21 April 2004
Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad within Russia less enthusiastic about a proposed merger with the Moscow Patriarchate have faced obstruction from the state authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. When 50 clergy and lay members held a diocesan assembly in Tula region in February, officers of the police and FSB (former KGB) questioned their legal right to meet, while elsewhere local authorities have failed to register parishes, obstruct those that meet in privately-owned buildings and even threatened to confiscate churches built with parishioners' funds. Without state registration, parishes cannot produce publications or conduct missionary activity, but some clergy argue it is better not to have registration. "It is easier for state officials to apply pressure to a community with legal status by finding fault with its documentation," one priest told Forum 18.
16 April 2004
Although Russian Orthodox and Catholics celebrated Easter without problem in the Siberian city of Tyumen on 11 April, a large-scale Protestant Easter evangelistic service due to have been held in a city-owned stadium on 14 April was cancelled by the authorities, citing what they said was a "terrorist threat". Andrei Knyazhev, co-ordinator of the Protestant service, told Forum 18 News Service he is "almost 99 per cent certain" that the threat was spurious. Forum 18 has been unable to establish the authenticity or otherwise of the threat independently, though the service faced opposition from local Orthodox believers. After an explicit Chechen terrorist threat against Orthodox churches in Russia, the security agencies have stepped up their protection of Orthodox Christmas and Easter services.
13 April 2004
In the wake of the recent Moscow court decision prohibiting all Jehovah's Witness religious activities in the city, some local congregations across Russia have this month had rental contracts either cancelled or threatened with cancellation by landlords, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The congregations known to be affected are in St Petersburg, Moscow, Vladimir, Yekaterinburg in the Urals, Krasnoyarsk, and Khabarovsk in the far east of Russia. The landlords' decisions appear to be related to misunderstandings of the nature of the Moscow court decision. In the Vladimir case, the Jehovah's Witnesses were told that they could use a venue "as long as they had the approval of a local Orthodox priest."
7 April 2004
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baha'i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy. Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow religious faiths to be practiced freely.
6 April 2004
Baptists, Muslims, Adventists, Hare Krishna devotees, Baha'i and human rights activists have all noticed the problems caused by the censorship of religious literature in Azerbaijan, the head of the Baptist Union telling Forum 18 News Service that censorship is "getting worse". "We even have to ask for permission for one book sent to us through the post," Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. "Formally, censorship was abolished in Azerbaijan by presidential decree in August 1998, but it still exists," Eldar Zeynalov, of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointed out, telling Forum 18 that "If Rafik Aliev [chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations] had existed in Mecca at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he wouldn't have allowed him to produce any books as his views would have been regarded as heresy." Zeynalov also noted that prisoners are sometimes banned from seeing religious literature.
29 March 2004
Although True Orthodox communities can normally gather in private homes and do not require a worship building, Forum 18 News Service has found indications that local authorities sometimes bar attempts to acquire or maintain worship buildings by the True Orthodox, as well as other Orthodox groups opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. In Moscow, this problem has existed since the early 1990s, when the City Council decided that pre-revolutionary Orthodox church buildings may be returned only to the Moscow Patriarchate. A spokesman for the City Council has claimed to Forum 18 that, before 1990, alternative Orthodox groups "did not exist."
29 March 2004
On 26 March a local court banned the religious activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. This is the latest twist in a series of legal problems for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, which date back to June 1995. An appeal has already been made to the Moscow City Court, so the most recent verdict will not have legal force unless that appeal is rejected. It is estimated that it will take about two months for the case to be heard in court. If that appeal fails, the Jehovah's Witnesses will take their case to Russia's Constitutional Court. The European Court of Human Rights is currently reviewing the Moscow community's situation and has the authority to annul relevant court decisions in Russia at any level.
25 March 2004
Although most True Orthodox communities do not register with the state, due to a lingering fear of persecution, rejection of the state and a lack of the organisational skills required to register, Forum 18 News Service has found indications that local authorities sometimes bar attempts to register by the True Orthodox, as well as other Orthodox who are opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. Without legal status, such religious groups have the right only to worship and teach existing followers on premises provided by their own members. They cannot, for example, produce or distribute literature, or engage in other activities for which a 'legal personality' is necessary.
15 March 2004
Two congregations on Russia's Pacific coast – the Grace Pentecostal Church and the Orthodox parish of the Annunciation – may lose their places of worship after the Sovetskaya Gavan city council abruptly cancelled a contract it had given for the use of a state-owned building, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The cancellation of the Pentecostal's contract came after the town gained a new mayor, Valeri Shevchuk, and a council official told Forum 18 that the Orthodox parish is in the same position as the Pentecostals. "We had a 20-year contract – so why should we move?" the Grace Church's former deacon Andrei Nadtochi told Forum 18 News Service. He said officials have hinted to church members that rental payments for their building under a new "commercial" agreement would be so high that they would give it up of their own accord. The church says it does not have the money to challenge the decision in court or pay higher rent.
8 March 2004
Claiming without evidence that Hare Krishna followers were terrorists, had tried to stage a putsch in Russia and are now trying to stage a coup d'etat in Uzbekistan, Razumbai Ischanov, dean of Urgench University's Natural Sciences Faculty, has reportedly said he will expel all students who are Hare Krishna followers. Since the speech by the Dean, which had the support of University authorities, rumours have been spread that female Hare Krishna students are prostitutes, causing several planned weddings to be cancelled, and a lecturer in the natural sciences faculty forced a student Krishna devotee, against their religion, to eat meat and drink vodka. The NSS secret police have also started monitoring Hare Krishna students since the speech.
25 February 2004
Although some things are known about North Korea's control over all aspects of its citizens' lives and about its chemical and biological experiments on prisoners, less is known about the country's religious life. Although religious freedom does not exist, there is dispute about how genuine religious practice is at the handful of "show churches" in the capital Pyongyang. Dusty pews suggest that they are not well used. Buddhist temples are mere cultural relics. Parents are reportedly afraid to pass on their faith to their children, as sporadic refugee accounts suggest believers are still punished for practising their faith in secret. It is often as refugees in China that North Koreans first encounter religious life. Refugees repatriated from China have reported that they are interrogated about their contacts with mainly Protestant South Korean missionaries, while the North Koreans have reportedly set up a fake Protestant church in China to lure back defectors. Evidence suggests that any religious revival in North Korea is a recent phenomenon resulting from repatriates sharing their faith. This might prove a challenge to the regime.
17 February 2004
Some 12 years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, an Old Believer representative has told Forum 18 News Service that he believes ex-KGB officials were acting "out of inertia" when they voiced preference for one of two candidates on the eve of his Church's 9 February leadership election. Romil Khrustalev added, however, that the energetic Andrian (Chetvergov) was elected metropolitan even though the Russian secret service apparently favoured the other candidate. Both Khrustalev and a Moscow Patriarchate representative told Forum 18 that a report claiming that Metropolitan Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church had acted similarly to the ex-KGB was false. Accounting for only a few per cent of the Russian population at most, the Old Believers say that they have "no idea" why the state should take an interest in the identity of their leader.