26 February 2010
Just weeks after Russia's Supreme Court outlawed their literature as extremist, Jehovah's Witnesses are encountering at least ten times the level of state harassment across the country as before the ban, their press secretary has estimated to Forum 18 News Service. Since 8 December, they have catalogued over 30 incidents, including searches, threats and brief detentions. So alarmed are the Jehovah's Witnesses by the growing similarity of their predicament with their repression during the Soviet period that their entire 160,000-strong Russian membership will today (26 February) begin distributing 12 million copies of "Is History Repeating Itself?", a leaflet refuting the religious extremism allegations against them. In December, Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman informed President Dmitry Medvedev of an upsurge in citizens' complaints about religious freedom violations, but his only response was to check if they came from "non-traditional" confessions. Mikhail Odintsov of the Ombudsman's Office declined to answer Forum 18's questions. Readers of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi – whose works are also banned - similarly note increased state scrutiny, with raids by the police and FSB security service on dozens of homes in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan and Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in the past two months.
23 February 2010
Following simultaneous raids on 20 homes in Krasnoyarsk on the night of 16-17 February by Russia's FSB security service, three readers of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi were detained for some 36 hours, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. They and a fourth Nursi reader could now face religious extremism charges carrying a maximum three-year jail term. "These accusations of extremism are incomprehensible and ridiculous," Aleksei Gerasimov, one of those detained, told Forum 18 after his detention. "On the contrary, the Islam we're studying teaches deeper knowledge of the Most High, honesty, sincerity, how to help people and become a better person." Akhmad Kolobayev, the detained Muslims' lawyer, told Forum 18 that no formal charges have yet been brought, and he thought that court proceedings might not begin for some time. The Krasnoyarsk events follow similar raids and detentions in Dagestan in December 2009. Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are also reporting a significant increase in brief police detentions since December.
28 January 2010
Following an 11 December raid on a Makhachkala flat by "a whole busload" of armed and masked rapid reaction police led by a Dagestani FSB security service investigator, some 30 readers of the works of the late Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi were taken for questioning. Six homes of other Nursi readers in Dagestan were raided. Ziyavdin Dapayev, one of two of those held who could face criminal charges of participating in a banned religious extremist organisation, lamented to Forum 18 News Service that Nursi readers are becoming "victims to the incompetence of some employees of the law enforcement agencies". Dagestan FSB told Forum 18 no one could answer questions about the investigation. Nursi's works have been banned in Russia, despite a 2007 Turkish government statement that they "contain no statements whatsoever aimed at inciting religious hatred". Moscow Public Prosecutor's Office confirmed to Forum 18 that it had issued an extremism warning to Ravil Gainutdin, chair of the Russia-wide Council of Muftis, for inviting a Turkish Nursi follower to a Moscow conference. Meanwhile, Jehovah's Witnesses have lost their latest appeal against an extremism ban on more of their publications.
15 January 2010
Although 34 Jehovah's Witness publications described as extremist have not yet been added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, public prosecutors in several Russian regions have begun issuing extremism warnings to Jehovah's Witness communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Also, in what is thought to be the first instance in post-Soviet Russia of extended detention in connection with sharing beliefs, two Jehovah's Witnesses informally accused of distributing extremist literature in Bryansk Region were detained for six days for "petty hooliganism". Mikhail Odintsov of the office of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman told Forum 18 – in what he stressed was his personal view – that there was a realistic chance Jehovah's Witnesses could appeal successfully to President Dmitry Medvedev to defend their rights, if complaints were formulated in purely legal terms. He characterised the overall situation as "threatening", maintaining that "reverse Sovietisation" was taking place. "We are returning to the ideological roots of state dislike of certain religious organisations," he remarked. "These people [Jehovah's Witnesses] have no defence. What defence do they have when a court is negatively predisposed towards them, pro-Orthodox, believes that one religion should be protected from another?"
8 December 2009
Russia's Supreme Court has today (8 December) upheld a Rostov-on-Don Regional Court ruling finding 34 Jehovah's Witness publications "extremist", ensuring that their distribution will be banned nationwide. The Supreme Court also upheld, as part of the ruling, the liquidation of the Taganrog Jehovah's Witness congregation as extremist. The congregation's property will now be confiscated, and it will be banned from meeting as a community. Asked why the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision, the secretary for the Supreme Court's Civil Cases Division, who would not give her name, told Forum 18 News Service: "The Jehovah's Witnesses are extremist." Asked if they have for example killed anyone, she responded: "To a certain extent, yes." The court ruling opens the way for the distribution of all Jehovah's Witness literature in Russia to be banned in future. Grigory Martynov of the Jehovah's Witnesses expressed disappointment, telling Forum 18 that "the decision was taken very quickly and they gave no explanation as to why they upheld the Rostov decision." He also stated that they will consider whether to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.
23 November 2009
Justice Ministry proposed amendments to the 1997 Religion Law and the Administrative Violations Code imposing draconian controls on religious activity have provoked protest from religious communities and have now been removed from the Ministry's website. Andrei Sebentsov, secretary of the government's Commission for Issues Concerning Religious Associations, told Forum 18 News Service that the parliamentary Religion Committee has refused to consider the proposals, leading the Ministry to approach the parliamentary Security Committee. He says the proposed draft is "so clearly against the demands of the Constitution that the presidential administration would hardly support it." Yet Muslims, Old Believers, Protestants and some Russian Orthodox remain concerned. The draft echoes proposals the Ministry made unsuccessfully in 2006, but Vitali Vlasenko of the Baptist Union believes the threat of their adoption is now greater, since "society is scared by religious extremism".
23 October 2009
Following more than 500 check-ups on Jehovah's Witness communities across Russia, prosecutors in several regions are going to court to have various of their publications declared extremist. This would see their distribution banned in Russia and cripple the organisation, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah's Witnesses believe state agencies want a total ban. Rostov-on-Don Regional Court ruled 34 texts extremist on 11 September, the first court to do so. The court ruling, seen by Forum 18, claims that the sentence "true Christians do not celebrate Christmas or other festivals based on false religious ideas" represents incitement to religious hatred, while another publication which quoted Tolstoy – described as "an opponent of Orthodoxy" - created "a negative attitude towards the Russian Orthodox Church". The court also declared a local congregation extremist and ordered it liquidated. The Jehovah's Witnesses have appealed to Russia's Supreme Court. Customs continue to seize their books. The public prosecutor who raided a meeting in St Petersburg alleging "extremist activity" was going on refused to talk to Forum 18: "You could be some kind of spy."
2 October 2009
Two Baptist preachers in Russia's Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad have been fined after their community "sang psalms and spoke about Christ" in the street, they have told Forum 18 News Service. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in the Kaliningrad police told Forum 18 that all public gatherings – whether political or religious – must be authorised by the municipal authorities in advance. "But they didn't have permission and they had no intention of getting it!" he remarked, clearly irritated by the Baptists' actions. Asked why permission is necessary, the source replied, "That's the law in Russia!" Aleksandr Legotin, one of the two Baptists, insisted that, as the Baptists held a religious service and not a demonstration, the legal requirement to notify the authorities in advance should not have applied. "We follow the law very carefully," he told Forum 18. "And under the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] we have the right to freedom of conscience – the law should be doing the opposite, protecting us from such arbitrariness."
23 July 2009
Four lawyers defending Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported since March, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The deportations of the two American and two Canadian lawyers seriously hinder the Witnesses' attempts to defend themselves in seven local court cases seeking to ban their literature as extremist. Also, a recent police detention allegedly involving torture and a raid on a Sunday service – after which one worshipper had a miscarriage and another was sent to a children's shelter – suggest the law enforcement agencies continue to view Jehovah's Witnesses as religious extremists even without a ban. A leaflet by a traditional Mari-El pagan priest is among the latest additions to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, meaning it is banned throughout Russia. The priest, Vitali Tanakov, has told Forum 18 that he thinks the strongly ecological nature of the Mari religious worldview makes it a threat to those who wish to exploit the republic's timber resources. Recently interviewed in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of Mari El, he suggested that whereas many strive to become rich and happy through business, the Mari faith teaches that "you won't become happy by becoming a businessman, by felling the forests."
16 July 2009
Russian customs officials, Prosecutor's Office officials and FSB security service officers are continuing to seize works by Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, most recently in Siberia and Bashkortostan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Russian translations of many of Nursi's works have been banned in Russia, as they have been placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Yet local state officials in Tatarstan maintained to Forum 18 that federal accusations against a Tatar-Turkish lycee in the regional capital Kazan that it was linked with "religious extremism" were unfounded. Tatarstan's senior religious affairs official Renat Valiullin also told Forum 18 that the Moscow court decision banning Nursi translations was taken "without any strong expert analysis". Lycee headteacher Marat Fattiyev, who was accused of being a Nursi follower without his having read any of Nursi's works, suggested to Forum 18 that the move followed false information passed to the FSB about the Turkish ultra-nationalist Ergenekon conspiracy. Federal officials have not yet replied to Forum 18's questions about why Tatarstan officials do not agree with the federal claims of "religious extremism".
9 July 2009
Not only do leaders of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Tatarstan support a local monopoly over all Muslim activity in the traditionally majority Muslim republic, so too do state officials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Renat Valiullin, the republic's top religious affairs official, acknowledged to Forum 18 that a requirement in Tatarstan's 1999 Religion Law that all Muslim religious organisations be subject to the Directorate had been struck down as unconstitutional. Yet he insisted all Muslim organisations must be subject to it "so as to keep the argument" of the 1999 Law, adding that they must also be of the Hanafi school of Islam. Kazan City Government religious affairs official Irek Arslanov spoke to Forum 18 approvingly of the Directorate's monthly meetings with the city's imams where "ideology is explained to them". Imam Ildus Faizov of the Directorate's Propaganda Department defended "good censorship" of Islamic thought, including the federal ban on many works of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. One Muslim told Forum 18 some Muslim women locally are afraid to wear the hijab and men are afraid to attend mosque for fear of being branded "religious extremists".
8 July 2009
Dina Amirova, on trial in Tatarstan's capital Kazan, insists that she and her husband have been targeted as devout Muslims trying to find out more about their faith, after leaflets of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir political movement were found among a wide range of Islamic-related literature at her home. She told Forum 18 News Service she and her husband have never had personal contact with any of the group's members. Her husband Renat Amirov told Forum 18 he was arrested, beaten and tortured to try to force him to testify against 12 local Muslims on trial for alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir membership. From the town of Elabuga, Taliya Gabdulkhakova insists charges including murder and religious extremism against her son and three other relatives have been fabricated. "My son obeyed Russian laws and paid taxes – he just stood out because he never missed a prayer time, wore a beard and wasn't dressed like everybody else," she told Forum 18. Her son has alleged "medieval torture" against the four while in detention, including heavy beatings, threatened rape and execution. Irek Arslanov, who is responsible for relations with religious organisations at Kazan City Government, dismissed suggestions to Forum 18 that torture and intimidation are practised.