There were reports of imprisonment, detention, and degrading treatment of members of religious minorities. The government arbitrarily applied anti-extremism laws, refused to register certain religious organizations, and imposed other restrictions that infringed on the religious freedoms of members of minority religious groups, in particular Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Scientologists, and Falun Gong practitioners. The Federation of Jewish Communities reported no official acts of anti-Semitism at the federal level.
Authorities frequently detained and imprisoned members of minority religions because of their religious beliefs, sometimes pursuing criminal charges against individuals for attending religious services or carrying out peaceful religious activities.
There were reports authorities subjected individuals to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment because of their religious beliefs. In March a group of approximately two dozen Azeri, Tajik, Kazakh, and Uzbek men were detained and some forced to cut their own beards off at gunpoint by OMON (SWAT) troops in Surgut, Khanty-Mansiysk. According to representatives of the Tajik diaspora in Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug, an OMON unit in combat gear approached the group as they were dining in a cafe near the city’s mosque, forced them to the floor, demanded their documents, and forced some to cut off their own beards. Reportedly, those who refused were threatened with having their beards burned off.
The authorities continued to ban Nurjular, an alleged religious association of followers of Sunni Muslim theologian Said Nursi, after concluding Nursi’s works were extremist and promoted intolerance. Muslim adherents of Nursi (generally referred to as “Nursi readers”) and religious rights advocates continued to assert there was no Nurjular organization. In March authorities in St. Petersburg raided the home of Nursi reader Shirazi Bekirov, as well as the homes of six other Nursi readers. More than 10 people were detained and thousands of Nursi’s books were seized as extremist literature. Bekirov was found guilty of organizing the activity of the banned Nurjular organization and sentenced to six months in prison, following a lengthy detention and a psychiatric evaluation.
In April, 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses were charged in Rostov with organizing and participating in the activities of an organization banned for extremist activity. The charges followed a 2009 decision by the Rostov Regional Court to dissolve the Taganrog Jehovah’s Witnesses LRO, claiming the religion was an extremist organization. The charges arose from the act of attending a religious service. In October authorities announced they were investigating five more Jehovah’s Witnesses from Rostov-on-Don on the same charges.
Police across the country participated in raids on minority religious groups at private homes and places of worship, often confiscating religious literature and other property.
In January and February investigators in Tobolsk conducted at least 15 searches of private homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses, seizing religious literature, computers, and storage equipment.
In July over 20 officers from the Center for Counteracting Terrorism and the police raided a religious service at Setun Culture Hall with a signed order, interrupting the service to search the premises for evidence that Jehovah’s Witnesses advocate the superiority of their religious beliefs over others. The senior officer announced to the approximately 150 members he was terminating the religious service, and detained five of the men for questioning at the police station. During the investigation, one senior police officer made offensive and derogatory remarks, which were recorded, towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Experts criticized the Duma’s action in passing legislation strengthening existing extremism laws, despite an expression of concern in 2012 by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe that the vague definition of “extremism” lent itself to broad interpretation and arbitrary application by authorities. The experts saw the law as a potential tool for the government to use against minority “foreign” Christian religious groups such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as against alleged extremist Muslim organizations with ties to Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Religious minorities said local authorities utilized the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred and essential religious texts. As of October 1, the MOJ’s list of extremist materials had grown to 2,096 titles, including 69 Jehovah’s Witnesses items, four Falun Gong items, and seven Scientology items. Publications declared extremist by a court were automatically added to the list.
In April a court in Orenburg continued deliberations regarding 68 Islamic works it banned in 2012, the largest such ban of religious literature in a single court case. While no final court ruling was issued, officials filed administrative cases against the owner and a salesperson of a bookstore selling some of the works.
On August 7, the Central District Court of Tver pronounced the Jehovah’s Witnesses website to be extremist, requiring Russian internet service providers to block access to the site and making accessing a criminal offense. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses lawyers, this marked the first time any country legally banned the group’s website.
On December 17, the Krasnodar regional court overturned a September ruling by a district court in Novorossiysk that a translation of the Quran by Elmir Kuliyev was extremist and should be included on the federal list of banned literature. The Krasnodar judge remarked that the initial examination of the translation was made incorrectly by people lacking expertise.
In July journalists in Sverdlovsk Oblast reported a number of anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, and anti-Buddhist works remained for sale in ROC bookstores in Yekaterinburg.
Minority religious groups stated authorities had used the threat of extremism charges as a means to extract money from them. There were reports of regional prosecutors advising religious groups that court cases were in preparation to declare religious texts extremist and the only way to avoid such charges would be to hire specific “experts” at exorbitant prices to conduct “expert analyses” of the texts.
The government continued to refuse to register certain religious organizations and subsequently penalized them for failing to register.
Although foreign religious representative offices were required to register in order to conduct religious services and other activities, many such offices opened without registering, or avoided registration requirements by being accredited to a registered religious organization.
In August the Moscow City Court upheld the MOJ’s notices of violation issued to the Church of Scientology of Moscow. Among other issues, the ministry had required the church to re-register its 1994 religious charter, while at the same time asserting the government did not recognize the religious nature of the organization’s activities. The church argued it had already attempted to re-register 11 times and had been denied every time.
Many religious organizations reported authorities had prevented them from renting or obtaining venues for hosting religious services and assemblies from public or private vendors.
In April the first deputy chief of the Chelyabinsk city administration sent a letter to the heads of the directorates for culture, education, youth affairs, social development, and sports and tourism, instructing them to refuse requests by Jehovah’s Witnesses to rent a venue to conduct a regional assembly in Chelyabinsk.
In November a similar letter from the governor of Kemerov to the regional Department of Culture that highlighted the “harmful influence” of Pentecostals requested the department strengthen its ties with the ROC and strengthen control over the administration of public buildings and spaces so as to prevent such religious groups from using them.
Officials also prevented religious organizations from obtaining land and denied construction permits for houses of worship.
During the year authorities denied multiple requests for land plots on which mosques would be built. Lack of access to adequate places of worship and increased membership meant many Muslim groups spilled out onto the street during Friday prayers and had to rent special premises for major holidays. The mayor of Moscow stated in March there would be no new mosques in Moscow beyond the four existing mosques, despite the city’s estimated two million Muslims.
Muslims outside of Moscow also reported persistent difficulties building mosques to meet growing numbers of Muslim worshippers. Sochi, a city in which 20,000 Muslims reside, continued to have no mosque, with officials stating a mosque 50 miles away was sufficient for the needs of the city’s Muslims. During the year authorities denied multiple requests for land plots on which to build a mosque. In April authorities denied permission to build a mosque in Novokuznetsk after locals protested it was too close to a Russian Orthodox Church and demanded a halt to the “Islamization” of the region.
The Moscow government originally approved a plan for the Krishna community to build a new temple on a plot of land in the sparsely populated outskirts of the city, after forcibly evicting them from their centrally-located temple in July. The mayor’s office, however, withdrew permission after the Krishna community had already spent 70 million rubles ($2.1 million) on planning and construction of the new temple, despite objections from both the federal and local human rights ombudsmen.
Some regional officials used contradictions between federal and local laws and varying interpretations of the law to restrict the activities of minority religious groups. The federal government only occasionally intervened to prevent or reverse discrimination at the local level. Some local authorities broadly interpreted the law prohibiting unsanctioned demonstrations to restrict public worship. Several Muslim groups reported insistence by local government officials that public worship in spaces not designated for religious purposes required advance clearance.
The Slavic Center for Law and Justice and minority religious leaders stated that local and municipal government officials and Orthodox religious organizations continued to use mass media and public demonstrations to foment opposition to minority religious groups, characterizing them as threats to physical, mental, and spiritual health and asserting they threatened national security.
In January the Federal Migration Service began allowing applicants for work permits “whose religious beliefs forbid appearance in public with their head uncovered” to wear hijabs in permit photos as long as their faces remained fully uncovered.
Although the government generally paid compensation in line with ECHR decisions, it continued to ignore judgments in cases where the ECHR found credible violations of the rights of minority religious groups and to fail to amend legislation to bring it into compliance with ECHR rulings.
The government continued to decline to comply with an ECHR ruling that the requirement for a religious group to have existed in a community for at least 15 years in order to be registered as an LRO violated the European Convention on Human Rights’ provisions on the freedoms of religion and association. The Ministry of Justice, however, admitted the requirement did not conform to the European convention and submitted a draft law to eliminate the requirement, although without result as of year’s end.
Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and Religious Affairs Director Mikhail Odintsov made public statements in support of the rights of religious minorities, advocating the equality of all religions before the law in a secular state. The ombudsman’s office received approximately 500 complaints from religious organizations over the course of the year, mostly concerning anti-extremist legislation, allocation of land for construction of religious buildings, and religious literature expertise. Lukin frequently interceded on behalf of those filing complaints.
While neither the constitution nor the law accorded explicit privileges or advantages to the ROC, in practice the government cooperated more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations.
The ROC had a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries giving it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, police, and the military forces. The government also provided the Russian Orthodox patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded no other religious organization.
In January the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) won an appeal of an arbitration court’s decision to award 800-year-old saints’ relics to the Federal Property Management Agency in Suzdal on the grounds that the general courts, and not the arbitration court, had jurisdiction. Despite the victory, the court ordered the relics seized in order to “ensure the safety of the property.” Police interrupted a church service to take possession of the relics, pushing Metropolitan Theodore away from the relics in the middle of a prayer. The ROAC continued to state it was subject to systematic discrimination by authorities because of its refusal to acknowledge the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate.
In May Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted a request to the Gorodetskiy District of the Nizhniy Novgorod region to rent a stadium for a convention. The request was denied after the administration consulted an Orthodox priest, who stated he considered Gorodets an important Orthodox spiritual center.
On August 17, riot police and members of the activist Russian Orthodox organization God’s Will dispersed a procession of the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as they marched through Moscow. Police detained eight members of the group and charged them with organizing an unsanctioned rally. They could face additional charges under the new blasphemy law, after God’s Will members accused the group of “insulting the religious feelings of believers.”
Despite its cooperative relationship with the government, the ROC experienced complications in obtaining restitution of many of its pre-revolution structures because the government had acquired them and sold them to private entities.
The Federation of Jewish Communities stated there were no official acts of anti-Semitism at the federal level. There were reports, however, of isolated cases of anti-Semitism by government officials.
In July Perm Kray authorities denied the local Jewish community’s request for a land plot in the city center for the construction of a new synagogue. The request had initially been supported by the local government before popular discontent with the project led to a reversal.
In August the Tver regional court sentenced Ilya Farber, a rural Jewish schoolteacher, to seven years in prison and a three million ruble ($91,300) fine for accepting a bribe of 430,000 rubles ($13,100). During the trial public prosecutor Pavel Vereshchagin responded to Farber’s claims that he was innocent and simply trying to help the community by asking the jury, “How could a person with the surname Farber help villagers for free?”
The Ministry of Justice added numerous anti-Semitic items to its list of “extremist” materials, including an audio clip entitled “Kill the Jews – Save Russia” and informational material labeled “The Rape and Murder of a Three-year old Girl According to the Canons of Judaism.”
As of September 1, 83 chaplain positions had been filled in the Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program, including 80 Orthodox, two Muslim, and one Buddhist chaplain. The program remained under development.