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24 November 2003

TURKMENISTAN: President falsely claims no religious prisoners

Under pressure from a draft UN resolution sponsored by the EU and US, the Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has defended his record with the claim that Turkmenistan has never had religious prisoners of conscience and cooperates fully with international human rights bodies. However, Forum 18 News Service knows of Jehovah's Witness prisoners and an imam in internal exile. Also imprisoned for his faith was Baptist Shagildy Atakov. Turkmenistan has both consistently failed to cooperate with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and other UN human rights agencies and also has this month introduced a harsh new religion law outlawing all unregistered religious activity, which defies international human rights agreements it has signed.

20 November 2003

GEORGIA: Orthodox permission needed for religious literature imports

Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that importing religious literature can be difficult and expensive, or even impossible, due both to obstruction from the Orthodox Patriarchate and also to corruption among officials. There is repeatedly said to be an unpublished instruction to Customs officials from Patriarch Ilya banning the religious literature imports without his permission. Giorgi Andriadze of the Patriarchate told Forum 18 that the Patriarchate only objects to large quantities of non-Orthodox literature being imported. "It's a question of proselytism. If groups bring in millions of books, that means they intend to proselytise. If they bring in enough for their own followers, it's their right." The Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities have not had any problems with literature importation.

18 November 2003

BELARUS: Lingering legacy of militant atheism

Forum 18 News Service has found indications that the influence of Soviet-era atheist ideology on Belarus remains strong. Many of the officials who worked for the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs reportedly continue to staff the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, which has a far more extensive network of officials than similar bodies in Russia. Also, texts used for instruction in state education maintain, for example, that "Religion's promises to give a person everything that he seeks in it are but illusion and deception." and that "no religion was accorded any preference or subjected to any form of oppression" in Belarus after 1918. Pentecostal Assistant Bishop Naum Sakhanchuk has told Forum 18 that the current repression of non-Orthodox confessions is much more closely connected with this atheist legacy than with state support for the Belarusian Orthodox Church. An anonymous Orthodox source agreed, commenting to Forum 18 that the 2002 religion law was not in fact designed to benefit the Patriarchate. "Now the atheists say it is against sects, but they are waiting for the day when they can persecute everybody."

13 November 2003

BELARUS: An Orthodox Nation?

President Aleksandr Lukashenko has implied that Belarus is an Orthodox nation. However this is strongly disputed by those who point to the long history and present existence on Belarusian territory of other confessions. It has been suggested to Forum 18 News Service by an anonymous Orthodox source that the reason for the President's claim is that he "can't reject religion outright as it is too significant, so he needs to be able to rely on it." So, "he takes the first thing which comes to hand and is the largest – the Orthodox Church – not because he is Orthodox or because he cares about the Church but only because of that." An anonymous Protestant source agreed that politicians in Belarus were trying to use the Orthodox Church for political purposes.

4 November 2003

BELARUS: Ahmadiyya Muslims among banned religious organisations

Forum 18 News Service has learnt that a Belarusian government list of 16 banned religious organisations includes the British-based Ahmadiyya, who are generally considered to a sect of Islam. State officials reportedly "do not register sects of Christianity or Islam as there will be conflicts between them," Forum 18 was told. Even if a group has state registration, it can still encounter state opposition such as that experienced by the charismatic Full Gospel Association. The Association has been officially classed as a "neo-mystical religious-political destructive sect" whose growth poses "a significant threat to the individual, society and state" of Belarus.

30 October 2003

BELARUS: When is a Monastery not a Monastery?

The Greek Catholic Church has no registered central body in Belarus under the 2002 religion law, so officially its two monasteries "do not exist", Forum 18 News Service has been told. Under the same law, the church's 15 registered parishes are not considered to have any legal relationship with each other. Also, because the church's centre is not in Belarus but in the Vatican, the law prevents central registration and the current head of the church being its head, because he is not a Belarusian citizen. Even if the Greek Catholics had a registered central body, its monasteries still could not legally exist because they do not have the legal minimum number of fully professed monks. The local state official commented to Forum 18 that only fully professed monks could legally count because "Novices might leave at any moment, or their mummies could come and take them home".

3 September 2003

RUSSIA: Moscow Baptist street service broken up

After police broke up an open air Baptist evangelistic service in southern Moscow, a court ruled on 11 August that the singing and praying "disturbed public order and the peace of those relaxing nearby". One Baptist was fined 16 US dollars after police claim he swore at them, a charge denied by local Baptists. "Believers don't swear," Veniamin Khorev told Forum 18 News Service. He described the breaking up of the service as "part of the normal life of our church". As the Baptists refuse to register with the authorities they have no legal status and in practice cannot rent buildings for worship. Their evangelistic events have been disrupted across Russia this summer, with books confiscated, tents taken down, six church members detained for five days and four fined.

27 August 2003

RUSSIA: Do Sunday school children need written parental permission?

Fr Sergi Golovanov, who teaches religion to five children in his Eastern-rite Catholic parish in the Siberian city of Omsk with permission from their parents, could be fined up to 66 US dollars for failing to supply such parental permission in writing. The local justice department demanded he present such written permission by 15 August, but Fr Sergi refused, arguing that the country's religion law nowhere declares that parental permission must be in writing. However, local religious affairs official Vasili Tkach insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the authorities were acting in accordance with the law.

29 July 2003

RUSSIA: Religious Freedom Survey, July 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Russia, Forum 18 News Service reports on the extensive variations of religious freedom policy in Russia, noting that when decisions are made which violate believers' rights, they are largely informed by the political agendas and personal loyalties of local politicians. The particular nature of a religious belief seems to play little role in restrictions – such as visa bars being imposed - groups being far more likely to be targeted if they are dynamic and visible, whatever their beliefs. Centrally, the state is not so much concerned about actual control over the legitimate activity of citizens as in having potential control over activity, so violations of religious freedom may not appear as dramatic as in many other states in the region. The trend of low-level discrimination looks set to continue unchallenged.

28 July 2003

RUSSIA: Allegations against Komi Patriarchate diocese ignored, but breakaway Orthodox allegations investigated

Local state officials in Komi are said to be assisting the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese in its dispute with the local Russian Orthodox Church Abroad community, according to the abbot of the Votcha-based breakaway monastic community, Fr Stefan (Babayev). Forum 18 News Service has confirmed that neither the monastery nor its associated parish have received state registration. Claims have also been made that, in contrast to local state authorities investigation of allegations against both the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and Baptist (See F18News 22 July 2003) communities, allegations of criminal practices within a local Moscow Patriarchate monastery have not been investigated.

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