18 December 2008
As the temperature in Moscow dips below zero, one of the city's largest Pentecostal churches meets for worship in a marquee on a rough patch of land in an outlying suburb. "We've nowhere else to go," Bakur Azaryan, Emmanuel Church's assistant pastor, explained to Forum 18 News Service. The land is tied to a former workers' club bought by Emmanuel seven years ago. But as the local authorities have still not drawn up the Church's land rights, it cannot use or reconstruct the building, gutted in a suspected arson attack in 2007. In April 2008, Emmanuel lost access to rented premises apparently due to state pressure – a familiar complaint by Moscow Protestant communities. A local official maintained to Forum 18 that Emmanuel may in fact use or reconstruct its building, but this was countered by a more senior Moscow official. Konstantin Blazhenov also insisted to Forum 18 that the land rights issue is being resolved but is just taking "a long time". Without stable premises, Emmanuel cannot licence its seminary, which the Justice Ministry this month tried to dissolve for being unlicensed.
18 December 2008
The seminary of Moscow's Emmanuel Pentecostal Church cannot gain a licence as it does not have stable premises, Forum 18 News Service has found. The seminary is one of 22 religious organisations on a Justice Ministry list whose liquidation has been sought through the courts. The Church itself has faced obstruction from local officials in attempting to use or reconstruct its building, and the seminary is one of a few religious organisations on the Justice Ministry list which is not defunct or otherwise obsolete. Ten of these organisations are Moscow-based religious educational organisations listed as liable for liquidation, apparently for unlicensed educational activity. Two of the 22 religious organisations decided to dissolve themselves: the Presbyterian Christian Theological Academy and the Institute of Contemporary Judaism. However, four others in the list have successfully challenged immediate liquidation. The latest update of a separate Justice Ministry list of centralised religious organisations slated for liquidation now features only 19 of the original 56 organisations, Forum 18 notes.
9 December 2008
None of the alleged participants in two violent attacks on a Pentecostal church – by three people in the first attack and eight people in the second attack – has gained either a criminal or administrative record for the attacks, Forum 18 News Service has found. Asked why, given the seriousness of the attacks, no criminal case had been launched and no criminal trial had taken place, a senior investigatory official responded: "That's your subjective view." Only one attacker – Oleg Sumarukov - appears to have had any form of official action taken against him. However, a local newspaper thought to have encouraged the April 2008 attacks was given an official warning. During the attacks, slogans such as "Sectarians are everywhere!" and "You must be destroyed!" were shouted, parishoners were threatened with a pistol, the pastor was beaten up and threats were made to murder him, and a threat of an arson attack on the church was made. The attackers also tried to intimidate the church not to call the police. There have, however, been no attacks on the church since, and local police "even visit from time to time to check we're OK," a Pentecostal told Forum 18.
28 November 2008
Baptists in the town of Lipetsk south-east of Moscow complain that the authorities are using "a bureaucratic way" to restrict their activity. Two of their local congregations have lost legal status for failing to file tax returns on time, a claim Pastor Vladimir Boyev vigorously rejected to Forum 18 News Service. The tax office refused to speak to Forum 18. One of the congregations has been using a former Orthodox church for nearly twenty years and without legal status cannot now defend its interests in court as the Orthodox diocese wants the building back. The third has lost its rented place of worship it has used for nearly twenty years amid redevelopment plans. The court claimed it had invited the congregation to attend a hearing to set compensation, but the Baptists complain they never received an invitation. Lipetsk's regional religious affairs official, Olga Fyodorova, told Forum 18 the Baptists are deliberately rejecting possible solutions "in order to aggravate the situation". Asked how the Baptists would defend themselves in court after losing their legal status, she responded: "That's their problem!"
12 November 2008
Following the surprise mid-October publication of a list of 56 centralised religious organisations scheduled for liquidation, apparently for not submitting correct accounts, Russia's Justice Ministry has refused to reveal what stage any plans for liquidation are at and precisely why the 56 organisations are on the list. Old Believer, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, Protestant, Nestorian, Muslim and Buddhist organisations are among those listed. None of 15 of the named organisations Forum 18 News Service spoke to had received any warning from the Ministry before the list's publication. Two organisations were found by Forum 18 to be defunct. None of the 56 listed organisations are from the Moscow Patriarchate, even though 309 of 562 centralised religious organisations belong to it. Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice claimed to Forum 18 that Moscow Patriarchate organisations were told in advance how to correct their submissions. Fr Vsevolod Chaplin of the Moscow Patriarchate confirmed that the Ministry had made "certain comments" on their organisations' accounts, but was unable to say when this was. A Justice Ministry official told the Adventist Church: "the aim of the list is 'to call religious organisations to discipline'."
24 October 2008
The Moscow-based publisher of "The Personality of a Muslim" by Arab theologian Muhammad ali Al-Hashimi, placed in December 2007 on the list of banned extremist literature, is now facing criminal prosecution. Aslambek Ezhayev told Forum 18 News Service the Economic Crimes Police searched the publishing department offices at Moscow's Islamic University for six hours on 8 October. "But it was clear from the beginning that they weren't really looking for anything financial." Computers and books were seized. The accounts were then deemed in order, but the materials passed to the Prosecutor's Office for the criminal case. The Prosecutor's Office refused to talk to Forum 18. Ezhayev complains of the way books are put on the banned list by local courts without the possibility of challenging their verdicts: "a book can't defend itself". Andrei Sebentsov, vice-chair of the government's Commission for Issues Concerning Religious Associations, told Forum 18 federal officials cannot act: "The executive cannot interfere with the judiciary." Fighting two separate attempts to ban their literature, the Jehovah's Witnesses are among the latest targets of the widening religious extremism allegations.
1 October 2008
The gravest current threat to freedom of religion or belief in Russia comes from the federal government's approach to combating religious extremism, Forum 18 News Service finds in its survey analysis of religious freedom. In the wake of the 2002 Extremism Law, moderate Muslim literature has been outlawed as inciting religious extremism - despite the reasoning behind this being questionable. This has led to harassment and sometimes prosecution of alleged authors, distributors or simply readers. The authorities have subsequently begun to level religious extremism charges against other confessions, including traditional pagans, Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baptist. Some religious communities continue to complain of restriction through petty bureaucracy, such as the loss of legal status for unlicensed educational work or not engaging in financial activity, even though the law is ambiguous on these points. Long-running problems – such as state disruption of religious events, obstruction of access to and retention of property for worship and bureaucratic visa problems for foreign religious personnel - persist.
22 September 2008
Baptists in different parts of Russia have experienced state harassment in recent months, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This has included interrogation by the FSB security service, defamatory state television coverage, a warning for home worship and a fine for preaching in public. The congregations concerned all belong to the Baptist Council of Churches, whose communities do not register with state authorities. In one example, two FSB security service officers in Kurgan Region separately questioned two Yurgamysh church members for four hours about internal church matters. Regional state TV later broadcast a programme on the church called "Criminal News". This made unsubstantiated allegations, such as that children from the church are "retarded, downtrodden, dress differently from other [school] pupils and often have to repeat the year," and that church members live off illegal business. The region's parliament is to consider proposals "to protect citizens from religious sects" on 30 September. Proposals include compulsory notification of the existence of an unregistered religious group and compulsory registration for communities with ten or more members.
10 September 2008
The vast majority of the hundreds of Russian religious organisations to have had their legal status annulled in recent years are believed to be defunct. But several – especially religious education institutions – believe their loss of legal status is wrong and are fighting to retain it. Nine religious educational organisations are slated to lose legal status in Moscow for unlicensed educational activity, including Torat Khaim yeshiva (Jewish school). "Things are getting stricter and stricter," the director Iosif Susaikov told Forum 18 News Service. However, education has continued there. However, Good Shepherd Baptist Church in the Black Sea port of Tuapse had its liquidation cancelled by a court in May 2008. Officials had stripped it of registration for failing to file a tax-return, a common reason for de-registration. The church argued that it had no financial transactions so did not need to file one. Despite the abolition of the Federal Registration Service in July and the transfer of its duties back to the Justice Ministry, Ministry officials were unable to tell Forum 18 who – in addition to the tax inspectorate – has the power to initiate liquidations of religious organisations.
2 September 2008
The authorities in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria have deliberately inflated the threat from Islamic extremism, local people in the capital, Nalchik, have told Forum 18 News Service. "If only five per cent of the population understand Islam (..) you can't go out on the streets and create an Islamic state," one local Muslim pointed out. By exaggerating the threat, they suggested, local officials are able to secure anti-terrorism funding from the Kremlin, divert public attention away from the republic's systemic corruption and poor economic performance, and keep people too afraid to protest. A former contender for the Kabardino-Balkaria presidency has documented the questionable speed with which the alleged Islamist threat appeared in the republic. Local Muslims claim the state persecuted ordinary mosque-goers on the pretext of fighting Islamic extremism, but local state representatives insist the threat is genuine. "There are still people trying to destabilise the situation with extremist ideology," one official dealing with religious affairs assured Forum 18.
28 August 2008
Sustained and brutal state persecution of Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria has pushed some into terrorist activity, Forum 18 News Service has been told in the regional capital Nalchik. Two popular Islamic preachers now wanted by police in connection with a failed 2005 uprising in the capital used to advocate non-violence, local Muslims said. Reports suggest that at least one began launching armed attacks against the state authorities by late 2004. Republican officials – who have denied reports of abuse – claimed to Forum 18 that the pair were conducting "military-methodological preparations" from the beginning, but could not be convicted due to insufficient evidence.
26 August 2008
Conflict between Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria led to the local authorities' repressive policy towards one party, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Returning from Islamic study abroad in the 1990s, young Kabardin and Balkars insisted upon the removal of what they learnt to be corrupt local customs. While criticism could centre on trivial details – such as the wearing of a hat during prayer – "you only need to strike a match to light a fire," one local Muslim pointed out to Forum 18. Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate and the older generation responded to the younger Muslims' demands by branding them "Wahhabi" extremists. In part because they saw adherents of stricter Islam as a threat to local traditional and political culture, the republic's authorities backed these claims and instigated a brutal crackdown against them.