Cuba

Executive Summary

The country’s constitution contains written provisions for religious freedom and prohibitions against discrimination based on religious grounds.  According to the religious freedom advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  In its annual Watch List, Open Doors reported a continued rise in persecution of Christians in the country.  According to media, on July 11, security forces (a general term covering military, police, and vigilante forces) committed acts of violence against, detained, and harassed religious leaders from multiple faith communities who were participating in peaceful demonstrations across the country.  According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), security forces beat Roman Catholic priest Jose Castor Alvarez Devesa when he offered aid to an injured person at a protest in Camaguey on July 11.  CSW reported Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo faced up to a 10-year sentence for participating in a march the same day.  Rosales Fajardo was found guilty of charges in December and awaited sentencing at year’s end.  Sissi Abascal Zamora, a member of the Ladies in White opposition group, received a six-year sentence for participating in the July protests.  Authorities continued to subject members of the Association of Free Yorubas of Cuba (Free Yorubas) to arbitrary detentions, threats, physical violence, and verbal harassment.  The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Global Liberty Alliance reported four members of Free Yorubas faced extended pretrial detention after their arrests following the July protests and prison sentences of up to 10 years.  The Spanish NGO Cuban Observatory of Human Rights registered at least 30 acts against leaders and laypersons from multiple faith communities as the government attempted to suppress public support for peaceful protests called for November 15.  According to NGO and media reports, those actions included the orchestration of demonstrations (acts of repudiation) in front of the homes of Catholic priests, police surveillance, internet cuts, and the harassment of a nun as she left her residence in Havana to meet a friend.  In August, security service officials arrested Apostolic Church pastor Alain Toledano Valiente for “propagating the COVID pandemic” when he held what he said was a socially distanced service.  Religious groups reported the ORA and MOJ continued to deny official registration to certain groups, including to several Apostolic churches, or did not respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).

Some religious groups and organizations, such as the Catholic charity Caritas, continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to individuals regardless of religious belief.  The Catholic-affiliated Community of Sant’Egidio continued to hold prayer and small group meetings in spite of COVID-19 restrictions.

Due to a lack of government responsiveness, U.S. embassy officials did not meet with or otherwise engage the ORA during the year.  In public statements and on social media, U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.  Embassy officials met regularly with a range of religious groups concerning the state of religious freedom and political activities related to religious groups’ beliefs.

On November 15, 2021, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Cuba on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “The state recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious liberty” and, “Distinct beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration.”  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs.  It declares the country is a secular state and provides for the separation of religious institutions and the state.

The constitution also “recognizes, respects, and guarantees people’s freedom of thought, conscience, and expression.”  It provides for the “right to profess or not profess their religious beliefs, to change them, and to practice the religion of their choice…,” but only “with the required respect for other beliefs and in accordance with the law.”  At the same time, it states, “Conscientious objection may not be invoked with the intention of evading compliance with the law or impeding another from the exercise of their rights.”  Military service is mandatory for all men, and there are no legal provisions exempting conscientious objectors from service.  Similarly, the penal code prohibits anyone from using a religious basis to oppose “educational objectives, the duty to work, the defense of the Homeland…” and other requirements in the constitution.

The government is subordinate to the CCP; the party’s ORA enlists the entire government, especially the MOJ and the security services, to control religious practice in the country.  The ORA regulates religious institutions and the practice of religion.  The Law of Associations requires all religious groups to apply to the MOJ for official registration.  The MOJ registers religious denominations as associations on a basis similar to how it officially registers civil society organizations.  The application process requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities, their proposed leadership, and their funding sources, among other requirements.  Even if the MOJ grants official registration, the religious group must request permission from the ORA each time it wants to conduct activities other than regular services, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship.  Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations and confiscation of their property.

The penal code states membership in or association with an unregistered group is a crime; penalties range from fines to three months’ imprisonment, and leaders of such groups may be sentenced to up to one year in prison in addition to fines.

The law regulates the registration of “house churches” (private residences used as places of worship).  Two house churches of the same denomination may not exist within 1.2 miles of one another.  House churches must provide detailed information – including the number of worshippers, dates and times of services, and the names and ages of all inhabitants of the house in which services are held – to authorities.  The law states if authorization is granted, authorities will supervise the operation of meetings; they may suspend meetings in the house for a year or more if they find the requirements are not fulfilled.  If an individual registers a complaint against a church, the house church may be closed permanently and members subject to imprisonment.  Foreigners must obtain permission before attending services in a house church; foreigners may not attend house churches in some regions.  Any violation will result in fines and closure of the house church.

The constitution states, “The rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by workers, both manual and intellectual; peasants; women; students; and other sectors of the working people,” but it does not explicitly address religious association.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.

A law in force since July 2019 curtails freedom of expression on the internet to protect against “disseminating information contrary to the common good, morals, decency, and integrity through public data transmission networks.”  The penalty for violating the law is 3,000 Cuban pesos ($120) or two to four years in prison.

Religious education is highly regulated, and homeschooling is illegal, with parents who homeschool their children subject to arrest.

The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008 but did not ratify it.  The government notes, “With respect to the scope and implementation of some of the provisions of this international instrument, Cuba will make such reservations or interpretative declarations as it may deem appropriate.”

Government Practices

Many religious groups said that despite constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government continued to use threats, detentions, violence, and other coercive tactics to restrict the activities of some religious groups, leaders, and followers, including the right of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Religious groups also said the government applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious manner to target religious groups and individuals whose views were not in line with the government’s.  Some religious groups continued to express concerns that the constitution, in effect since February 2019, significantly weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief and diluted references to freedom of conscience, separating it from freedom of religion.

In its annual Watch List, Open Doors, a self-described nondenominational, ecumenical Christian organization, reported a continued rise in the persecution of Christians in the country.  It attributed the continued rise to the government’s “highly restrictive measures against churches deemed to be opponents of the regime ­especially non-registered Protestant churches.”  The report noted the government used the COVID-19 crisis “as a pretext to hinder church and community activities, monitor church leaders, make arbitrary arrests, confiscate private property and impose extortion fees.”

CSW reported security forces targeted religious leaders amid unprecedented nationwide public protests that began on July 11 and led to state-directed violence, detention, and harassment against religious figures from multiple faith communities.  According to CSW, security officers arrested Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, pastor of the unregistered nondenominational Monte de Sion Church, and his teenage son in the town of Palma Soriano during one of several peaceful protests across the country on July 11.  Authorities charged Rosales Fajardo with committing a series of crimes, including “disrespect” and “public disorder.”  He said that while he was in detention, guards subjected him to a brutal beating.  Following his December 20-21 trial, Rosales Fajardo was found guilty of the charges and awaited sentencing at year’s end.  A sentence could entail up to 10 years in prison.  Rosales Fajardo’s son was released following a week in captivity, after his mother paid a fine.  Government authorities had previously targeted Rosales Fajardo, including as far back as in 2012 when they seized his church property.

According to HRW, either a state security agent or a member of rapid response, government-affiliated paramilitary forces beat Catholic priest Jose Castor Alvarez Devesa with a bat while he tried to assist an injured protester during a July 11 demonstration in Camaguey.  Security forces detained him when he sought medical attention for his injuries.  The government later released Alvarez Devesa, but he remained under investigation through year’s end for incitement to commit crimes, and with his movements restricted.

CSW also reported two other pastors detained on July 11 in Matanzas, Yeremi Blanco Ramirez and Yarian Sierra Madrigal, spent two weeks in jail, with no means to communicate with their families, lawyers, or friends before their release to house arrest following international pressure.  Both men received fines for joining the protests and remained under police surveillance through year’s end.  While they were in custody, a landlord evicted the family of Pastor Sierra Madrigal from their home after state security pressured the landlord, according to CSW.  Later, authorities forced both men to sign a document that would justify their imprisonment should they participate in future protests.  Also on July 11, security forces detained, released, and later interrogated and threatened with charges of incitement Pastor Yusniel Perez Montejo of the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba.

During a visit to the country on September 9, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, met with President Miguel Diaz-Canel.  The Associated Press reported that state media published images of the meeting but provided no details on the topics discussed.  On his departure from the country the following day, Cardinal O’Malley wrote in his blog that he had spoken to Diaz-Canel about the July 11 protests “and appealed for clemency for those involved in the demonstrations in a nonviolent way.”

The Global Liberty Alliance reported authorities continued to subject Free Yorubas leaders and members to additional arbitrary detentions, threats, fines, physical violence, and verbal harassment.  According to observers, although Yoruba and other African syncretic religious groups were given latitude to practice their beliefs as individuals, the government selectively recognized groups and leaders based on their favorable view of the government.  The NGO reported that in March, security forces beat and robbed a Free Yorubas youth leader, Dairon Hernandez Perez, outside his home as he returned from attending a religious event.  Hernandez Perez said members of the security forces and members of the government’s Black Berets, commonly described as shock troops and serving as a rapid response brigade, beat him extensively, damaged religious items, confiscated money, and threatened him with imprisonment for “pre-criminal dangerousness.”

In September, the Global Liberty Alliance sought precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of four members of the Free Yorubas, who faced extended pretrial detention after their arrests following the July 11 protests.  According to the NGO, Donaida Perez Paserio, Loreto Hernandez Garcia, Lisdiani Rodriguez Isaac, and Lisdani Rodriguez Isaac had faced repression from security forces over many years because the government did not recognize the Free Yorubas as a religious organization.  Prosecutors in Santa Clara cited a range of charges against the Free Yorubas detainees, including disobedience, public disorder, and assault or attack, and they sought eight-to-10-year combined prison sentences for the four.  At year’s end, all four were awaiting trial.

The Global Liberty Alliance recorded several other instances of Free Yorubas members being detained and fined for peaceful protests in July.  Police fined Elizabeth Cintron 3,000 pesos ($120) in August, thereby making her ineligible to stand trial.  Prior to paying the fine, Cintron was in pretrial detention.  Also in August, police forced Dayron Dadis Lorrando to pay a 1,000-peso fine ($40), which is approximately half the official minimum monthly wage, at a Santa Clara police station, a decision that denied him his right to due process.

According to media, in May, authorities released Christian human rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro after he completed his three and a half-year sentence.  Diaz Paseiro said he was occasionally placed in solitary confinement, beaten, and deprived of water.  Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

In May, security forces arrested Pastor Yoel Demetrio, of the Cuban Apostolic Movement in Las Tunas, after eight security agents raided his church.  He was later released with a warning that he could face criminal charges for contempt.  In March, he had reported that unidentified individuals threw stones at his church in Las Tunas while members of his congregation held a prayer vigil inside.  Demetrio told reporters that authorities arbitrarily fined him several times, with no explanation of the reason for the fines.

Media reported police continued to detain members of the Ladies in White.  Throughout the year, Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez reported she faced repeated arrests and short detentions, although the organization had suspended much of its activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The group’s youngest member, Sissi Abascal Zamora, received a six-year sentence from a municipal court for participating in a July 11 protest.  The court found her guilty of contempt, hitting a police officer, and public disorder.

According to media, the potential for additional widespread protests in November led to increased repression against religious leaders, including the staging of “acts of repudiation” in front of their homes.  CSW condemned the targeting of religious leaders, which it said was a government attempt to block the November peaceful protests.  CSW reported police and state security agents summoned and interrogated many Protestant and Catholic religious leaders to intimidate and dissuade them from participating in the peaceful marches called by civil society groups.  The ORA delivered a direct warning to Catholic Church officials that three priests in Camaguey, Alberto Reyes Pias, Jose Castor Alvarez, and Rolando Montes de Oca, would be arrested if they participated in any protests.  One of the priests, Alberto Reyes, vowed to join the protests saying, “The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks of freedom, it speaks of justice, it speaks of truth… If being arrested is the price of being true to the teachings of the gospel, so be it.”  Multiple media outlets reported that on the morning of the proposed march on November 15, a group of CCP officials and sympathizers orchestrated an act of repudiation at the residence of the Archbishop of Camaguey, where Father Reyes was staying, along with Archbishop Wilfredo Pino Estevez.  According to press reports, the government used acts of repudiation that directed participants to verbally abuse and intimidate government critics so the critics would not leave their homes.  Because of the crowds at the protests and the presence of state security officers, the priests and many other religious leaders remained in their homes on November 15.

The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights registered at least 30 repressive acts against leaders and laypersons associated with various religious groups for showing their support for the proposed November marches.  Government actions included multiple acts of repudiation, police surveillance, internet cuts, and the harassment of the Mother Superior of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Nadieska Almeida, whom government supporters harassed on November 15 while she was walking to visit a friend in Havana.

According to CSW, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government targeted religious leaders by accusing them of hoarding goods, which many religious leaders provided to needy members of their communities.  CSW reported that in January, police arrested and detained Pastor Karel Parra Rosabal, the leader of an unregistered Apostolic Church in Las Tunas, on what the NGO said was a false charge of hoarding.  The pastor, who operated a small bike repair shop, was reportedly told by authorities he was being arrested “so that you learn that illegal churches in Cuba are not allowed.”  Authorities stated he had too many tools for his business without providing evidence that he had acquired them legally.  After 10 days in detention, authorities released him, and prosecutors dropped the charges against him.  They did not return his confiscated equipment, which he needed to provide for his family.

According to CSW, many religious groups continued to state their lack of legal registration impeded their ability to practice their religion.  Several religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to await decisions from the MOJ on pending applications for official registration, some dating as far back as 1994.  Despite a 2019 letter from Cuban Ambassador to the United States Jose Cabanas to the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ in Salt Lake City stating the denomination was “welcome” in the country, the MOJ had not approved the Church’s registration by year’s end.

Representatives of several religious organizations and religious freedom organizations said the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the ORA and the MOJ to deny registration of certain groups.  They also said the MOJ’s determinations of ineligibilities for registration sometimes included the assertion that another group already had identical or similar objectives, which these representatives said was a pretext the government used to control and favor certain factions of a religious denomination or one religious group’s activities over others.

Members of Protestant denominations said some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of house churches in private homes, although some unregistered house churches could operate with little or no government interference.  CSW reported authorities continued to rely on two 2005 government resolutions limiting house churches to impose complicated and repressive restrictions on them.

At year’s end, Soka Gakkai continued to be the only Buddhist group registered with the government, and the Islamic League was the only registered Islamic group.

According to religious leaders and former inmates, authorities continued to deny prisoners, including political prisoners, pastoral visits and the ability to meet with other prisoners for worship, prayer, and study.  Many prisoners also said authorities repeatedly confiscated Bibles, crucifixes, rosary beads, and other religious items, sometimes as punishment and other times for no apparent reason.

CSW and religious leaders reported that the government, through the Ministry of Interior, continued to systematically plant informants in all religious organizations, sometimes by persuading or intimidating members and leaders to act as informants, or by sending informants to infiltrate a church.  The objective was to monitor and intimidate religious leaders and report on the content of sermons and on church attendees.  As a result, CSW said many leaders continued to practice self-censorship, avoiding stating anything that might possibly be construed as anti-Castro or counterrevolutionary in their sermons and teaching.  Catholic and Protestant church leaders, both in and outside the government-recognized Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), continued to report frequent visits from state security agents and CCP officials.  These church leaders said the purpose of the visits was to intimidate and to remind them they were under close surveillance, as well as to influence internal decisions and structures within the groups.

Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials.  Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be threatened if the house church leaders continued their activities.

According to news reports, authorities continued to harass Pastor Alain Toledano, a member of the Apostolic Movement and leader of the Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba.  Toledano said state security officials arrested him for “propagating the COVID pandemic” in August, when he said he held a socially distanced service.  In the weeks that followed, Toledano reported state security cited or interrogated at least eight members of his church for showing him support.

During the year, the government used internet laws restricting freedom of expression of independent journalists, including those promoting freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.  In addition, CSW continued to report the government used social media to harass and defame religious leaders, including Facebook posts and online editorials publicly targeting religious leaders or groups.  In most instances, accounts posting attacks targeting religious leaders seemed to be linked to state security.  According to the annual report of the U.S.-based human rights NGO Freedom House, the country had one of the most restrictive media environments in the world, including in terms of internet freedom such as restrictions on networks, blocking of social networks and websites, and the repression and arrest of individuals for using social media networks.  For example, according to HRW, on August 17, the government responded to the July 11 protests by issuing Decree Law 35, which further criminalized online content deemed to be critical of the government or that disseminated “content that violates the constitutional, social and economic precepts of the State” or incites acts that affect public order.

In July, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement calling for dialogue and imploring the government to respect citizens’ rights to freedom of expression.  In November, the Conference of Cuban Religious and Catholic leaders released statements condemning state intimidation of religious leaders, as well as what they termed the systematic repression of voices who criticize the government.

In May, 34 individuals and organizations signed a letter addressed to Cuba’s Chief of Mission at its embassy in Washington, raising concerns about violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief taking place under two decree laws (349 and 370) that limit freedom of expression either through artistic means or online.  The letter called for the repeal of the two laws and highlighted the case of independent journalist Yoel Suarez, who regularly reported on religious freedom issues.  During the year, state security agents summoned Suarez for multiple interrogations, threatened him with criminal charges, and questioned his wife, reportedly to pressure her to convince him to abandon his work.

According to CSW, Christian leaders from all denominations said a scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature continued, primarily in rural areas.  Some religious leaders continued to report government obstacles, including bureaucratic obstruction and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on importing computers and electronic devices, prevented them from importing religious materials and donated goods.  In some cases, the government held up religious materials or blocked them altogether.  According to the U.S.-based Patmos Institute, a civil society organization focusing on religious freedom and interreligious dialogue, the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam was unable to obtain a container of religious literature embargoed since 2014.  Several other groups, however, said they continued to import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods.

The Catholic Church and several government-recognized Protestant groups continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and to operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship.  The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center, where participants sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.

According to media, government officials frequently instigated or did not investigate harassment of religious figures and institutions.  Although most cases of what CSW defined as religious persecution were directed toward Christians, CSW also reported that religious minorities were also likely to be victims of religious persecution.  Patmos continued to report that Rastafarians, whose spiritual leader remained imprisoned since 2012, were among the most stigmatized and repressed religious groups.

Muslim community representatives said the country’s small Muslim community was subject to discrimination.  The government denied a Muslim woman permission to travel abroad for urgent medical care, a decision she said she believed was linked to her affiliation with an unregistered religious group.  According to CSW, Yusdevlin Olivera Nunez was prohibited from travelling due to a five-year sentence of restricted liberty she received upon joining the unregistered Cuban Association for the Dissemination of Islam.  At year’s end, Olivera Nunez – known as Mercy Olivera – had not received travel documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  She said the treatment needed for her medical conditions was not available in the country.

Before her detention following the July 11 protests, Free Yorubas President Perez Paseiro and member Yaimara Reyes Soler filed a legal complaint in June in Santa Clara, stating the government had committed dozens of religious freedom violations against members of their group.  The petition stated authorities had erroneously and intentionally determined the Free Yorubas to be a political entity rather than an association of Yoruba believers and that it forbade them from observing traditional practices such as wearing garments or head coverings in accordance with their faith.  Court officials initially refused to even accept the legal filing and by year’s end had not acted upon the complaint.

While some religious leaders reported that access to broadcast media had marginally improved during the year, several religious leaders continued to express concern about the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.

According to CSW, while movement to, from, and within the country was again highly restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, religious travelers said they continued to experience higher levels of scrutiny than others and were often denied freedom of movement, including traveling to religious gatherings outside the country.  Patmos reported that immigration officers continued to target religious travelers and their goods and informed airport-based intelligence services of their incoming and outgoing travel.

According to CSW, during the year there were no reported cases of the ORA and immigration officials targeting foreign visitors by denying them religious visas.  CSW attributed the change to the government’s overall closure of borders to tourists as part of its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Reportedly because of COVID-19-related restrictions on internal movement, government agencies continued to refuse to recognize changes in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to new churches or parishes.  These restrictions, not lifted until October, made it difficult or impossible for relocating pastors to obtain government services, including housing.  Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups.

According to media, religious discrimination against students continued to be a common practice in state schools, with multiple reports of teachers and CCP officials encouraging and participating in bullying of students belonging to religious groups perceived as being critical of the government.

According to religious leaders, the government continued to selectively prevent some religious groups from establishing accredited schools.  These leaders said religious groups with connections to the government and willing to participate in government events were allowed to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before-and-after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs.  The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework, including entrepreneurial training leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners.  Several Protestant communities continued to offer university-level degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however, the government did not recognize these degrees.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the courses of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs because their religion prohibited them from political involvement.

On January 27, hundreds of Catholics, including bishops, religious, and laypersons, issued a public appeal for citizens to begin to take control of the future of their country.  The appeal stated, “The Cuban people, although slowly, have been overcoming and unlearning helplessness.… This is a very important path to empowerment and recovery of social self-esteem.  It is important that we come to feel stronger, that we convince ourselves that we can act and live without being paralyzed by fear, so that we come to express ourselves freely, to seek the good and justice while preserving peace, and to be critical of our reality, because in fact, it is the duty of everyone to contribute to the building of a new Cuba.”

According to international media, despite increased shortages of food, medicine, and other essential items, authorities greatly restricted many religious organizations’ ability to receive and distribute humanitarian assistance.  While the government allowed Caritas to continue providing food and other goods to the needy, it did not allow many smaller religious groups and charities that were not part of the government-recognized CCC to provide aid.  Other religious leaders also said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas.

Some religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs.  Other religious groups reported government restrictions varied and were largely based on the government’s perceptions of the “political pliancy” of each religious group.  Religious leaders continued to report government opposition to and interference in religious groups’ providing pastoral services.

Nicaragua

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion; provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship; and states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.”  According to media reports, the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) and progovernment groups on several occasions harassed Catholic worshippers and impeded masses held in commemoration of individuals killed during 2018 prodemocracy protests.  Government authorities disrupted religious services by staging vendor fairs and playing loud music outside churches during Sunday services.  Throughout the year, President Daniel Ortega and Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo verbally harassed priests and bishops, labelled them “terrorists in cassocks” and “coup-plotters,” and accused them of committing crimes.  In August, a journalist of independent daily newspaper La Prensa said the Ortega-Murillo government had engaged in “open war” against the Catholic Church since April 2018.  According to media, starting on October 26, the NNP surrounded the home of Cardinal Leopoldo Jose Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua; in September, police started monitoring Brenes’ home and photographed all individuals who entered, including priests.  During the year, there were frequent reports that the NNP – along with progovernment groups (commonly known as parapolice), ruling party (Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) members, and individuals associated with Ortega and Murillo – conducted widespread, systematic harassment of religious leaders and worshippers.  Catholic leaders who provided shelter and medical assistance to peaceful protesters in 2018 continued to experience government retribution, including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies, charges they said were unfounded, withholding of tax exemptions, and denial of religious services for political prisoners, according to Catholic clergy.  After the government broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan on December 9 and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan donated its former embassy building to the Archdiocese of Managua.  On December 26, however, the Ortega administration blocked Taiwan’s donation and gave the property to the PRC, stating it supported a one-China policy.  The government also seized the passport of a Nicaraguan priest, revoked the visas of at least two foreign priests after they criticized the government, and drastically reduced public funding to a university run by a Catholic bishop critical of the government.  The government revoked the broadcasting licenses of an evangelical Protestant television and radio station after the station owner, also a presidential candidate, denounced election irregularities in November.

Reported antichurch activities included verbal insults, death threats, burglary of Catholic religious items, and unlawful entry into Catholic churches.  In January, media reported that a woman stole the keys of the Santissima of the Calvario Church in Masaya, verbally harassed parish priest Alexander Ruiz and threw soda in his face.  In May, the Diocese of Esteli reported that unidentified vandals had beheaded the statue of Monsignor Jose del Carmen Suazo, a well-known priest who died in 2015, on the road connecting the Shrine of Our Lady of Cacauli and Somoto.

On November 16, the President of the United States proclaimed, “Members of the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP), along with violent mobs of pro-government supporters also controlled by government actors, have attacked religious institutions in retaliation for their support for political and religious leaders.”  On October 7, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs tweeted, “Ortega’s dangerous criticism of Catholic bishops shows his fear of independent Nicaraguan voices and willingness to attack all dissent.  We stand for religious freedom and free expression everywhere and we stand with civil society in Nicaragua.”  Early in the year, the U.S. embassy requested meetings with government officials but received no response.  The Ambassador and embassy officials met regularly with a wide variety of religious leaders of the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant groups, the Moravian Lutheran Church, Muslim groups, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and the Jewish community to discuss restrictions on religious freedom and to foster religious tolerance.

On November 15, 2021 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Nicaragua on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.  It provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship, and it states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.”  The constitution states there is no official religion; however, the law entrusts government-controlled, community-level action groups, known as Family Committees, with the responsibility for promoting “Christian values” at the community level.

The requirements for registration of religious groups – except for the Catholic Church, which has a concordat with the government – are similar to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  Registration requires an application, articles of association, and designation of officers.  The National Assembly must approve a group’s application for registration or legal standing.  Following approval, the group must register with the Ministry of Interior as an association or NGO, which allows it to incur legal obligations, enter into contracts, and benefit from tax and customs exemptions.  Following registration, religious groups are subject to the same regulations as other NGOs or associations, regardless of their religious nature.  The Catholic Church is not required to register as a religious group because its presence in the country predates the legislation; however, the government requires organizations dedicated to charity or other social work affiliated with the Catholic Church to register.

According to a 2020 law, organizations and persons receiving resources of foreign origin must not participate in internal politics.  If the government finds any person or entity in violation of the law, the person or entity could be fined, imprisoned, or have their assets frozen or confiscated.  The law excludes accredited religious organizations from the requirement to register with the Ministry of Interior.  By law, those receiving exemptions may not participate in activities that would interfere in the country’s affairs.

Ministry of Education regulations for primary school education establish that the educational goals and curriculum for elementary grade students and teachers follow the government’s “Christian, Socialist, and Solidarity” principles.  The government’s 2021-26 human development policy recognizes the practice of religious activities as part of the country’s cultural traditions.  The law establishes education in the country as secular but recognizes the right of private schools to be religiously oriented.

Mssionaries must obtain religious worker visas and provide information regarding the nature of their missionary work before the Ministry of Interior will authorize entry into the country.  A locally based religious organization must provide documentation and request travel authorization from the Ministry of Interior seven days prior to the arrival of the visiting person or religious group.  The process generally takes several weeks to complete.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In November, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted Bishop Abelardo Mata (who retired in July) precautionary (protective) measures – in which the IACHR requests that a state serve a protective function and protect a person from irreparable harm – after it received reports from human rights organizations that Mata was a victim of constant harassment and had received death threats.  Mata had been an outspoken critic of government violations of human rights, including religious freedom, since before 2018.  The commission stated in its decision that “the information presented demonstrates prima facie that the persons identified are in a serious and urgent situation, since their rights to life and personal integrity are at risk of irreparable harm.”

According to media reports, Father Edwing Roman, a Catholic priest granted precautionary (protective) measures by the IACHR since 2018, continued to be a victim of harassment and received multiple death threats during the year.  According to media, during the voter registration process in July ahead of the November election, a government supporter verbally harassed Father Roman in Masaya at his local voting center.  The man shouted at Father Roman, “You are a criminal, a murderer!”  On August 3, Roman traveled to Miami and said he had initially planned to return within 15 days.  He delayed his return, however, after Vice President Murillo made statements to local media on August 6 calling him “that priest from Masaya” and a “criminal.”  By year’s end, Roman had not returned to the country.

In April, the Church of Saint Michael in Masaya celebrated Mass in memory of Alvaro Gomez, a prodemocracy protester killed by an unidentified shooter in 2018.  Reports stated that dozens of police stationed in front of the church intimidated worshippers as they entered the service to dissuade them from attending Mass.  In the same month in Esteli, Catholic clergy closed the cathedral after parapolice harassed and intimidated worshippers attempting to hold Mass in commemoration of Franco Valdivia, reportedly killed by an unidentified sniper during the 2018 civic protests.  Police prevented worshippers from entering the church and took Valdivia’s relatives to the police station, where reportedly police detained them for a few hours, beat them, ordered them to strip, and verbally threatened them.  Also in April, a group of government supporters interrupted Mass in Our Lady of Rosary Church in Chinandega chanting, “Long Live Daniel!” in reference to President Ortega.

According to press and social media reports, Catholic Church leaders throughout the country continued to experience harassment from government supporters, who often acted in tandem with police.  Other Catholic leaders privately said they felt fear and intimidation when celebrating Mass.  Clergy reported police and parapolice forces congregated at the entrance of churches and took pictures to intimidate priests and churchgoers in several cities throughout the country, including Managua, Masaya, Matagalpa, and Esteli.  Clergy also reported drones flying over churches and adjacent parking lots.  In October, Father Vicente Martinez told media that the Matagalpa police chief visited him the day after a video of his Sunday homily went viral.  In his homily, Martinez criticized the electoral process.  Martinez said that, although the police chief called it a “courtesy visit,” “the message [threat] was clear.”

In September, local media reported a large vendor fair appeared on the main public road in front of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Matagalpa.  Such fairs require authorization from the FSLN-controlled Matagalpa City Hall and police.  The vendors installed tents in front of and around the cathedral, making access to the church difficult.  Music played loudly over speakers and interrupted the regularly scheduled church services.

Catholic clergy continued to report that the government denied access to prisons following the 2018 prodemocracy uprising.  Reportedly only one priest was allowed access to prisons during the year.  Prior to April 2018, clergy said they regularly entered prisons to celebrate Mass and provide communion and confession to detainees.  According to human rights organizations, from May to October, police imprisoned 39 citizens, including opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders.  Human rights organizations described their detention as arbitrary and categorized them as political prisoners.  Several of these prisoners requested Bibles through family visits, but prison authorities denied these requests.

Through clergy homilies and pastoral letters, the Catholic Church, including priests throughout the country, continued to speak out against violence on the part of the government and progovernment groups, also denouncing the lack of democratic institutions.  On October 15, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua issued a written statement that said, “A valuable opportunity to correct the country’s course was missed,” referencing the November 7 general election.  On August 10, the commission said the Catholic Church had been subject to threats in previous months as well as “insults to priests and bishops, limitations on visas or residence permits of foreign priests, harassment of the lay faithful, and other illegal and intimidating actions.”  The commission’s statement said the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church took place amid a lack of conditions for a free and fair election in November.  La Prensa in August said that the harassment and threats made against the Catholic Church came from FSLN political operatives affiliated with the Ortega-Murillo government.  On June 8, the commission wrote that “no one has the authority to deprive individuals of their rights,” referring to the arbitrary arrests of presidential hopefuls, opposition leaders, businesspersons, students, and civil society leaders beginning in May.

According to media, the NNP on October 26 began surrounding the home of Cardinal Brenes, a tactic observers said the government often used to intimidate opposition leaders.  In September, police began monitoring Brenes’ home and photographing all individuals who entered, including priests.

According to La Prensa on August 11, “The Ortega regime has engaged in an open war against the Catholic Church since April 2018.”  In February, a priest quoted in local media said the Ortega administration had increased its persecution of the population and the Catholic Church.  He said, “We have our hands up, we are unarmed against these people [the government].”

In multiple speeches during the year, President Ortega and Vice President Murillo criticized Catholic clergy and accused the Catholic Church of having backed an alleged “coup” against the Ortega-Murillo government in 2018.  On October 5, Ortega called Catholic bishops “terrorists” during his campaign launch speech ahead of the November general election.  On September 6, Ortega again referred to Catholic priests as “terrorists in cassocks.”  In a July 30 speech, Ortega spoke of colonization, stating, “Along with the cross, the sword; along with the cross, robbery; along with the cross, the most brutal crimes against our ancestors.”  He added, “Pharisees have not disappeared, they are still there and go around talking as if they were saints, and all you have to do is look and what you find is filth, where there is no respect for God.”  Local media interpreted Ortega’s remarks as a clear attack on Catholic clergy.

On June 10, Murillo said during a radio address that Catholic clergy spread “death” and approved of “robbery and theft.”  In August, radio commentator William Grigsby, commonly considered an unofficial spokesperson for the government, accused Catholic bishops of conspiring with the U.S. and Spanish ambassadors in Nicaragua to overthrow the Ortega-Murillo government.  On June 9, Grigsby said during his radio program that “cassock wearers were next,” alluding to the government’s wave of arbitrary detentions of opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders that began in late May.

In June, Edwin Suarez, a well-known progovernment social media activist with 16,000 Twitter followers, tweeted, “In Nicaragua the Catholic hierarchy is not only a participant in the attempted coup, it is also an actor and director of events of serious violations of the rights of the people since 2015, blackmailing Ortega so that he would hand over power to them.”

On August 11, FSLN National Assembly member Wilfredo Navarro gave an extensive interview to a local televised program in which he singled out Cardinal Brenes and several bishops, calling them “servants of the devil.”  Navarro also indirectly accused Father Roman (calling him “that priest from Masaya”) of covering up the alleged killing of a policeman in 2018 by prodemocracy protesters.  During the same interview, Navarro said he believed the Catholic Church could face criminal charges for a statement the Archdiocese of Managua Peace and Justice Commission issued on August 10.  Navarro said he believed the commission had committed an electoral crime by encouraging voter abstention in the November national election.  Catholic leaders stated that the government denied citizens their right to choose their leader because potential opposition candidates had been disqualified or imprisoned.

According to news reports, when the government broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan on December 9 and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan attempted to donate its former embassy building to the Managua Archdiocese.  On December 26, however, the Ortega administration blocked Taiwan’s donation and gave the property to the PRC, stating it supported a one-China policy.  The Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying all of Taiwan’s properties belonged to the PRC and invalidated the donation to the Managua Archdiocese.  Taiwan’s Foreign Relations Ministry condemned the confiscation of the property and the “arbitrary obstruction by the Nicaraguan government of the symbolic sale of its property to the Nicaraguan Catholic Church.”

On November 17, the government abolished the position of the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, designated exclusively to the Holy See representative by presidential decree since 2000.  The government said the decision to remove this position would foster equal treatment among chiefs of mission.  Some international relations experts said they believed the change was a political move reflecting the growing tension between the Catholic Church and the government.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Catholic Church continued to suspend all religious activities that traditionally generated large crowds such as the celebration of Saint Dominic in Managua and the pilgrimage to Rivas.  Notwithstanding the pandemic, the government once again organized and sponsored local religious activities through FSLN-controlled municipal governments, including an August festival in Managua honoring Saint Dominic, the annual pilgrimage to Rivas, the annual celebration of Saint Lazarus in Masaya in March, and the Stations of the Cross in Granada, all of which reportedly garnered hundreds of participants.  Vice President Murillo promoted the large gatherings in her daily radio remarks.  During the Saint Dominic celebration, the government used a replica image of the statue of Saint Dominic normally carried in a Catholic procession, and the individuals carrying the replica image wore the official colors of the ruling Sandinista party.  Catholic clergy said the government manipulated religious traditions and symbols to coopt powerful religious imagery and portray normalcy in a country ravaged by COVID-19 and sociopolitical upheaval.  According to a clerical source, the government sought to confuse a segment of the Catholic population and dilute the Catholic Church’s authority by ignoring the Catholic leadership’s recommendations to suspend large activities and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

According to press reports, on November 9, the government cancelled the operating license of evangelical Protestant television Channel 21, the only channel in the country that since 1991 exclusively broadcast local and foreign evangelical programs.  Telecommunications regulator TELCOR cited alleged irregularities in Channel 21’s operations after TELCOR officials made an unannounced visit to the television station.  TELCOR revoked Channel 21’s broadcasting license and took the channel off the air the same day.  Channel 21 denounced what it called the government’s arbitrary decision to revoke its license.  TELCOR also revoked the operating license of evangelical Protestant radio station Nexo 89.5 FM the same day.  Channel 21 and Nexo 89.5 FM were owned by family members of evangelical pastor Guillermo Osorno, who ran as presidential candidate in the November election.  The closure of the channel and radio station occurred the day after Osorno gave a press conference in which he denounced irregularities in the electoral process.

The government continued to restrict travel selectively for some visa applicants intending to visit the country for religious purposes based on the perceived political affiliation of the applicant’s local sponsor.  According to Catholic clergy, a 2016 regulation instructing all churches to request entry authorization for their missionaries or religious authorities continued in effect.

On March 8, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua issued a statement expressing concern regarding new government limitations on residence permits for missionaries.  Local media reported that immigration authorities denied entry to two Franciscan friars, Santos Fabian Mejia Sagastume and Javier Lemus, who had resided in the country as missionaries for many years and were citizens of El Salvador.  Immigration authorities denied entry to Mejia Sagastume on January 31.  They notified him that he was “not eligible for entry” and suspended his residency.  On February 16, immigration authorities also denied Lemus entry into the country.

On April 30, immigration authorities notified Friar Damian de Cosme Muratori, originally from Italy and who had lived and served in Nicaragua for 45 years, that his residence permit would not be renewed and that he was only authorized a 90-day stay in the country.  Muratori told media he had renewed his residence permit on an annual basis without problems since 1976.  Muratori received two 90-day extensions to stay in the country.  In both instances, his resident status remained uncertain until the day before his extensions expired, at which point immigration authorities would inform him of a decision to renew his residency, grant an extended 90-day stay, or deport him from the country.  He remained in the country at year’s end.

In November, local media reported that immigration authorities at Managua International Airport had seized Monsignor Silvio Fonseca’s passport and did not allow him to leave the country.  Immigration authorities reportedly told Fonseca that his passport failed to scan properly, but Fonseca said he had used the same passport without any problems when he traveled to the United States four months prior.

Religiously affiliated NGOs continued to face operational limitations.  The Interior Ministry continued to deny or delay legally required annual operations permits and tax exemption approvals.  Sources reported that the Interior Ministry continued to deny Caritas, an international Catholic NGO accredited to the country since 1965, its legally entitled tax exemptions, a practice since 2018.  Since 2019, Caritas informed donors to stop sending donations because it was unable to retrieve them from Customs.  Caritas continued to report that since 2018, it had not received its annually renewable certificate from the Ministry of Interior, which technically authorized it to operate in the country.  Caritas sources continued to say the failure to renew the certificate impeded it from receiving tax exemptions, prohibited the importation of materials, and hindered its ability to bring in medical missions as part of its social services.  Caritas further reduced its social services because of harassment from government supporters in the communities where it worked.

Bishop Mata told press in January that the government had reduced by 20 million cordobas ($563,000) the allocated budget for the Universidad Catolica del Tropico Seco, a private university run by Mata.  Mata stated that the government had reduced the funds, representing more than a 50 percent decrease, in retaliation for his public criticism of the Ortega-Murillo administration.  Mata said the stark reduction in funds left the university unable to grant new scholarships for the academic year, and it was struggling to maintain existing scholarships.

Catholic clergy continued to say they believed the government directed or encouraged vandalism and desecration of churches by individuals not directly affiliated with it.  According to local media, on May 25, unidentified individuals broke into a Catholic church in the community of San Andres in Boaco and destroyed sacred images.  Media reported that on April 11, unidentified individuals broke into Our Lady of Candelaria Church in Chinandega, broke sacred images, and stole money designated for the construction of church buildings.

Russia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state is secular and guarantees freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion.  The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”  The law allows the government to criminalize a broad spectrum of activities as extremist but does not precisely define extremism.  The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).  A constitutional amendment cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country’s ancestors.  Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, physically abuse persons, and/or seize their property because of their religious belief or affiliation or membership in groups designated “extremist,” “terrorist,” or “undesirable,” including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi, Church of Scientology, Falun Gong, and multiple evangelical Protestant groups.  For example, an NGO reported that in September, while searching houses of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Irkutsk, security forces stabbed a man and beat him unconscious and beat another Jehovah’s Witness and sodomized him with a glass bottle.  According to the NGO, officers also beat the two men’s wives while they were in various stages of undress.  The human rights NGO Memorial identified 340 persons it said were persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation as of November, compared with 228 in all of 2020.  Memorial said the actual total was likely three to four times higher.  Memorial did not report the number of persecuted persons for all of the year because the Supreme Court ordered the closure of the NGO on December 28.  In July, the Court of Kemerovo upheld the designation of the Falun Gong branch in the Khakassia Region as an extremist organization and ordered its dissolution there.  During the year, the government declared four Pentecostal and two Scientology groups undesirable, effectively banning them from the country, and banned and dissolved an Orthodox Church unaffiliated with the ROC.  The government criminally prosecuted 13 cases of offending the feelings of believers compared with two such cases in 2020, and prosecuted cases against members of smaller religious groups for what it called illegal missionary work.  The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to other religious groups.

In December, a court sentenced a member of the “Citizens of the USSR” movement to six years in prison for attempting to organize a contract killing of the head of the Jewish Community of Krasnodar.  The SOVA Center, a Moscow-based NGO, stated antisemitism was a part of the movement’s ideology.  In the first six months of the year, the SOVA Center reported seven incidents of vandalism at religious sites – two Orthodox, two Jewish, two pagan, and one Protestant – as well as other incidents of religiously motivated vandalism.  In February, two persons shot an air gun at a grocery store containing a halal market in St. Petersburg.  Police opened a criminal case against the two individuals.  Authorities reportedly investigated antisemitic social media posts.  A survey by the polling firm Levada Center found that 22 percent of respondents professed a negative attitude towards Jews, compared with 34 percent in 2010.  Local residents opposed the construction of churches, mosques, and other places of worship in Nizhny Novgorod, Ulyanovsk, Stupino, and Irkutsk.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy representatives advocated greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities.  The embassy also made extensive use of its social media platforms to disseminate messages advocating religious freedom.  Embassy representatives met with representatives of religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country, though these meetings were fewer than in previous years due to intimidation of religious groups by Russian authorities.  In August, the government prohibited the United States from retaining, hiring, or contracting Russian or third-country staff at its diplomatic facilities in the country, further constraining embassy outreach efforts to religious and civil society groups.  Department of State officials continued to monitor the situation of U.S. citizens working with religious institutions and organizations in the country to determine whether authorities targeted them for their faith or religious work.

On November 15, 2021, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State designated Russia a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing sanctions issued for individuals identified pursuant to section 404(a)(2) of the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 and section 11 of the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014, as amended by Section 228 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.”  It provides for the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and it provides for equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion.  The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife.  It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state.  The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage.  The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”

A 2020 constitutional amendment cites the ancestral history of the country and the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by those ancestors.  The language is the only explicit reference to God in the constitution.  According to a Constitutional Court ruling, the amendment’s reference to God does not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but only emphasizes the significant sociocultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country.  It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to force them to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.”  The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and/or fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) or 1,000,000 rubles ($13,300), depending upon which code governs the offense.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”  The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but it does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

Anti-extremism laws stipulate that speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” based on group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative penalties for first-time offenses if the actions do not contain a criminal offense.  These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) for legal entities.  Individuals are held criminally liable if they commit multiple offenses within a one-year period or for the first offense if they threaten to use violence or use their official position to incite hatred.  The criminal penalties include fines up to 600,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.

Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($10,700) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (not well specified but including a prohibition on running for public office) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years.  These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country.  For persons with “official status,” a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities as well as to persons in management roles at commercial entities or NGOs, the prescribed prison term is seven to 12 years or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,300).  First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes as defined by the law.

Antiterrorism laws authorize law enforcement agencies to regulate evangelism, requiring permits and restricting the locations in which faith-related information may be shared with others.  These laws also allow security agencies to access private communications, which requires telecommunications companies to store all telephone conversations, text messages, videos, and picture messages for six months and make this data available to authorities.

The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several religious organizations on the grounds of “extremism” and “terrorism,” including a regional branch of Falun Gong, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, Hizb ut-Tahrir; Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”); Tablighi Jamaat; and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community.  These organizations are on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations and/or the Federal List of Terrorist Organizations.  Designations as extremist or terrorist organizations may be appealed in court.

Local laws in several administrative regions, including the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” but do not define the term.  Authorities impose administrative or criminal penalties (the former entail a maximum sentence of 15 days in prison, while sentences for the latter can be much longer) for violating these laws, in accordance with federal legislation.

By law, the government may designate an international religious-affiliated organization or foreign religious group “undesirable.”  The designation allows the closure of foreign and international organizations on the grounds of “presenting a threat to the foundation of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defense capability of the country or the security of the state.”  The designation may also lead to fines or jail time for organization members.  Religious organizations designated undesirable include seven Falun Gong-associated organizations (World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong; Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China; Global Mission to Rescue Persecuted Falun Gong Practitioners; Friends of Falun Gong; Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting; Dragon Springs Buddhist; and The European Falun Dafa Organization), World Institute of Scientology Enterprises International and the Church of Spiritual Technology (from the United States), the New Generation International Christian Movement and the New Generation Evangelical Christian Church (from Latvia), and the New Generation Spiritual Directorate of the Evangelist Christians and the New Generation International Biblical College (from Ukraine).

The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers,” including atheists and followers of “non-traditional religions.”  Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year.  If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges:  “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs).  Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or protection of public security.

A “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the government.  When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ), of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members.  A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with requisite notification to authorities.  It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces.  To hold services, a religious group may use property bought by its members for the group’s use, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members.

An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanently residing in the region where the LRO applies to register.  LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces.  CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following:  a list of the organization’s founders and governing body with addresses and “internal passport” data (the mandatory identity document for all citizens older than the age of 14 residing in the country); the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad.  Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations.  Denial of registration may be appealed in court.  By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding.  Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports.  LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities.  LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, and “other religious items.”

The Expert Religious Studies Council, a committee established by the MOJ to advise it on religious groups, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations.  Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.”  The law provides several examples of extremist activities, such as “incitement to violence,” but does not precisely define how organizations or religious materials may be classified as “extremist.”  The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation.  With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist.  The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation.  The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval.  LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings and facilities or on lands owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters.  Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption.  In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

A prime ministerial decree requires religious organizations to conform to specific counterterrorism measures to qualify for safety permits for their real property.  Among other requirements, all facilities must be guarded during services by members of public organizations.  Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems.  Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or National Guard personnel.  Religious groups are responsible for defraying the costs of these measures.  The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300).

The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program only allows for chaplains representing the four traditional religions, and the program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed.  Chaplains are neither enlisted nor commissioned but are classified as assistants to the commander.  Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget.  There are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

Federal law defines “missionary activity” as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association.  According to the law, to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document from a religious group or registered organization authorizing him or her to share beliefs.  The law explicitly prohibits any beliefs being shared on another organization’s property without permission from that organization.  It also prohibits missionary activity in residential buildings and the rezoning of any building from residential to nonresidential for the purpose of conducting religious activities.  Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Violations of the law regulating missionary activity may be punished by a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67-$670) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300-$13,000) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs.  Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($400-$670) and are subject to deportation.

Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism.  Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations.  If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation.  In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional board experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but a court may declare extremist, on its own accord, materials introduced during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases.  By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials.  Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials.  Courts review and reissue lists on a regular basis.  If the courts determine the material is no longer “extremist,” the MOJ is required to remove the material from the lists within 30 days.  Very rarely, in response to a legal challenge, courts may also reverse a decision to list a material as extremist.  The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their “original languages” – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist.  The law does not define what constitutes an original language nor does it specify that foreign-language translations of these texts may not be declared extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($13-$40), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($27-$67) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials.  Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300-$13,300).  Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

On October 3, amendments to the law came into force formally prohibiting certain individuals from leading or participating in a group of believers.  The law prohibits individuals suspected of financing terrorism, or whose actions have been deemed extremist by a court, to lead or take part in religious groups.  The amendments also impose extra training and recertification requirements on clergy, religious teachers, and missionaries who have been trained abroad.  Such personnel must take part in a course in “state-confessional relations in the Russian Federation” and be recertified by a CRO.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property.  The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely.  The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose.  The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church.  If such a structure does not meet legal requirements or is not brought into legal compliance by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be demolished.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools.  Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course.  Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses and according to the religious makeup of the given location.  There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in-home schools.  Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom.  The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France.  The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible.  The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief.  The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency.  Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from a fine of 80,000 rubles ($1,100) to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activities of political parties or movements or provide material or other aid to political groups.  This restriction applies to religious organizations but not to their individual members.

Both the ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis.  No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, as the chamber convenes for three-year terms.  Individuals from traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber for a term, either in the initial selection of 40 representatives by the President of the Russian Federation or in one of the subsequent rounds of selection, where existing chamber members choose an additional 128 representatives representing national and regional civil society groups.  By law, a member of an organization that had been accused of extremism may not serve in the Civic Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations.  The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism.  The law restricts any foreign national or stateless person from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism.”

Foreigners engaging in religious work require a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa.  Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work.  There are no missionary visas.

The law grants religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse persons on account of their religious belief or affiliation.  Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism and terrorism.

According to international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, the government used increasingly strict legislation on “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” to curtail, complicate, or prohibit the activities of organizations that promote human rights, including freedom of religion and belief, and to monitor their violation.  In December, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial, one of the country’s best-known NGOs.

As of November 9, Memorial identified 340 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a formal sentence to begin.  Memorial stated that the actual number of cases of persecution was likely three to four times higher, given the number of cases the organization identified as similar to those designated as political prisoners; however, the organization said it lacked the supporting evidence to make designations in those instances.  Memorial’s list of political prisoners included 206 persons (45 percent more than in 2020) accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “nonviolent international Islamic organization,” and 104 Jehovah’s Witnesses (70 percent more than in 2020).  According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts.

In August, Forum 18 reported Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims who had been convicted of “extremism” might suffer post-sentence consequences through sudimost (being a convicted person with an active criminal record).  The report stated that after their release, these individuals risked harsher punishment if prosecuted again and might experience more limited formal employment opportunities.  The courts might also impose restrictions on freedom and administrative supervision, including curfews, restrictions on movement, and an obligation to register with police or probation authorities at specified intervals.  These individuals might also be subject to bans on leadership of, or participation in, religious organizations.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and NGOs stated Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police continued to monitor, detain, search, and carry out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers stated authorities had raided more than 1,594 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country between early 2017 and November 2021.  Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 382 searches of homes during the year, compared with 477 in 2020.  They said that during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, tortured, and verbally and physically abused members.  Authorities often entered residences by forcing open the door.  They held individuals at gunpoint, including children and the elderly, and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.

In January, authorities dropped charges against Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities detained Kutsenko in 2020, subjecting him to electric shocks and forcing him to confess that he had organized activities of a religious organization banned by the court, before placing him under house arrest and eventually releasing him on his own recognizance.

On September 4, Russian human rights NGO OVD-info reported searches of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes in Irkutsk by the Russian National Guard and the Ministry of Interior’s Grom special forces.  OVD-info said during the searches special forces beat and then detained Jehovah’s Witnesses Anatoly Razdabarov and Nikolai Merinov.  Officers stabbed Merinov, beat him unconscious, and broke his front teeth.  Officers interrogated Razdabarov for eight hours and demanded access to his telephone.  They beat Razdabrov, handcuffed him so his shoulders hyperextended, and sodomized him with a glass bottle.  According to the NGO, officers also beat the two men’s wives while they were in various stages of undress.  On October 12, a court in Irkutsk refused to recognize the searches of these homes as an illegal action by the security forces, though the security forces did not show search warrants during the raids.

The SOVA Center reported that on December 15, authorities searched 10 homes and interrogated 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Samara.  The authorities forced Nikolai Vasilyev and another unnamed Jehovah’s Witness to hold a heated kettle and poured boiling water on him after he refused to provide the authorities access to a laptop.  Vasilyev and two others were arrested and sentenced to two months in jail; the case continued at year’s end.

In January, authorities dropped charges against Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities detained Kutsenko in 2020, subjecting him to electric shocks and forcing him to confess that he had organized activities of a religious organization banned by the court, before placing him under house arrest and eventually releasing him on his own recognizance.

In April, authorities conducted mass searches in Yaroslavl, searching 31 premises and detaining at least two men.  In July, officials conducted mass searches in Kurgan, Shadrinsk, and other cities in Kurgan Region.  The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that authorities detained at least 13 persons.  Authorities said the detainees held meetings for more than 130 individuals.

On May 12, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that FSB operatives installed hidden cameras in a Perm bathhouse to monitor possible baptisms.  The recording captured 27 Jehovah’s Witnesses participating in a baptism ceremony, leading five members to be charged.  The Industrial District Court of Perm sentenced one participant in the ceremony to seven years’ probation, and each of the other four to two and a half years’ probation.  Authorities charged each defendant with participating in illegal religious activities as well as organizing, funding, and participating in the extremist community.

Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said group members continued to flee the country as a result of what they described as increasing government persecution since a 2017 Supreme Court ruling banned the organization.  In March, Foreign Policy magazine estimated more than 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses remained in Russia.

The SOVA Center reported authorities had initiated criminal cases against at least 142 Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year; in 2020, the number was at least 146.  Since 2017, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses cited in the SOVA Center report, authorities had initiated 597 criminal cases against adherents in 70 regions of the country.  The NGO Memorial reported 104 imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses as of November 9 (35 serving sentences, 69 in custody or under house arrest pending sentencing), with 86 others receiving suspended sentences during the year.  In addition, according to the SOVA Center, during the year at least 68 convictions were handed down against 105 Jehovah’s Witnesses, compared with 25 sentences in 2020.

On January 19, the Kemerovo Regional Court rejected an appeal by Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Britvin and Vadim Levchuk, who had both been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment at a labor camp for organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization.  On December 30, both men were released, having served their sentences.

In February, the Abinsk District Court of Krasnodar sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Alexander Ivshin to seven and a half years in a penal colony for organizing the activities of an extremist organization.

On February 10, the Kursk Regional Court upheld a 2020 decision by the Lgov District Court denying Jehovah’s Witness and Danish citizen Dennis Christensen’s appeal for early release.  Detained since 2017, Christensen received a six-year prison sentence in 2019.  He remained in prison at year’s end.

On February 24, the Abakan City Court in the Republic of Khakassia sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Valentina Baranovskaya to two years, and her son, Roman Baranovskiy, to six years in a penal colony based on the government’s designation of the group as extremist.

The Central District Court of Chita began proceedings against four Jehovah’s Witnesses charged with organizing the activities of a banned organization:  Vladimir Ermolaev, Sergey Kirilyuk, Igor Mamalimov, and Aleksandr Putintsev.  The four were detained in mass raids in 2020; the case remained pending at year’s end.

In April, the Investigative Committee for the Krasnodar Territory announced that Abinsk District had opened criminal cases against four Jehovah’s Witnesses for participating in the activities of an extremist organization:  Anna Yermak, Olga Pnonmareva, Alexander Nikolaev, and an unnamed individual.

On May 28, authorities opened a criminal case against Anna Safronova, accusing her of participating in worship services of Jehovah’s Witnesses and financing extremist activities.  The case was ongoing at year’s end.

On June 30, the Blagoveshchensk City Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Dmitriy Golik and Aleksey Berchuk to seven and eight years in prison, respectively, for organizing the activities of an extremist organization.  The Amur Regional Court denied their appeal on September 2; the two were transferred from pretrial detention to prison.

On July 29, the Leninsky District Court of Rostov-on-Don sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Arsen Avanesov, Vilen Avanesov, and Alexander Parkov to terms of between six and six and a half years in prison for organizing the activities of an extremist organization.  The defendants had been arrested in 2019 and remained in jail pending trial.  On December 6, the Rostov Regional Court upheld the verdict on appeal.

On September 23, the Traktorozavodsky District Court of Volgograd sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergey Melnik and Igor Egozaryan to six years in prison for organizing the activities of an extremist organization.  Valery Rogozin, Vyacheslav Osipov, and Denis Peresunko were also found guilty of financing extremist activities.  Rogzin received a sentence of six and a half years; Peresunko and Osipov were each sentenced to six years and three months.

In October, after a year-long case, the Trusovsky District Court of Astrakhan sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Klikunov, Rustam Diarov, and Yevgeny Ivanov to eight years in prison – the longest sentences yet issued to Jehovah’s Witnesses – and Ivanov’s wife, Olga, to three and a half years in prison.  The three men had been in jail since June and charged with organizing and financing extremist activities; Olga had been under house arrest and charged with participation in extremist activities.  The court also cited “the commission of a crime as part of a group, by prior conspiracy” as an aggravating circumstance for all four sentences.

On October 28, the Supreme Court decreed that “the actions of persons not related to the continuation or resumption of the activities of an organization recognized by the court as extremist and consisting solely in the exercise of their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion … do not constitute an offense.”  On October 28, the SOVA Center stated the wording of the decision of the Supreme Court was not ideal and “unlikely to completely eliminate the numerous cases of persecution for essentially noncriminal activities.”  The SOVA Center reported that at the end of 2021, Jehovah’s Witness Dmitry Barmakin was acquitted by the Supreme Court and several other cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses were slated for review.

In the month following the Supreme Court’s October 28 ruling, authorities raided the homes of 25 Jehovah’s Witnesses across 10 different regions, and courts convicted or upheld the convictions of at least seven members of the group on charges of extremist activity, including an 80-year-old woman who was fined 500,000 rubles ($6,700).  In November, the Pervorechka District Court of Vladivostock acquitted a Jehovah’s Witness, Dmitry Barmakin, who had been accused of extremist activity – reportedly the first acquittal based on the October Supreme Court decision.

In November, authorities announced completion of the investigation of the 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during raids in Voronezh in 2020 who were accused of organizing a banned community and preaching and recruiting new members between 2018 and 2020.  The case was pending in the Levoberezhny District Court of Voronezh at year’s end.

Felix Makhammadiev, a Jehovah’s Witness who was stripped of his citizenship following his 2019 conviction for organizing extremist activities, was deported to Uzbekistan on January 21.  Makhammadiev had moved to the country from Uzbekistan with his mother as a minor and subsequently became a Russian citizen.  Konstantin Bazhenov, who was convicted in the same case as Makhammadiev, was also stripped of his Russian citizenship; he was deported to Ukraine on May 19.

According to the NGO Memorial, between January and November, authorities convicted, investigated, or charged 18 persons for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, nine of whom were from Crimea.  Since the Supreme Court first labeled the group a terrorist organization and banned it in 2003, Memorial reported that authorities had investigated or charged 331 persons for involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and tried and convicted 258.  Since 2003, courts had sentenced 70 persons to between 10 and 15 years in prison, and 87 to 15 years or more.  The SOVA Center reported that at least 35 defendants in new cases were arrested during the year.  Human Rights Watch characterized Hizb ut-Tahrir as a group that aimed to establish an Islamic caliphate, but which renounced violence.

The SOVA Center reported that on February 18, the FSB conducted a special operation against Hizb u-Tahrir across 10 regions of the country.  The FSB detained alleged members, and authorities opened criminal cases against seven of them.  Individuals continued to receive long prison sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

In April, the Central District Military Court in Yekaterinburg sentenced Rais Mavlyutov to 23 years in a maximum security penal colony after convicting him of recruiting for a terrorist organization, using the internet to incite terrorism, and organizing and participating in meetings where the literature of a terrorist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir, was read and discussed.  Memorial classified Mavlyutov as a political prisoner and stated there was no evidence that he represented a public danger or was involved in terrorist activities.

On September 6, the Oktyabrsky District Court of Ufa sentenced Ilmira Bikbaeva to three years’ probation for transferring money to the mother of Ayrat Dilmukhametov, a prisoner accused of supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir.  The prosecution said the transfer was proof that Bikbaeva was financing extremism.  Bikbaeva said she simply wanted to help the mother who lacked the means to support herself.

On December 24, the Second Western District Military Court of Moscow sentenced Marifjon Mamadaliyev and Ikboljon Sultonov to terms of between 16 and 18 years in a penal colony for allegedly creating a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell.  The court convicted six additional defendants of participating in the activities of the cell and sentenced them to imprisonment for terms of 11 to 12 years.  The SOVA Center stated the case was based on testimony by a secret witness.

In July, the Court of Kemerovo upheld the designation of the Falun Gong branch in the Khakassia Region as an extremist organization and ordered its dissolution there.

The government prosecuted 13 cases under the law prohibiting offending the feelings of believers, two more than in 2020.  According to Memorial, investigating authorities increased activity during the year, including internet monitoring.  For example, on October 29, Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court sentenced blogger Ruslan Bobiev and his girlfriend, Anastasia Chistova, to 10 months in a penal colony for violating the law.  The teens posted a photograph with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background depicting Chistova wearing a jacket with the inscription “Police” while simulating a sex act, with Bobiev standing behind her.  The Interior Ministry described the photos as “provocative,” and the court stated the couple “committed public acts expressing clear disrespect for society and committed with the aim of insulting the religious feelings of believers.”  On October 30, police detained and charged Irina Volkova for posting a photo exposing her underwear in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.  On November 19, authorities in St. Petersburg opened a criminal case against two teenagers in response to a photo circulating on social media, in which the two defendants posed with their pants down in front of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

In October, the authorities initiated a criminal case against Lolita Bogdanova for insulting the feelings of believers after she bared her chest in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

On October 25, the SOVA Center and human rights activists reported that staff at correctional colony No.2 in Kurgan Region mocked Muslim prisoners and threw the Quran on the ground, “trampling” it.  Media reported that investigators said they found no evidence of the action as video from the surveillance cameras was destroyed.

On November 18, a court in Kurgan closed the Kurgan Orthodox Parish in Honor of the Holy Trinity.  In July, the Kurgan Regional Court ordered the dissolution stating that the parish had misled Orthodox believers and infringed on their constitutional freedom of religion.  The Magistrate Court of Kurgan had fined the church in 2020 for illegal missionary work.  The parish was independent of the ROC.

In December, the ECHR ruled in favor of Maksim Mikhaylovich Yefimov in his case against the government for prosecuting him for hate speech in 2011 and dissolving his NGO, the Youth Human Rights Group in 2013.  Authorities had charged Yefimov with offending the feelings of believers and extremist speech when he published an article criticizing the ROC.  The court ruled that the government had violated Article 10 – dealing with freedom of expression – and Article 11 – dealing with freedom of association – of the European Convention on Human Rights and that the government should pay Yefimov 10,000 euros ($11,300).

In November, the ECHR ruled in two separate cases that Russian authorities had violated the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion under the European Convention on Human Rights of members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).  In the latter case, the court also found the government had violated members’ right to family life and a fair trial by arresting and deporting them.  The court awarded 9,500 euros ($10,800) in damages and expenses to the plaintiffs in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness case and a total of 34,270 euros ($38,900) to the plaintiffs in Unification Church case.

According to the MOJ, as of December 2020, there were 31,392 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated, compared with 31,379 in 2019.

According to the SOVA Center, registration was sometimes complicated by imprecise language in the laws regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs, which left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.

The SOVA Center reported that in August, law enforcement officers checked the documents of those who had gathered for Friday prayers in several mosques in Moscow and the Moscow region, for example, in Kotelniki.  The officers reportedly took a total of 140 persons to police stations, where they released Russian citizens after checking their documents.  They released the foreigners after collecting their DNA.

In September, the government designated two Church of Scientology groups – World Institute of Scientology Enterprises International and the Church of Spiritual Technology – “undesirable organizations,” effectively banning Scientology within the country.  According to the SOVA Center, the designation meant that the Church of Scientology must stop its activities in the country, and any cooperation with the group would be treated as an administrative or, in some cases, criminal offense.

In August, the government designated four evangelical groups (the New Generation International Christian Movement and the New Generation Evangelical Christian Church (from Latvia), and the New Generation Spiritual Directorate of the Evangelist Christians and the New Generation International Biblical College (from Ukraine) as “undesirable organizations.”

In December, security forces broke up a conference in Ramenskoye attended by Protestant clergy, including representatives of New Generation Churches; one participant was reportedly beaten.

The country’s 83 federal subjects (administrative divisions, excluding Russia-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) maintained varying policies on the wearing of the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions.  In January, a schoolgirl in a Tyumen secondary school was barred from attending classes due to a Ministry of Education and Science policy that mandated students comply with “generally accepted norms of business style [dress] in society.”  In March, a local Yekaterinburg media outlet published a report describing the ostracism experienced by Muslim women who chose to wear the hijab.

Representatives of minority religious associations and human rights NGOs stated authorities continued to prosecute individuals and smaller religious groups for “illegal” missionary work and frequently imposed fines.  From July 2020 to December 2021, Forum 18 reported 108 prosecutions on administrative charges of unlawful missionary activity for a wide range of activities, including ordinary worship meetings.  Forum 18 stated that more than 80 percent of defendants whose cases reached a verdict were found guilty and fined.  Foreigners also faced possible expulsion.  According to the SOVA Center, Protestant churches were the targets in the largest number of cases.

In September, the Yalta Judicial District Court fined the Christians of the Evangelical Faith of Yalta 30,000 rubles ($400) for carrying out illegal missionary activity.  According to press reports, the Fellowship of Christian Businessmen and Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith Pentecostals were also prosecuted.  In June, four evangelical Christian pastors and believers from Adygea faced administrative cases for illegal missionary activity.  The accused faced fines ranging from five to 50,000 rubles ($.07-$670).  In June, the Sovetsky District Court of Astrakhan found a U.S. citizen guilty of illegal missionary activity, fining him 30,000 rubles ($400) and ordering his expulsion.  In May, authorities charged Russian astrologer Ekaterina Kalinkina with illegal missionary work for promoting and organizing events for the Hindu festival of Maha Shivratri.  Kalinkina faced a fine of 50,000 rubles ($670) as she was not an authorized religious leader.  In April, the Magistrate Court of Evpatoria Judicial District fined the Chava Nagila Synagogue 30,000 rubles ($400) for illegal missionary work, finding that videos posted by the community on social media did not carry the full name of the organization.

Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books related to religion, other than the four holy books – in their original languages – recognized by law.  The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,253 compared with 5,130 in 2020 according to SOVA Center reports.

In February, customs officials in Rostov-on-Don confiscated publications by Jehovah’s Witnesses from the library of the ship Missia, which arrived from the Turkish port of Tuzla.  On March 31, the Oktyabrsky District Court of St. Petersburg declared that the Jehovah’s Witness Library mobile application containing the group’s literature, including various translations of the Bible, was extremist.  On September 27, the St. Petersburg City Court upheld the decision to ban distribution of the app in the country.  On September 14, the Primorsky FSB border department searched four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses and confiscated electronic devices, Bibles, religious literature, and personal records in which they found mention of Jehovah.

On multiple occasions, authorities fined missionary organizations for violating legal requirements pertaining to missionary activity.  On November 10, OVD-Info reported that the Magistrate’s Court in Kabardino-Balkaria fined the Seventh-day Adventist Church 30,000 rubles ($400) for distributing literature without special marking as part of missionary activity.  On November 19, the Magistrate’s Court in Kabardino-Balkaria also fined Seventh-day Adventist Nina Boronina for possessing Christian books about health in violation of the law.  On September 15, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported as part of a commentary on persecution of religious believers in the country that authorities in Belgorod fined a Baptist individual for distributing free Bibles in the Sputnik shopping center.

The SOVA Center reported on October 7 that the Leninsky District Court of Stavropol fined the Orthodox Jewish Community of the Stavropol Territory 100,000 rubles ($1,300) for keeping the book Forcibly Baptized by Markus Lehmann, which was included in the government’s list of extremist materials, in its library.  The SOVA Center stated there were no signs of incitement to religious or national hatred in the novel, which is about the persecution and discrimination of Jews in the 14th century in Poland and Lithuania.

Authorities classified literature related to Said Nursi as extremist.  On April 22, the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court in Tatarstan designated 163 editions of the works of Nursi as extremist, according to the SOVA Center.  The court accused the defendants in the case of participating in the “Nurdzhular” organization, a Muslim organization that the Supreme Court declared extremist.

There were several other instances of restrictions on Islamic literature.  The SOVA Center reported on July 14 that the Sernursky District Court in Mari El fined Rosalia Timurgalieva for distributing extremist materials after she posted the film “Miracles of the Koran,” which the center said contained no calls to violence or discriminatory content, on social media.  In April, the Yoshkar-Ola City Court fined Valea Takhmazova and Izzatilo Isakov 1,000 rubles ($13) each for the same offense.

In January, Muslim community leaders criticized the decision by city authorities in Rostov-on-Don to transform the former Cathedral Mosque into a jazz school.  The mosque had been closed during the Soviet era and utilized by the army; in 2016 the Muslim community in Rostov asked for the building’s return.

In November, residents of Troitsk near Moscow complained to the city administration about an unofficial mosque – a residential building in which Muslims gathered for prayer.  The residents said the mosque led to traffic disruptions.  City officials reportedly determined the building was an illegal structure and planned to demolish it.  There were no other mosques in the city.  The case continued at year’s end.

On November 19, Ildar Alyautdinov, the Mufti of Moscow and the main imam of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, proposed opening prayer rooms in shopping centers and the subway instead of in residential buildings.  He stated that Moscow did not have enough local mosques for resident Muslims and migrants, and the rooms would allow Muslims to perform prayers at the right times without eliciting negative reactions from others.  In response, the press service of the Moscow Department of Transport stated that it was impossible to allocate “premises and places for religious actions of people of all views in public transport.”

In August, Ryazan authorities denied a request from Dmitry Pakhamov, cochairman of the Christianity and Islam Association and head of the International Christian Solidarity Foundation, to build an Islamic cultural and educational center in the city.  Officials responded that there were no free plots suitable for the construction of a religious facility.

In August, Samara city government authorities ordered the demolition of a Pentecostal Good News Church in Mekhzavod as an illegal building, saying the area was zoned for residential use.

On November 12, the Leninsky District Court of Nizhny Novgorod charged Kirill Evstigneev with providing financial services deliberately intended to support an extremist organization, for paying rent for a meeting place for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On November 2, the Kuznetsk District Court of Novokuznetsk prohibited the Orthodox diocese from operating a chapel, citing a violation of fire safety rules.

The NGO Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF) stated it had filed two cases with the ECHR on behalf of the Word of Life church in Kaluga – a Pentecostal church in a dispute with local authorities over ownership and building code violations which blocked efforts to convert a building to a meeting place for their community.  Worshipers reportedly were meeting in a tent outside the property pending resolution of the case.

ADF’s 2019 application to the ECHR on behalf of Pastor Vitaliy Bak remained pending at year’s end.  Bak, a Baptist community leader whom the Novorossiysk city administration accused of holding illegal worship services in his home, faced the possibility that his house would be demolished; local authorities closed the house in July 2019.  The ADF stated the authorities’ actions violated freedom of religion.

According to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law that recognized the “special role” of Orthodox Christianity as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution.  Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs stated in a report in May that “the Kremlin continues to deepen its reliance on the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (ROC) as a lever of soft power in Russian foreign policy.”  In a July interview posted on the ROC website, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cited the existence of a Working Group for Cooperation between the foreign ministry and the ROC.  In June, ROC Patriarch Kirill presented Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu with an ROC medal for “supervision of the construction of the main temple of the Russian Armed Forces.”  He thanked Shoigu for his contribution to “this new way of interaction between the Church and the armed forces.”  Patriarch Kirill also presented awards to two deputy defense ministers.  The government continued to provide the ROC Patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization.  According to the SOVA Center, the ROC had received more government-granted property than any other religious organization.

In January, the Verkhnepyshminsky City Court sentenced an assistant to former ROC priest Shiigumen Sergiy to 15 days administrative arrest for inciting hatred through uploading a video on social media, a punishment that does not involve criminal charges.  The ROC had banned him from preaching.  Sergey refused to leave the Sredeuralsk Convent in a dispute over the property.

On February 10, the Sverdlovsk Arbitration Court recognized the Sredneuralsk Convent as property of the ROC Yekaterinburg Diocese.  The ROC had filed a claim for recognition of ownership in 2020.

Forum 18 raised concerns about amendments to the law in October which required clergy, missionaries, or religious teachers who received their religious training outside the country to enroll in a class on state-confessional relations and obtain recertification by a CRO.  The NGO criticized what it said was the vague wording of the amendments, which left interpretation to law enforcement authorities.  According to Forum 18, the majority of religious educational establishments appeared ineligible to offer such courses as they lacked state accreditation.  Baptist, Pentecostal, and Lutheran seminaries all lost their higher education licenses by May.  Forum 18 stated the amendments would affect some communities more than others; for example, the majority of Russia’s Buddhist leaders had trained outside Russia.  Sergey Gavrilov, head of the State Duma’s Committee for the Development of Civil Society and Issues of Public and Religious Associations, stated in an April 5 press release that the (then proposed) amendments were “aimed at protecting the spiritual sovereignty of Russia” and would “take into account Russian legal, moral, and cultural traditions.”

The country’s National Security Strategy, approved in July, included the prevention of the spread of religious radicalism, destructive religious movements, and formation of ethnic and religious enclaves as measures to ensure security.

The Jerusalem Post and Forum 18 reported that antisemitism was rising in the political sphere.  In February, an Anti-Defamation League report criticized the Russian government for instrumentalizing antisemitism to influence domestic and foreign public opinion in its conflict with Ukraine by exaggerating the prevalence of antisemitism in that country.

In January, St. Petersburg State University of Economics and Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration Professor Vladimir Matveyev publicly denied the Holocaust during a webinar.  Matveyev stated Zionists invented the Holocaust, as “it was impossible to pass six million victims through all the concentration camps.”  Other webinar participants contested the statements.  Both institutions fired him in February, and a court denied his request for reinstatement.  Matveyev was charged with rehabilitation of Nazism, and his case remained pending at year’s end.  If convicted, he could face up to three years in prison.

In August, Russia Religious News reported Foreign Minister Lavrov commented that the ROC was “suffering from (unspecified) pressure by Western countries.”

At an October 21 plenary session of the 18th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion club, President Vladimir Putin stated that Russians were guided by a moral and spiritual conservatism and must defend “true values” from “adherents of the so-called social progress,” whom he compared to the Bolsheviks, whose quest for progress a century ago became an effort to destroy “age-old values and religion.”

International Religious Freedom Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select a Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future