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RUSSIA: Last of 31 court cases for Komi Baptists?

For the past six years the local administration of Komi in north-east European Russia has banned completion of both Russia's largest Baptist Church and a nearby centre for the physically disabled. Forum 18 News Service has discovered that the Baptist's problems started after a visit by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II. The latest obstacle placed by authorities in the way of completion of the church is a sales tax demand for three million roubles (approximately 100,000 US dollars, 730,000 Norwegian Kroner or 88,000 Euros) - even though the church has never been sold. Although local authorities are also preventing completion of the centre for the physically disabled, which the Baptists have now decided to give to the local authority, the local religious affairs adviser had high praise for the Baptists' charitable work.


Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration.

RUSSIA: Is Kostroma missionary black spot?

At the same time as five US citizens working with the evangelical Kostroma Christian Church were denied Russian visas last summer, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that another US citizen working in the city with the Christian humanitarian aid organisation Children's HopeChest was denied a visa. And US preacher Bill Norton, who used to visit Kostroma's Family of God church twice a year, has been barred from entry three times since last summer, making Kostroma – with seven visa denials - the location in Russia associated with the greatest number of known foreign church worker expulsions. Pastor Andrei Danilov told Forum 18 that the Russian Foreign Ministry had barred Norton "in connection with a threat to national security".

RUSSIA: State opposition to Kostroma Pentecostals continues

In the latest incident of what Pastor Andrei Danilov regards as continuing state pressure, the regional justice department in Kostroma near Moscow ordered a "check-up" on the Family of God Pentecostal church in June. The church was given just days – three of which were public holidays – to provide documentation on church funds, church activity, congregation membership records and minutes of meetings. "Other churches haven't been asked," Danilov pointed out to Forum 18 News Service. But local religious affairs official Marina Smirnova defended such action against the church, which included a failed court case on accusations of conducting hypnosis. "This concerns the lives of OUR people... hopefully we caused Danilov to think twice, I call that a result."

RUSSIA: Orthodox becoming first among equals

Without any change in the law or Constitution to provide for them, the steady increase in concordat-style agreements between the Russian Orthodox Church and various organs of state at federal and local level has given the Orthodox Church increased power, Forum 18 News Service reports after a wide-ranging survey. These agreements give the Church special access to institutions such as prisons, the police, the FSB, the army, schools and hospitals, and emphasise Orthodoxy as the legitimate ideology of Russian state tradition. It is open to question whether they violate Russia's international human rights commitments, but in practice these mini-concordats can render illegitimate the social activity of other religious organisations in the state sphere, thus leading to discrimination on religious grounds.

RUSSIA: Supreme Court upholds Bible college closure

Today (20 May) Russia's Supreme Court ruled that the Vladivostok-based charismatic "Faith in Action" Bible College should be closed down for conducting religious education without a state licence. Afterwards, the defence lawyer told Forum 18 News Service that the college's parent church, the Church of the Living God, could now be pressurised by the regional authorities for conducting unlicensed professional education activity.

RUSSIA: Court closes down Bible College

On 21 March Primorsky Krai regional court in Russia's Far East ruled to close down the charismatic Faith in Action Bible College in Vladivostok. Speaking to Forum 18 News Service, the public prosecutor's representative in the case, Nina Saiko, defended the court-ordered closure, arguing that the college was conducting "educational activity" without a licence in violation of the education law. The college's lawyer Aleksei Kolupayev insisted to Forum 18 that it was not conducting educational activity "but simple study for religious believers, a right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Russian Constitution." Others claim that the FSB (former KGB) has been harassing the college and looking for excuses to close it down.

RUSSIA: Kalmykia's "common defence" against "non-traditional" religions

Local officials met Buddhist and Russian Orthodox leaders in Russia's southern, traditionally Buddhist republic of Kalmykia on 1 April to discuss their common "concern" about the growing influence of religious communities they deem untraditional. One official told Forum 18 News Service that officials were concerned about "incorrect trends" within Buddhism in Kalmykia, while the Orthodox were worried by the presence of Adventists, Baptists and Pentecostals. Kalmykia's Orthodox Bishop Zosima told Forum 18 that after Orthodox preaching, Adventists had been "cleared out" of the settlement of Iki-Burul and Russians in the previously Baptist-dominated settlement of Yashalta were returning to Orthodoxy.

RUSSIA: Are Kalmykia's Protestants "western spies"?

Foreign missionaries working with Protestant communities in Kalmykia, the Lord's Love evangelical church and the Salvation Army, have been barred from Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Citing the FSB (ex-KGB), they have been attacked in the local state press as "western spies" who "frequently operate within various missionary organisations, hiding behind lofty charitable ideals." Commenting on efforts by the Salvation Army, Christian Missionary Alliance and Mission Aviation Fellowship to overturn entry bans, the newspaper said this "just goes to show how greatly intelligence agencies are interested in their presence in Kalmykia." After the article described the Salvation Army as "one of the most powerful totalitarian sects in the world", it was banned from holding events for children, Forum 18 has been told. Despite this, local authorities still seek the aid of Protestants to help needy people the authorities cannot help and to assist with anti-drug programmes. Forum 18 has also learned that it is planned to change the way religious communities represent their interests to local authorities, to the disadvantage of religious communities which are not Orthodox, Muslim or Buddhist.

RUSSIA: Few complaints over Kalmykia's state support for Buddhism

Despite large state subsidies for building Buddhist temples and training Buddhist monks, while "the basics of traditional religions are taught in a historical-informational context" in schools, officials and Buddhist leaders reject suggestions that Buddhism has become Kalmykia's state religion. "In Russia the government and churches are separate, so it doesn't unite us that much," Buddhist leader Telo Tulku Rinpoche told Forum 18 News Service. Members of religious minorities voiced few complaints about this government support for Buddhism.

RUSSIA: Degree of calm in Catholic storm

While the Catholic Church's fortunes in Russia may have risen from their low point last September, when two Catholic priests were denied entry to the country in as many days, they have not yet turned decisively for the better during the first three months of 2003. Saratov-based Bishop Clemens Pickel, who is German, was granted a residency permit in January, but Bishop Jerzy Mazur of Irkutsk, who is Polish, is still being barred entry to Russia. St Petersburg-based Fr Bronislaw Czaplicki was refused an extension to his residency permit and was told to leave Russia by 12 March, though he retains the right to return to Russia on an ordinary visa. Asked by Forum 18 News Service what he thought about the fact that no Catholic clergy had been expelled for some time, chancellor of the Moscow-based diocese Fr Igor Kovalevsky remarked: "I don't think anything about it. It doesn't mean that there won't be any tomorrow."

RUSSIA: New parliamentary force for "traditional spiritual values"

Long-running attempts by Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders to consolidate their positions with state assistance have entered a new phase with the creation of a public-parliamentary commission "In Support of Traditional Spiritual and Moral Values in Russia". Unveiling the project at the Duma (parliament) on 18 March, People's Deputy Valeri Galchenko termed it a cross-party initiative in conjunction with the Interreligious Council, a consultative body founded in January 1999 which embraces representatives of Russia's so-called traditional confessions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. The new commission plans to propose draft laws to parliament and lobby the government in support of "traditional spiritual and moral values".