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Religious-freedom restrictions on the rise in Russia

20 January 2017

Changing hands: plans to give St Isaac’s Cathedral, in St Petersburg, to the Russian Orthodox Church, have attracted protests. The decision was announced by the local governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, last week. The cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was turned into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism in 1931, with the world’s largest Foucault pendulum — demonstrating the rotation of the Earth — on display. Six years later, it became a museum of history and art. Services resumed in 1990, mostly taking place in the side chapel, except for feast days. The cathedral is due to be handed over, free of charge, to the Church in 2019, for at least49 years, in 2019. Entrance will be free and concerns have been raised about the cost of upkeep

Changing hands: plans to give St Isaac’s Cathedral, in St Petersburg, to the Russian Orthodox Church, have attracted protests. The decision was ...

RESTRICTIONS on religious freedom in Russia have increased since Vladimir Putin was re-elected President in 2012, a new report by Forum 18, the Oslo-based human-rights organisation, suggests.

The report, published on the Forum 18 website last Friday, cites dozens of examples of increased restrictions and state interference. It says that there has been a rise in prosecutions under new anti-missionary laws, and further requirements on religious communities to apply for state registration.

Although President Putin has positioned himself as a friend of the Orthodox Church, new laws clamp down on the freedoms of other religious communities, including Baptist and other Christian groups, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The latest changes include a draft law introduced last month in the Russian parliament, the Duma, to impose fines on religious communities that have not been officially registered with the State.

Last month a pastor of an unregistered Baptist Congregation became the first to be charged for failing to notify the authorities of the group’s activities.

There has also been a rise in prosecutions of people for sharing their faith in public. More than 120 of these have been against Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Amendments introduced in a package of laws, described as an “anti-terrorism” crackdown, ban missionary activity outside churches or a designated religious centre. In one prosecution cited by Forum 18, a Hare Krishna adherent was charged with undertaking illegal “missionary activity” for distributing religious literature in the street. He was acquitted because the judge agreed that he had been acting as a private person, not as the representative of a religious association, and not with the aim of involving others in a religious association.

An American Baptist missionary, Donald Ossewaarde, was fined 40,000 roubles for holding prayer meetings in his home, and allegedly advertising them on noticeboards in blocks of flats near by. He has lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court against his conviction.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are also challenging in the Moscow City Court a warning from the Prosecutor General that their headquarters will be liquidated if evidence is found of extremism. The Witnesses cite on their website numerous examples of where, they say, police have planted extremist materials and then “found” them during a search of premises.

The Forum 18 report warns that restrictions on religious freedom are likely to tighten further, under the current regime in Russia.

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