Although a justice department official appeared in a Samara television programme in May to defend the move, the justice department official in charge of registration denied the practice to Forum 18.

12 July 2004

RUSSIA: Anti-missionary law déjà vu

In a revival of the practice of the mid-1990s, several Russian regions are again producing anti-missionary laws, mostly modelled on the 2001 law adopted in the southern Belgorod region. The neighbouring Kursk region is the latest, with a law adopted on 10 June, while Magadan region in the Far East is set to adopt an anti-missionary law in the autumn. "The law would make it very difficult for foreign missionary workers to enter the territory," foreign Protestants based in Magadan complained to Forum 18 News Service in June. "Those who enter under other types of visas will do so under threat of fines and punishment." But believers have told Forum 18 that the Belgorod, Smolensk and Kursk regional laws do not appear to be enforced so far, while restrictions on missionaries in Primorye on the Pacific coast – where six Catholic priests and nuns have been denied the possibility to return – have come in a region with no anti-missionary law.

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