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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

BELARUS: Court to review charismatic church's case

Belarusian authorities are giving contradictory signals about their attitude towards the embattled New Life Church in the capital Minsk, Forum 18 News Service has found. In an indication that the authorities may be about to reverse their position, Higher Economic Court chairman Viktor Kamenkov has cancelled an earlier Minsk City Economic Court decision against New Life and called for the case to be heard again. A new hearing has been set for tomorrow (Saturday 4 November) at the Higher Economic Court. Kamenkov's latest actions follow a high profile campaign by New Life - including a hunger strike and international protests - and a senior state official urging New Life's Pastor, Vyacheslav Goncharenko, to appeal again to the Higher Economic Court. But in a contradictory signal, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence has published a prominent attack on New Life, claiming – amongst other highly contestable statements - that "neo-Protestant sects" are a threat to national security. Two nights after the Defence Ministry made its attack, graffiti reading "No to totalitarian sects!" was daubed on the wall of New Life's building.

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

UZBEKISTAN: Saints and martyrs relics banned

Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"

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.

RUSSIA: Missionary's activity is "extremist", agrees court

In the wake of a 1 December district court ruling in Tatarstan's capital Kazan that a decision denying Baptist church-planter Takhir Talipov a further residency permit should be upheld, Talipov's legal representative told Forum 18 News Service he sees little hope in having the verdict overturned. Fyodor Dzyuba said he had not even bothered to attend a hearing at the Tatarstan supreme court on 10 January. "I knew in advance we had very little chance." The supreme court is due to announce its decision by 20 January. A Kazan district court had accepted an assessment by the local FSB (former KGB) that the missionary work by Talipov, a Russian-born ethnic Tatar, was "extremist" and liable to threaten stability in the mainly Muslim republic.

COMMENTARY: What about religious freedom?

In this personal commentary contributed to Forum 18 News Service www.forum18.org , Arie de Pater, director of Jubilee Campaign NL, argues that the European Union (EU) should pay greater attention to restrictions on religious freedom in many of the ten states which will join the EU in May 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia & Slovenia) and in states that hope to join any further expansion (Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania & Turkey potentially due from 2007). Drawing on a report on religious freedom in the candidate countries, compiled by Jubilee Campaign NL with the assistance of Forum 18 and others, published today (2 December 2003), he notes that even in the first batch of accession countries, criticism of religious law and practice can be levelled at the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia. He questions why the European Commission's 2003 Comprehensive Regular Report makes no criticism of Bulgaria's new denominations act, which has been sharply criticised in Bulgaria and abroad.

LATVIA: New hope to change religion law?

Ringolds Balodis of the Latvian Justice Ministry has told Forum 18 News Service that he has formally proposed removing from Latvia's religion law a clause banning registration of more than one association of any one denomination. The Saeima (Latvia's parliament) may decide the issue within the next two months. Balodis' proposal has been welcomed by leaders of some religious minorities contacted by Forum 18, as full state registration grants rights such as being able to conduct officially-recognised marriages or teach religion in state schools. But Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Aleksandr (Kudryashov) of Riga opposes the proposal and wants it to apply only to churches such as the Lutherans and the Catholics, as the proposal would allow full state registration of other churches with the title Orthodox.

LATVIA: New plans to abolish "discriminatory" legal provision

Justice Minister Aivars Aksenoks will support a proposal to abolish a clause in Latvia's religion law that bans the registration of more than one association of any one denomination, his spokesman told Forum 18 News Service. "I absolutely agree that allowing only one church for any one confession is against the principles of religious freedom," head of the Justice Ministry's Religious Affairs Board Ringolds Balodis – who intends to submit the proposal by 10 June - told Forum 18. Without registration as a religious association, communities find it difficult to own property, do not enjoy tax-exempt status and cannot set up training establishments. The Confessional Lutheran Church and the Autonomous True Orthodox Church have been the main victims of this clause.

LATVIA: Registration "refuseniks" to challenge "discriminatory" law

The two churches refused registration as an association under Latvia's religion law – the Confessional Lutheran Church and the Autonomous True Orthodox Church – are preparing protests against the article of the religion law that does not allow more than one association of any one denomination to register. "We have asked for this discriminatory article to be abolished," Archbishop Viktor Kontuzorov, leader of the Autonomous Orthodox Church, told Forum 18 News Service from Daugavpils. "No European state apart from Latvia has such a discriminatory article. It's absurd that an Orthodox Church still has to live in the catacombs." Asked whether he believed this article of the religion law was just, Janis Filipsons of the Justice Ministry's Religious Affairs Board told Forum 18: "It's the law. We work with the law as it is."