2 June 2009
Widespread protests by Russian religious communities and human rights defenders followed the appointment of "anti-cultists" and controversial scholars of Islam to a state body with sweeping powers to investigate religious organisations, Forum 18 News Service notes. Particularly striking opposition to the Justice Ministry's Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis has come from the Old Believers, a group not directly threatened. They view the body's re-organisation as "a direct threat to the constitutional rights of the citizens of Russia to freedom of confession [which] could serve as a dangerous catalyst for inter-confessional strife, a prologue to the beginning of struggle against religious dissent, oppression of believers, the restoration of religious censorship and inquisition." The Old Believers have called for the complete abolition of the Council. The Justice Ministry has failed to respond to Forum 18's questions, including why the Council is needed. The state's position is not unanimously supportive of the Council, and if the authorities heed the widespread protests its activity may be significantly curtailed.
27 May 2009
Fears by religious minorities about the Justice Ministry's reconstituted Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis have been exacerbated by the Minister's choice of members, Forum 18 News Service notes. The chair is Aleksandr Dvorkin, Russia's most prominent "anti-cult" activist, who has described the faith of charismatic Protestants as "a crude magical-occult system with elements of psychological manipulation". In a Moscow courtroom in 2004, Forum 18 observed Dvorkin congratulate the Public Prosecutor's Office representative who successfully pushed for the ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses' Moscow organisation. Fellow Council member Aleksandr Kuzmin wrote a leaflet alleging that "Krishnaites are involved in the drugs and arms trade" and "are prepared to murder on religious grounds", and that "beatings and rapes of teenagers in closed children's homes are attributed to Krishnaites." A Siberian court declared the leaflet extremist in March 2009. Another Council member has urged Muslims to burn Islamic books banned as extremist. Forum 18 asked the Justice Ministry whether Council members will have the right to speak for the Ministry and whether Kuzmin will be excluded from the Council. The Ministry has not yet responded.
26 May 2009
The powers of the Russian Justice Ministry's Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Expert Analysis were considerably widened in February 2009, allowing it to investigate the activity, doctrines, leadership decisions, literature and worship of any registered religious organisation and recommend action to the Ministry. The subsequent appointment of renowned "anti-cultists" and controversial scholars of Islam to the Council – and the choice of prominent "anti-cultist" Aleksandr Dvorkin as its chair - have led a wide range of religious representatives to liken the Council to a new "inquisition", Forum 18 News Service notes. If the Council is given free rein, it is likely to recommend harsh measures against certain religious organisations. At the Council's first meeting, Dvorkin named the Russian Bible Society as a possible target for investigation, but its executive director told Forum 18 no action has followed. Forum 18 asked the Justice Ministry how many commissions it is likely to give the Council each year, whether the Ministry will automatically accept its conclusions and, if not, who will decide. However, the Ministry has so far failed to respond.
28 April 2009
A turning point in the Russian authorities' drive against "religious extremism" came in 2007, when two previous unsuccessful attempts to ban Islamic literature were finally successful, as this analysis – the second part of a presentation given at a seminar at the Kennan Institute in Washington DC – notes. Also initiated that year was the Federal List of Extremist Materials, which now contains 367 items. Anyone who distributes these works can be fined. Alongside genuinely extremist material are some works Forum 18 News Service has seen which appear to contain no calls to extremism. "The Personality of a Muslim", a popular work among Russian Muslims, was deemed extremist in August 2007 and several distributors of it have since been fined. Indigenous pagans and Jehovah's Witnesses are facing accusations of extremism on the basis of their literature, even though none of it is on the banned list. The appointment of Aleksandr Dvorkin, a prominent "anti-cult" activist, to head the Justice Ministry's Expert Religious Studies Council has alarmed those who hoped officials would curb the widespread use of extremism accusations.
27 April 2009
The formation of Russia's policy towards one particular form of extremism – religious extremism – may have begun hesitantly, Forum 18 News Service notes. But the June 2002 Extremism Law eventually led to a wideranging crackdown on religious literature the authorities deemed "extremist", as this analysis – the first part of a presentation given at a seminar at the Kennan Institute in Washington DC – notes. In late 2002, literature confiscated from a mosque community in an FSB security service and Prosecutor's Office raid led to the first known warning for religious literature under the Law. Yet convictions – often handed down in secret and based on literary analyses of confiscated books – soon mounted. Mainstream Muslim works – such as Russian translations of the writings of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi – were banned outright, even though they contain no calls to commit crimes. A typical expert analysis suggested that Nursi's work – banned by a Moscow court in 2007 – is extremist because its reference to "the sword of strong faith" might lead to "defensive behaviour".
19 March 2009
State actions against freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan continue, Forum 18 News Service has found. Latest actions include the closure of a Christian-run rehabilitation centre for alcoholics and drug-addicts, and continuing prosecutions, fines and property confiscations against Baptists for holding unregistered worship services. Officials' "narrow interpretation" of the law in relation to the rehabilitation centre was condemned by Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee. "Non-commercial organisations must be social organisations, religious organisations or political parties and officials insist that all three be kept separate," she told Forum 18. "But this is absurd, as everything that is not forbidden should be allowed." Meanwhile, Elizaveta Drenicheva, a missionary for the Unification Church (commonly known as the Moonies) has been freed after two months' imprisonment. She had been sentenced to two years in jail for sharing her beliefs, and her criminal record has not been cancelled. Officials are also continuing to try to pressure the Hare Krishna commune near Almaty to leave its site.
13 March 2009
Public prosecutors across Russia have conducted more than 500 check-ups on local Jehovah's Witness communities since mid-February. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service they believe prosecutors are "trawling" for information to shut down their headquarters in St Petersburg and over 400 dependent organisations. "Nothing else makes sense," their representative Yaroslav Sivulsky told Forum 18. Documents seen by Forum 18 show the nationwide sweep was ordered by First Assistant General Public Prosecutor Aleksandr Bastrykin. Forum 18 asked the General Prosecutor's Office in Moscow why the investigations were ordered and asked for a copy of the instruction to local prosecutors, but so far has received no response. In its instruction ordering check-ups locally, the Moscow Regional Public Prosecutor's Office complained that the Jehovah's Witnesses' missionary activity and rejection of military service and blood transfusions "provoke a negative attitude towards its activity from the population and traditional Russian confessions". Prosecutors have been investigating the St Petersburg Jehovah's Witness headquarters since 2004 but have failed to find any grounds to close it down.
2 March 2009
Several current cases show how the allocation of historical worship property can prove a minefield for the state, Forum 18 News Service notes. In Moscow Region, an Old Believer parish is being pushed out of a church to which it has no historical claim but has used for over 60 years: even Church representatives have different views on its fate. In Lipetsk, Baptists continue their fight for compensation for their renovation of an Orthodox church given them by the Soviet authorities and now claimed by the local Orthodox diocese. In Suzdal, the authorities have confiscated 11 churches and 2 bell-towers – all cultural monuments – from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, a competitor to the Moscow Patriarchate. Officials "must think of the consequences of hasty or wrong decisions" when transferring such property, Mikhail Odintsov, a state human rights official, told Forum 18. A draft law on the transfer of historical religious property would reignite the whole restitution issue and place the Russian Orthodox Church among Russia's top landowners.
26 February 2009
Apparently unaware that he was giving a public address, the governor of Kaluga Region has ordered that land legally owned by Word of Life Pentecostal Church be seized by "any" means, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The order, made at a recent local government meeting broadcast live via the regional administration's website, has been captured and posted on the internet site YouTube by a church member. No official was prepared to comment to Forum 18. Word of Life has complained of frequent bureaucratic harassment ever since its land and building became an impediment to shopping mall construction plans in Kaluga. In Udmurtia, Philadelphia Pentecostal Church is the latest congregation to report similar bureaucratic obstruction, which state officials usually insist is lawful and routine. Such problems are usually encountered by Protestants, who are more likely to have unsecured worship premises.
24 February 2009
Azerbaijan's wide-ranging religious literature censorship system has started to affect the export of such literature, Forum 18 News Service has found. Customs authorities recently confiscated Christian religious literature from Azerbaijani citizens leaving Azerbaijan. No mention is made in Azerbaijan's laws of censorship of religious literature taken out of the country. Similarly, Forum 18 was told by a customs official that customs regulations are also silent on this point. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, speaking after the confiscation of Muslim literature, told Forum 18 that "our society doesn't need books that don't suit our laws and our beliefs." He claimed that unspecified religious literature could cause unspecified "social harm and possibly inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence." Jehovah's Witnesses have filed three lawsuits specifically against the censorship system, which, they point out, is a violation of the right to religious freedom as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party.
17 February 2009
Uzbekistan continues to attack the sharing of information and opinion in religious literature, Forum 18 News Service notes. In the most recent known cases, contributors to two Islamic religious periodicals – Irmoq (Spring) and Yetti Iqlim (Seven Climates) – are facing criminal charges, allegedly for distributing information on the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. Obiddin Makhmudov of Uzbekistan's state Agency of Press and Information told Forum 18 that "I just found out yesterday from the national TV channel that the magazine's [Irmoq's] staff are suspected of having ties with a banned religious organisation." Baptists are being punished for distributing religious literature free-of-charge, in one case being questioned for seven hours without food or water. A different Baptist has been fired from his job as an electrician, after the NSS secret police and ordinary police confiscated his religious literature from his mother-in-law's flat. Asked by Forum 18 why police raided the flat, Police Inspector Alisher Umarov claimed they were "allowed" to do passport control "anywhere and anytime."
16 January 2009
Although no Jehovah's Witness publication has been deemed "extremist" under Russia's 2002 Extremism Law, in the past two weeks police in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk have detained 14 Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing their tracts, Forum 18 News Service has found. Two of their local communities have already been warned, while a local investigation continues into whether Jehovah's Witness literature is extremist. The region's FSB security service has tried unsuccessfully to have a local Jehovah's Witness lawyer disbarred, which would prevent him from defending their community. Courts in two other Russian regions are also considering cases against Jehovah's Witness literature. Works deemed extremist by even a local court may not be distributed anywhere in Russia. A Moscow chain of bookstores was fined in December 2008 for distributing a non-violent Muslim title, the second fine in Russia for selling the work. Prosecutors have also investigated a Russian Orthodox website that had posted robust criticism of Islam. However, a draft Law prepared by the General Prosecutor's Office to make anti-extremism measures "more effective" was withdrawn from parliament in December 2008.