17 June 2004
A ban on all organised activity by some 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the city of Moscow went into force yesterday (16 June) with the failure of a court appeal by the community. This is the first time that a religious organisation has been banned outright under Russia's 1997 religion law. One of the Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyers told Forum 18 News Service outside the courtroom that all hope of overturning the ban now lies with the European Court of Human Rights. While the prosecution claims that the Moscow Jehovah's Witness community may continue to function without registration, the ban states clearly that all of its activity must cease, and Jehovah's Witness lawyer John Burns told Forum 18 that this prosecution claim was "like saying that you can be Catholic but you can't have a church - you can hold a belief but you can't do anything about it." Other regions of Russia may well try to copy the Moscow decision.
16 June 2004
Local Orthodox in Khabarovsk share the concerns of Orthodox in Sakhalin region about foreign missionaries, complaining to Forum 18 News Service of "espionage" and "Catholic expansion". However, throughout most of Khabarovsk region, Baptists, Catholics, and members of the New Apostolic Church have told Forum 18 that they have not recently encountered problems regarding access or visas for foreign missionaries. One exception appears to be access by foreign religious personnel to closed cities, which is reportedly very difficult to obtain, even though US citizens are employed at a military facility in one such city. This issue particularly affects Catholics, as the majority of Catholic priests in Russia are foreigners. One anonymous Protestant source has also told Forum 18 that it is now practically impossible for foreign citizens to conduct informal religious work in the Russian Far East.
16 June 2004
Russian Orthodox Deacon Andrei Khvylya-Olinter recently claimed on a Sakhalin radio programme that 70 per cent of the island's economy is in the hands of "sectarian structures", and warned of "involvement in intelligence gathering of foreign so-called pastors." Judging by local state support for a recent conference devoted to "Spiritual Security" and the tightening of religious work visa restrictions encountered by local Protestants and Catholics, who Forum 18 News Service has met, it appears that the regional authorities share his concerns.
9 June 2004
Although Tajikistan permits Muslim women to wear the hijab, or head and neck scarf, for international passport photos, it normally does not permit this for internal identity documents. Many Muslims think that it is unacceptable for a woman to be photographed without wearing a hijab, so many Muslim women, especially in very devout Muslim areas, do not have an internal identity document. Pulat Nurov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 News Service that this insistence on photographs without hijabs has caused problems, but claims that only a "very small percentage" of Muslim women regard this demand as "unacceptable". He also told Forum 18 that his committee has persuaded the police to make exceptions to the general rule in individual cases.
7 June 2004
An unofficial "red line" bars non-Russian Orthodox from securing places of worship in the centre of the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics have told Forum 18 News Service. The local authorities "don't let us anywhere near the city centre," Pentecostal pastor Aleksandr Pankratov complained to Forum 18. One local lawyer says no Protestant church has been allocated a plot of land in central Khabarovsk for four years. The Immaculate Conception Catholic parish is even unable to regain its historical church, confiscated in 1933. "Twelve of our elderly parishioners were baptised and made their first communion in that building," parish priest Fr Joseph McCabe told Forum 18. Admitting the existence of this ban, regional religious affairs official Mikhail Svishchev maintained that "every city tries to preserve its historical part".
7 June 2004
Jehovah's Witnesses in Sakhalin region are facing an ongoing campaign by the authorities against their right to gather for worship in the region. Following the recent ban on Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow, one Russian Orthodox priest, Fr Oleg Stenyayev, has suggested a similar ban in Sakhalin region, and that a new Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall be confiscated and given to local Muslims. Sakhalin's vice-governor, Georgi Karlov, responded that "we will probably make use of this splendid advice." Roman Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals have, in their use of premises for worship, encountered few or no problems from the authorities, but Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses have both had mission events barred from buildings.
1 June 2004
In the Far Eastern Russian region of Khabarovsk, religious believers can encounter state restrictions in sharing their faith, but to a lesser extent than in neighbouring Sakhalin region, Forum 18 News Service has found. Pentecostals, for example, have told Forum 18 of restrictions on missionary activity beyond the location where their church is registered, whilst Baptists have spoken of having to obtain permission for street evangelism concerts. Interviewed by Forum 18 about access to prisons and hospitals, the regional state religious affairs official commented that religious activity in state institutions is determined by each individual institution, which by now is well aware whether or not the religious representatives coming to them are "sound".
1 June 2004
Local religious believers in Sakhalin region sometimes face state restrictions on sharing their faith, Forum 18 News Service has found. Pentecostals have been banned from showing the 'Jesus Film', and have also encountered local state bans on open-air evangelism, whilst the Jehovah's Witnesses have faced obstacles in distributing their literature. One official told Forum 18 that unregistered religious groups "can meet in private flats but not attract other people or disturb those around them."
25 May 2004
The full text, which Forum 18 News Service has seen, of the court decision banning Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow consistently accepts hostile testimony and rejects favourable testimony, including the conclusions of a previous court decision. Looking at the most recent decision, it is notable that only unproven allegations and not proven court cases are cited in the claims made about the legality of Jehovah's Witness activity in Moscow. Many of the claims made about the Jehovah's Witnesses practices could also be made of other religious communities practices as well.
25 May 2004
Jehovah's Witnesses expect their appeal against a total ban on their activities in Moscow to be held within the next few weeks. The full decision of the judge who imposed the ban has now been released. Forum 18 News Service has seen the verdict and although it states that there is no evidence that Jehovah's Witnesses incite religious hatred with calls for violence, it does accuse them of forcing families to disintegrate, violating the equal rights of parents in the upbringing of their children, violating the Russian Constitution and freedom of conscience, encouraging suicide, and inciting citizens to refuse both military and alternative service. It is notable that the court decision consistently accepts hostile testimony against Jehovah's Witnesses, and as consistently rejects all favourable testimony.
5 May 2004
A harsh draft new religion law in the unrecognised Transdniestr republic has been rejected, but the senior religious affairs official has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that it will be adopted, indicating that it has the support of the breakaway republic's president, Igor Smirnov. The draft gave the authorities draconian "control powers in relation to the activity of religious organisations" and attracted criticism from the Orthodox Church, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, amongst others. Orthodox Bishop Iustinian likened the proposed powers to those of Soviet times, and said that such state religious affairs offices were an anachronism. Despite this initial rejection of the draft law, plans remain to amend the Criminal Code to increase punishments for "illegal activity of sects", including youth and adult work, increasing fines 15 times and imprisoning offenders for up to a year.
4 May 2004
Sergei Popov and Aleksandr Takhteyev, two of three Jehovah's Witnesses sacked on 1 April by a private firm on the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin, claimed to Forum 18 News Service that there was a direct link between the decision to sack them and the ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses in the Russian capital imposed by a Moscow court several days earlier. One manager of the food distribution company told the astonished Jehovah's Witnesses that since the group constituted a "sect", the three would steal money from the firm if told to do so by their religious superiors, and could not therefore be trusted. The firm's senior manager for Sakhalin overtly referred to the Moscow ban in an e-mail justifying the dismissals. "According to the charges, this sect interprets the Bible incorrectly, violates the rights of Moscow citizens, destroys the basis of the family and incites members to commit suicide," he claimed.