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27 April 2004

ABKHAZIA: JWs still banned and Georgian Orthodox still barred

Politicians in the breakaway unrecognised republic of Abkhazia have told Forum 18 News Service that the Jehovah's Witnesses will continue to be banned. "If they won't defend their families, why should they have the freedom to practice their faith?" asked Valera Zantaria, making it clear that the ban was because of the Jehovah's Witnesses refusal of military service. Also unable to function is the Georgian Orthodox Church, whose members have to travel out of Abkhazia to the Georgian city of Zugdidi for services. Although the Catholic church can function in Abkhazia, access for priests has become difficult because Russian border guards refuse to let them through. Lutherans and unregistered Baptists are also allowed to function, one unregistered Baptist Pastor telling Forum 18 that conditions for their people are better in Abkhazia than in Georgia, with preaching permitted "once the authorities had established they were not Jehovah's Witnesses."

22 April 2004

RUSSIA: Methodists may have fought off church stealing

A Korean Methodist church in northern Moscow appears to have fought off an attempt by a commercial firm to steal their church building. A district court ruled against the Moscow justice department on 26 March after the church challenged the justice department's acceptance of fraudulent documents which claimed to have transferred the church to the company. Galina Skakun of the justice department admitted in court the Methodists' claim to the building, and tried to defend her department even though it failed to verify the authenticity of the documents. Church administrator Svetlana Kim said the Methodists believe that coverage of their case by both Forum 18 News Service and Russian news agencies "really helped us".

21 April 2004

RUSSIA: Spring offensive against the "Vitaliban"?

Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad within Russia less enthusiastic about a proposed merger with the Moscow Patriarchate have faced obstruction from the state authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. When 50 clergy and lay members held a diocesan assembly in Tula region in February, officers of the police and FSB (former KGB) questioned their legal right to meet, while elsewhere local authorities have failed to register parishes, obstruct those that meet in privately-owned buildings and even threatened to confiscate churches built with parishioners' funds. Without state registration, parishes cannot produce publications or conduct missionary activity, but some clergy argue it is better not to have registration. "It is easier for state officials to apply pressure to a community with legal status by finding fault with its documentation," one priest told Forum 18.

16 April 2004

RUSSIA: Was terrorist threat to Protestant Easter celebration genuine?

Although Russian Orthodox and Catholics celebrated Easter without problem in the Siberian city of Tyumen on 11 April, a large-scale Protestant Easter evangelistic service due to have been held in a city-owned stadium on 14 April was cancelled by the authorities, citing what they said was a "terrorist threat". Andrei Knyazhev, co-ordinator of the Protestant service, told Forum 18 News Service he is "almost 99 per cent certain" that the threat was spurious. Forum 18 has been unable to establish the authenticity or otherwise of the threat independently, though the service faced opposition from local Orthodox believers. After an explicit Chechen terrorist threat against Orthodox churches in Russia, the security agencies have stepped up their protection of Orthodox Christmas and Easter services.

13 April 2004

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness rental contracts cancelled

In the wake of the recent Moscow court decision prohibiting all Jehovah's Witness religious activities in the city, some local congregations across Russia have this month had rental contracts either cancelled or threatened with cancellation by landlords, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The congregations known to be affected are in St Petersburg, Moscow, Vladimir, Yekaterinburg in the Urals, Krasnoyarsk, and Khabarovsk in the far east of Russia. The landlords' decisions appear to be related to misunderstandings of the nature of the Moscow court decision. In the Vladimir case, the Jehovah's Witnesses were told that they could use a venue "as long as they had the approval of a local Orthodox priest."

7 April 2004

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, April 2004

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baha'i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy. Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow religious faiths to be practiced freely.

6 April 2004

AZERBAIJAN: Is religious censorship getting worse?

Baptists, Muslims, Adventists, Hare Krishna devotees, Baha'i and human rights activists have all noticed the problems caused by the censorship of religious literature in Azerbaijan, the head of the Baptist Union telling Forum 18 News Service that censorship is "getting worse". "We even have to ask for permission for one book sent to us through the post," Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. "Formally, censorship was abolished in Azerbaijan by presidential decree in August 1998, but it still exists," Eldar Zeynalov, of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointed out, telling Forum 18 that "If Rafik Aliev [chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations] had existed in Mecca at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he wouldn't have allowed him to produce any books as his views would have been regarded as heresy." Zeynalov also noted that prisoners are sometimes banned from seeing religious literature.

29 March 2004

RUSSIA: Alternative Orthodox denied church property

Although True Orthodox communities can normally gather in private homes and do not require a worship building, Forum 18 News Service has found indications that local authorities sometimes bar attempts to acquire or maintain worship buildings by the True Orthodox, as well as other Orthodox groups opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. In Moscow, this problem has existed since the early 1990s, when the City Council decided that pre-revolutionary Orthodox church buildings may be returned only to the Moscow Patriarchate. A spokesman for the City Council has claimed to Forum 18 that, before 1990, alternative Orthodox groups "did not exist."

29 March 2004

RUSSIA: Court bans Jehovah's Witnesses

On 26 March a local court banned the religious activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. This is the latest twist in a series of legal problems for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, which date back to June 1995. An appeal has already been made to the Moscow City Court, so the most recent verdict will not have legal force unless that appeal is rejected. It is estimated that it will take about two months for the case to be heard in court. If that appeal fails, the Jehovah's Witnesses will take their case to Russia's Constitutional Court. The European Court of Human Rights is currently reviewing the Moscow community's situation and has the authority to annul relevant court decisions in Russia at any level.

25 March 2004

RUSSIA: Alternative Orthodox denied legal status

Although most True Orthodox communities do not register with the state, due to a lingering fear of persecution, rejection of the state and a lack of the organisational skills required to register, Forum 18 News Service has found indications that local authorities sometimes bar attempts to register by the True Orthodox, as well as other Orthodox who are opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. Without legal status, such religious groups have the right only to worship and teach existing followers on premises provided by their own members. They cannot, for example, produce or distribute literature, or engage in other activities for which a 'legal personality' is necessary.

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