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Freedom of religion or belief in Russia

29 02 2012

HRWF (28.02.2012) – Human Rights Without Frontiers presents you an overview of incidents having taken place in Russia in the second semester of 2011. The full overview covering the 12 months can be found on the homepage of our websitehttp://www.hrwf.net

By Flint Timmins for Human Rights Without Frontiers

5 July

The Supreme Court of Russia overturned the 24 February ban on the Grace Church of Khabarovsk; however, the Khabarovsk Regional Court has initiated new procedures against the church’s leaders and membership. The Grace Church was accused of failing to maintain proper financial records as well as employing preaching methods, such as saying prayers loudly, speaking in “tongues,” and faith “healings,” that “changed the psychological state” of its members.

18 July

A Baptist conscientious objector was held in a psychiatric hospital since 1 July for observation following his refusal to take up arms. Igor Shlak, a 20-year-old Baptist, refused to serve in his military unit, desiring instead to perform alternative service. Six months before being called into the military, Shlak submitted written requests to the Tyumen and Nizhnetavdinsk Districts Military Enlistment Office in central Russia. He was told that he had not been selected for alternative service.

8 August

In the city of Chelyabinsk police raided the home of Muslim Nursi reader Gulnaz Valeyeva, claiming to have thwarted a suicide bomber plot. The home is used by local Muslim women for prayer. Police confiscated over 500 pamphlets and other religious material as well as instructions for preparing explosives. Local Muslims claim the instructions were planted by the raiding police.

8 August

The home of Nursi reader Farida Ulmaskulova was raided by police officers while she was conducting a religious education class for Muslim girls between the ages of 11 and 17 in the village of Aznalino, Safakuleev district, Kurgan region. Police confiscated religious texts, course materials, and DVDs. The girls were detained and questioned, being released in the evening.

25 August

Police officers and government officials carried out 19 simultaneous searches on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes in the Sea of Azov city of Taganrog. Church leaders say that such search raids are designed to intimidate and subdue the religion.

7 September

  • Ustina Chernishoff of Brazil was found in a community of Russian Old Believers on the banks of the Yenisei River in Siberia. Chernishoff, 23, was reported to Interpol as missing by her mother in Brazil after Chernishoff stopped sending letters. Chernishoff moved to the community with her father and brother in 2006 and spent much of her time making copies of religious texts. The Old Believers are Orthodox Christians who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th Century.
  • Nursi reader Rashid Abdulov was sentenced to one year of compulsory labor for extremism. The Ulyanovsk Prosecutor’s Office stated that they felt the sentence was too light, preferring instead a 4-year sentence in a labor camp. Abdulov, a citizen of Azerbaijan, was first detained in January by the Russian secret service on charges of spreading Nursi teachings.
  • In the Chuvash Republic of western Russia, three Jehovah’s Witnesses were taken into custody while police searched their and other Witnesses’ homes. The police seized Bibles, personal computers, legal documents, and personal valuables. In the Chuvash cities of Cheboksary, Novocheboksarsk, and Kanash, Jehovah’s Witness worship services were interrupted by police and members were searched and fingerprinted.

9 September

In the region of Belgorod, the Federal Migration Service raided the Friday prayers of the local Muslim community Peace and Creation. Masked police interrupted the prayers and detained over 150 men. The men were searched, had their cell phones confiscated, and were taken to various police stations. The police said that the raid was aimed at “uncovering illegal migrants” and other migration violations, though only six of the detained were found to be illegal migrants. Local Muslims believe the raid was a response to a local television news report on the Muslim’s celebration of Ramadan, which boasted over 1000 attendees.

19 September

The Yoshkar-Ola City Court ordered five internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to two Jehovah’s Witness websites. Prosecutor Andrei Nazarov argued that the sites jw.org andwatchtower.org contain some works that are currently on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, prompting the court to ban access to the sites. A third site, jw-media.org, was also blocked even though it was not mentioned in the official ruling.

20 September

The Lenin District Court rejected the appeal of Nursi reader Ziyautdin Dapayev’s three-year prison sentence. Dapayev, 29, was sentenced under “extremism” for possessing banned religious literature written by Muslim theologian Said Nursi. Dapayev was accused of being “deliberately engaged in attracting residents of Dagestan to study and spread the teaching of Said Nursi.” Over 1,800 books, pamphlets, and other materials were taken from Dapayev’s home and turned over to the Muslim Board of Dagestan, a city along the Caspian Sea, with the instruction that the literature be destroyed.

2 October

In a letter presented at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, the Brussels-based human rights NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers called on the Russian government to: revise Article 14 of the Law on Freedom of conscience and association; end the misuse of Article 282 of the Criminal Code in harassing religious groups; end the harassment against Jehovah’s Witnesses and Nursi readers; dissolve the Ministry of Justice’s Expert Council for conducting State-Religious Studies; and to fully implement the decisions of the European Court concerning freedom of religion. 

7 October

  • The Russian Ministry of Justice proposed amendments to Russia’s religious law. The proposed amendments would: require all religious groups to register with the Ministry of Justice, even if the groups do not plan on seeking the status of a legal entity; limit the teaching of religious doctrines to officially registered religious associations; permit religious organizations to publish books and teach children only if the group belongs to a centralized religious association;  and allow the state to reject or revoke religious registration if the “goals and activities” of the group violate Russian law. The proposed law would effectively eliminate the legal distinctions between religious “organizations” and “groups.” Under current law, religious “groups” in Russia are allowed to operate privately and without being registered, allowing small groups of citizens to easily organize themselves in religious groups for the purpose of religious studies and prayer meetings.
  • The Kemerovo diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church protested against the entry of Andrei Matuizhov into the All-Russia National Front (ONF), a wing of Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party. Matuizhov is a former pastor of the “Love of Christ” evangelical church, which was closed by authorities in 2007 for allegedly violating religious laws. Matuizhov then joined the “New Generation” evangelical church, which was accused of extremism. Upon hearing of Matuizhov’s intent to join ONF, the Kemerovo diocese issued a statement to believers to oppose Matuizhov’s inclusion, stating that he might “lobby for ideas that will not serve the strengthening of our society but its moral degradation.”

10 October

In the city of Tomskthe Ministry of Justice sought to place the Hare Krishna text “The Bhagavad-Git As It Is” on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Prosecutors claimed that the book “contains signs of incitement of religious hatred and humiliation of an individual based on gender, race, ethnicity, language, origin or attitude to religion.” The Tomsk Region Ombudsperson of Human Rights, Nelli Krechetova, criticized the accusation, stating that it was an attempt to restrict the religious freedom of Hare Krishnas.

12 October

An Evangelical Christian-Baptist church in Vladivostok, located near the eastern border with China, was vandalized when a small group threw stones at windows.

3 November

Following the appeal of the Gorno-Altaisk Prosecutor’s Office, the Gorno-Altaisk City Court reversed the acquittal of Jehovah’s Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov and found him guilty of inciting religious hatred, sentencing him to 100 hours of community service. Human rights NGO Amnesty International called the decision “an attack against freedom of expression, of opinion, and freedom of confession.” Kalistratov was acquitted of extremism charges under Article 282 of the Criminal Code on 14 April. Kalistratov was accused of distributing copies of religious works banned by the Gorno-Altaisk City Court. Kalistratov was the first Jehovah’s Witness put on trial in post-Soviet Russia.

Mid-November

The sms message system operated by Russia’ Hare Krishna’s was shut down without warning by the Russian communications company NSS. The message system allows the 3,000 subscribers to send daily quotes, announcements, and event notices. It is unknown whether the government was involved in the shutdown.

2 December

Four of the nine Jehovah’s Witnesses works banned by the Salsk court in June were officially placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Additionally, nine other works were ruled “extremist” by the far eastern Sakhalin region’s Makarov District Court on 18 October. Officials from the religion claim that they were not informed of the Makarov decision until 11 November.

8 December

In a new report on the website www.jw-media.org, the Jehovah’s Witnesses documented over 1,000 instances of religious intolerance from 2009 to 2011. Religious discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses on the part of Russian officials and the general public has increased severely, consisting of over 120 home raids, 500 instances of interfering with proselyting activity, and 420 detentions or arrests.

12 December

An article on Russian “anti-sect” websites was published, criticizing the bigotry and falsehoods spread by these websites. The criticisms were aimed at Alexander Dvorkin, head of the Ministry of Justice’s and vice-president of the pan-European anti-sect organization FECRIS, and Alexander Kuzmin, Member of the Expert Council for Conducting Religious Studies Expert Analysis and operator of several “anti-sect” websites. The sites contain articles accusing non-Orthodox religions of witchcraft, murder, rape, and other crimes.

22 December

  • The Jehovah’s Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov was acquitted of spreading “enmity and hatred” in the Siberian city of Altaisk. Kalistratov had previously been found guilty of inciting religious hatred and sentenced to 100 hours of community service. He appealed the decision, having once been found innocent at the original trial which took place on 14 April.
  • A Russian court banned several pieces of Falun Gong literature, including its main text “Zhuan Falun.” The human rights NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers suggested that the decision may have come due to pressure from China, which is attempting to stamp out Falun Gong.

28 December

The Tomsk City Court refused to classify the Hare Krishna text “Bhagavad Gita As It Is” as “extremist.” The decision came partially in response to protests in India over the case. Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna called the case an attack on the “very soul of our great civilization.”

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HUMAN RIGHTS ALERT: Discriminatory actions against Hungarian Jai Bhim Buddhist Community

23 02 2012

By Jura Nanuk/CERFI

Hungarian Jai Bhim Buddhist Community operates several educational programs for Roma children and young adults in Hungary, using philosophy of Buddhism to help their integration into Hungarian society. In their work they are following the example of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Indian political leader and philosopher, born in untouchable caste, so called Dalits. Ambedkar converted to Buddhisms and inspired many of Dalits to do the same thus escaping humiliating life of untouchable Indian caste.

On February 23, police came to Sajokaza village to “investigate” the fact that in small Roma village 300 inhabitants identified themselves as Buddhists in last population census. Authorities found this suspicious and started an “investigation”, which might represent violation of Data Protection Law, as religious affiliation is considered sensitive personal data per Hungarian law, and nobody has the rights to investigate somebodies religious affiliation.

Day latter, police entered Jai Bhim school building in Sajokaza, arresting three teenage girls. The girls were arrested and handcuffed and taken into local police station. From the recording of the school security cameras which recorded in full the arrest, it is clearly visible there was absolutely no need to use the handcuffs as the girls were not resisting the arrest and were not representing threat to themselves or others.

Needless to say, Hungarian Jai Bhim community lost their religious status due to repressive Hungarian law on churches  which affected hundreds of Hungarian religious communities.  When Jai Bhim’s  request for re-registration was refused by justification that they filed the papers one day too late which has nothing to do with the truth.

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Banning the burqa and the European identity crisis

23 02 2012

By Maurits Berger of Leiden University 

The Dutch cabinet announced on January 27 that it will submit to parliament a bill banning burqas and niqabs, full casket helmets and balaclavas from Dutch streets. The latter are only meant to answer the need for non-discriminatory legislation, because the true intention of the bill was effectively a “burqa ban.” If the bill becomes law, offenders will have to pay a €390 fine.

Whether the bill will pass the two houses of parliament remains to be seen. A burqa ban has been submitted twice in the Netherlands before, in 2007 and 2008, but both came to naught, not in the least because several committees, institutions and the State Council strongly advised against it.

This third time, however, there is more political clout to pass such a bill, because the burqa ban was made conditional to the formation of the current government. An example has been set by France, where their parliament passed the bill in 2010 despite the French State Council strongly advising against it.

It is clear that the burqa ban is not a legal necessity, but a political one. The exact number of women wearing the burqa is not known, but is estimated to be few: several hundred in the Netherlands (out of a population of 16 million) and about 2,000 in France (out of a population of 65 million). And while such attire may be a nuisance or a shocking experience to people encountering them, these women have not manifested themselves as a threat.

Although certain behavior creates disquiet in society, solid legal arguments must support any prohibitions. If, for example, people find it discomforting to stand in the schoolyard among several face-covered black-clad mothers when picking up their children, what exactly are the elements that make up this discomfort? We may not want it or like it, but there are lots of things we do not want or dislike. When do we cross the line where prohibitions are required in order to maintain society’s sense of peace and comfort?

It comes as no surprise, then, that the law passed in France and Belgium, and those recently submitted in Netherlands and Spain, are a wondrous jumble of arguments justifying the burqa ban, ranging from a revival of the “social contract” that allegedly demands open-face encounters to condemnations of Islamic oppression of women. Central themes in the recent Dutch bill are integration and gender equality, with communication as a common denominator (interestingly, freedom of religion is not mentioned).

The integration argument, in short, is as follows: to advance one’s situation one needs to participate in society, and because the Netherlands is “an open society” one can only successfully interact by means of open-face interaction. Covering one’s face is an impediment that, even when self-inflicted, needs to be avoided at all costs – or at least at the cost of €390.

Gender equality is also a recurring theme, but with various twists. The Dutch legislature condemns the face veil as a symbol of women’s oppression, as a means to set women apart from men as non-communicable objects, and as an indicator that men are sexual predators.

These arguments are feeble because their alleged object or aim of protection differs distinctively from the intention of that protection. The aim of the integration argument basically is that women need to be protected against themselves, because wearing the face veil cuts them off from society. The aim of the gender argument is the legislators’ concern with the plight of oppressed women.

Quite awkward, then, to fine the women one wants to protect. However, the intention of the bill is not the welfare of these women, but society’s discomfort with their behavior. Moreover, the ban’s justification is based on the protection of women who have not asked for it.

This was also the main point of critique raised by the French State Council. It stated that the “principle of personal autonomy” is one of the fundamentals of French society, and as long as these women voluntarily choose to wear these garments, one needs to come up with justifiable arguments to impose any prohibitions. And the State Council had not found such arguments.

The Dutch State Council, after its rejection of the burqa ban bill proposed in 2005, was quick in its rejection of the 2012 bill. In doing so it followed its French colleague: women have a basic right to wear what they want, and any legislation imposing a ban on certain garments must have a solid reason to do so.

All of these arguments are legal in nature, however, and will clearly not deter the political will of parliament. Neither does the distinct risk of such a ban being nullified by a higher court such as the European Court for Human Rights. Such a response would take years, and during that time one could successfully impose the ban. A legal loss, but a political gain.

The main political gain, to my mind, is national identity. It is not coincidental that the Dutch and French bills considered in 2005-2007 and 2009-2010, respectively, happened at exactly the same time that the two countries were involved in nationwide debates on their national identities. Since it’s nearly impossible to define one’s identity, it is easier to say what it is not. The burqa served that purpose: wearing the burqa was definitely not French or Dutch.

No wonder that the burqa bans have such feeble legal arguments. Laws are not suitable tools to shape or maintain identities. If one wants to eliminate the burqa – and it is perfectly understandable why one wants to do so – one needs to turn to other measures rather than legislation.

Maurits Berger is the chair of Islam in the contemporary West at the Institute for Religious Studies at Leiden University, and is a senior research associate with the Clingendael Institute for International Relations in The Hague. His research includes the relation between law and religion and the role and influence of Sharia in Western countries.

Source: Human Rights Without Frontiers





Hungarian churches left in no-man’s land

10 02 2012

By Kester Eddy/FINANCIAL TIMES

Gabor Ivanyi lives every day with the consequences of government persecution. In 1977, when the Hungarian communist authorities closed down his Methodist church in Budapest, he vowed not to shave until it re-opened.

“I thought it would all be solved in a matter of days or weeks,” he says.

But the police padlocked the church, so Mr Ivanyi held services on the street until five years later when the authorities softened their approach. Though not before they had demolished his church.

The preacher thought his troubles were over when, in 1990, the outgoing regime introduced a law regulating religious organisations. But, 22 years on, the pastor is instead facing a new fight – and his beard is of Biblical proportions.

From his cramped headquarters in Jozsefvaros – a working-class district of the capital – Mr Ivanyi’s Wesleyan church runs a nationwide network of schools, homes for the aged and hostels for the homeless serving some 4,000 of Hungary’s poorest and most needy.

In December, Hungary’s parliament, in which the Fidesz party of prime minister Viktor Orban holds a two-thirds majority, passed a new law on churches – part of a burst of legislation that caused concern in the European Union and US regarding Mr Orban’s respect for democracy.

As a result, more than 300 formerly registered denominations – including Mr Ivanyi’s Methodists – are now in a legal no-man’s land, no longer recognised by the state.

“With no consultations, at least with us, the Orban government brought in a law which acknowledges 14 ‘historical’ churches, but strips us of our status,” pastor Ivanyi says. “This is Orwellian. All churches are equal, but some are more equal than others. It’s blatant discrimination.”

The 14 recognised faiths include the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist churches and three Jewish denominations, but exclude smaller Christian movements such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even local Church of England congregations. Also no longer recognised are the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Bahai communities.
To regain official recognition, and the attendant privileges such as tax breaks, those religious communities face a complicated bureaucratic process that culminates in a final decision by parliament – where Mr Orban’s Fidesz party holds a two-thirds majority – rather than the courts. If recognition is denied, there is no right of appeal, though the denomination can apply for limited “association” status.

Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman, argues that the law is needed to prevent abuse of the former system which saw some groups set up as “business churches” to exploit tax privileges. “For 20 years after communism we had an ‘open market’ for religion,” he says. “There were 360 registered churches. This is a nonsense – for example, the ‘Worshippers of the Womb’ was a registered church. There were a number of organisations which had nothing to do with religion proper.”

“It is very difficult to explain this to, say, an American, where freedom to set up churches is part of the culture. In continental Europe the model is about a state-regulated framework, and we are re-booting that relationship,” Mr Kovacs insists.

The government’s explanation is undermined by the reality of the law, counters Szabolcs Hegyi, of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. “In spite of the government’s claims, these provisions seriously restrict the freedom of religion. They discriminate against approximately 300 [formerly] registered churches, which have lost their status and established rights, and are obliged to [attempt to] re-register,” he says.

The process is no easy matter. The security service is required to assess all applications, and in a country where many still baulk at revealing personal preferences to the authorities, would-be churches need to find 1,000 people to vouch for their movement as bona fide.

“These conditions are unfair: they discriminate against new, small and local communities,” he says.

Mr Hegyi also dismisses the need for new legislation to combat abuse of church status. “Even if supposed ‘business churches’ or ‘nonsense’ religions were a problem, the new law is a disproportionate answer – the authorities could previously take legal action if any church breached the law,” he says.

Pastor Ivanyi – who, curiously, baptised Mr Orban’s first two children back in the 1990s – says “one or two” of his 800 employees have resigned due to uncertainty over the future. Their concerns are understandable; in a move reminiscent of his defiance of communist persecution, Mr Ivanyi refuses to re-apply for official church status.

“It is as if they took away my citizenship,” he says. “I was born Magyar; they can’t take that away and make me re-apply. We are a church, anyone can see that.”

***

To read the complete article on Financial Times website, please click here.  





Hindus-Buddhists-Jews-Atheists seek EU intervention in Hungary to restore religious equality

9 02 2012

In a remarkable joint interfaith gesture, Hindus-Buddhists-Jews-Atheists want immediate intervention of European Union (EU) in Hungary to establish religious equality and freedom.

Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that Hinduism and many other religions and denominations were not officially recognized in Hungary. Should not all religions be equal before the law in a democracy? Is not Hungary part of the EU which boasts of being the human rights leader in the world? Zed asked.

Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, pointed out that Hinduism was the oldest and third largest religion in the world with a rich philosophical thought and about one billion adherents. Are not these enough qualifications for a religion to be recognized?

Rajan Zed expressed dismay at Hungary’s recent law on religion, saying that it was a setback to religious equality. The official recognition process was suffocating, cumbersome, unnecessarily burdened the Hungary’s minority religions/ denominations, smelled of favoritism, discriminatory against certain faith groups and was without any right to appeal. It was a step in the wrong and backwards direction, Zed added.

Zed further said that nations should not be in the business of regulating religion, which was very powerful and complex; and governments should not tell who was “church” and who was not.

Rajan Zed urged His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and other world religious leaders to speak against this recent Hungarian law and back the minority religions/denominations of Hungary. Religions/denominations with a major presence in Hungary should also come to the rescue of religious minorities.

Zed stated that Hungary seemed to have created its own narrow “definition” of religion which might not be compatible with European and international religious equality and freedom standards. This exclusionary approach sent a worrying signal, a cause for concern. Zed stressed the need for more openness, equality and religious freedom in Hungary; the country of Lake Balaton, romantic Danube River, Franz Liszt and Bela Bartok.

Meanwhile, Rabbi ElizaBeth Beyer, prominent Jewish leader in Nevada, in a statement today, stressed that Hinduism was one of the major religions of the world and the Hungarian Parliament was out of touch with the reality in not granting it recognition in upholding “The Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion and on the Status of Churches, Religions and Religious Communities” Law.  Rabbi Beyer stated that the Law created inferior religious status to faiths which had fewer followers in Hungary, violating the right to be free from religious discrimination.  Beyer noted that the Law, which also stripped liberal Jewish congregations of their religious status, was flawed and archaic.

Jon Eric Johnson, a well known atheist scholar belonging to Reno Freethinkers, in a statement today, said: “We are dismayed and disappointed at the Hungarian government for engaging in the regulation and exclusionary approach in religion. A free and democratic society must allow people to worship, or not worship, as they so choose without restriction, harassment or favoritism.”

Distinguished Buddhist priest in Western USA, Jikai’ Phil Bryan, in a statement in Reno  today, urged Hungary to end discriminatory practices aimed at members of any and all authentic religious traditions and treat all religions as equal before the law and government. Bryan stressed the urgent need of ensuring religious equality and freedom in Hungary.

In a past survey, 44% Hungarians reportedly replied that they believed that there was a God. Roman Catholics were the largest group with about 52% Hungarians as followers. Majority of Hungary became Christian in the 11th century. Budapest synagogue is said to be the largest in Europe. Pal Schmitt and Viktor Orban are President and Prime Minister respectively of Republic of Hungary.








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