Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Reports indicated authorities continued to physically abuse individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation. For instance, authorities detained Eduard Nizamov, the purported head of the Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, in Kazan on October 11, and, according to Memorial, beat and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention. He was charged with organizing a terrorist organization. Hizb ut Tahrir remained banned by the government as a terrorist organization, but according to Memorial, it was a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” On October 12, the Vakhitovsky District Court of Kazan ordered Nizamov detained until November 21. Nizamov refused to testify, and remained in detention at year’s end. At the same time, authorities arrested Ildar Akhmetzyanov and Raisa Gimadeev as alleged leaders of the Hizb ut-Tahrir regional group in Tatarstan, and also charged them with organizing a terrorist organization, according to Memorial.
According to Memorial, in December the North Caucasian Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Crimean Tatar Remzi Memetov to 17 years in a penal colony. The court also sentenced Crimean Tatar Enver Mamutov, Rustem Abiltarov, and Zevri Abseitov to nine years each in a penal colony. The four were arrested in Crimea, Ukraine in 2016, accused of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir and “preparing for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order,” and transported to Russia. Human Rights advocates noted that the case appeared to be retaliation against these men for their opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
Memorial reported that in December Babushkinsky district court in Moscow found eight Muslims guilty of “organization and participation in an extremist organization” for their involvement in Tablighi Jamaat, an organization designated by the Supreme Court as “extremist” which Memorial characterized as an international Islamic missionary movement. The district court sentenced the men to prison terms ranging from four to six and a half years.
In its annual October report, Memorial published a list of political prisoners in the country, which included 177 persons persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation (meaning they were in custody or under arrest and being criminally prosecuted) – more than double the previous year’s figure of 70. The report stated that none of the persons on the list used violence, called for violence, or planned violent acts. The majority of persons included in Memorial’s list were Muslims. Memorial also published a separate list of approximately 240 people in detention as of the end of the year for alleged involvement with the banned organization Hizb ut-Tahrir.
According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, the government continued to restrict the exercise of freedom of religion during the year. Forum 18 found that authorities continued to pursue multiple cases against Muslims on extremism charges for reading the works of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi, many of which were banned as extremist. On August 21, the NGO reported that three Muslims were on trial or under investigation, and another three were sentenced to prison terms for being members of “Nurdzhular,” an organization reportedly based on Nursi’s teachings banned as extremist by the authorities. Experts from the SOVA Center continued to maintain that “Nurdzhular” did not actually exist in the country.
Forum 18 reported that on August 14, a Krasnoyarsk court handed Sabirzhon Kabirzoda a two-year suspended sentence for “extremism” after participating in a meeting to study Nursi’s works. FSB (Federal Security Service) “experts” said he had incited religious hatred by comparing Muslims to non-Muslims. According to the NGO, a suspended sentence could include a travel ban and voting restrictions. District court staff, however, told Forum 18 they were not “authorized” to specify the conditions of the court’s decision. In the town of Sharypovo, criminal cases against Andrei Rekst in Krasnoyarsk and Yevgeny Sukharev in connection with reading Nursi’s teachings were ongoing at year’s end. Andrei Dedkov of Krasnoyarsk, also an alleged member of Nurdzhular, was released in July after paying a 250,000 ruble ($3,600) fine for organizing the activity of a banned religious organization in connection with extremism. Prosecutors lodged an appeal in June and argued for a longer jail sentence.
The ECHR found in August that court decisions to prohibit Nursi’s books violated the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It ruled that the country’s courts did not provide sufficient and relevant grounds for interfering with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression and that their intervention could not be considered necessary in a democratic society. The court further ruled that the government should pay one of the plaintiffs 7,500 euros ($8,600) in compensation for non-pecuniary damages. As of year’s end, the government had not acted on the ECHR ruling.
The SOVA Center, Memorial, and the media reported that during the year at least six Muslims were serving prison terms on charges connected to reading Nursi’s work: Ziyavdin Dapayev was serving a four-year term; brothers Sukhrab and Artur Kaltuyev three year terms; Yevgeny Lvovich Kim, a three year, nine-months term; Ilgar Aliyev an eight-year term after losing his appeal in July. On June 29, a court sentenced Komil Odilov to two years in prison.
The media reported official harassment against Muslims. In October police officers wearing masks and fatigues surrounded approximately 100 Muslims exiting a mosque in Mytishi, Moscow Oblast. The police told the crowd they were not arresting anyone, but detained them on a bus for five hours. The worshipers were subsequently released without explanation.
In December the NGO Free Russia Forum said that during the year “the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses reached mass levels.” A report by Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police, Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON) forces, and Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel raided the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year. During these raids authorities reportedly entered homes, sometimes by forcing the door open; conducted unauthorized and illegal searches; failed to declare their purpose or show a court order; ordered people (including children and the elderly) around at gunpoint and pushed them to the floor or against the wall; seized personal belongings, including mobile phones, tablets, Bibles and Bible-related literature, documents, and money; brought adults and children to police stations for interrogation; and charged some with extremist activity and held them in pretrial custody.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, at 7:00 A.M. on July 4 in Omsk, police forces raided the homes of at least four Witnesses and searched their houses, land plots, outbuildings, and vehicles until the late afternoon. In one instance, a couple was asleep when the police invaded their home. The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that although the husband offered no resistance, the police beat him severely.
From January through April authorities raided the homes of more than 45 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Shuya, Vladivostok, Polyarny, Zaton, Oryol, Belogorod and Kemerovo, according to the official Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website jw.org. This was twice the number reported during the corresponding period in 2017. In May Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that a Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman said that 150 law enforcement personnel raided more than 20 Witnesses home in Birobidzhan in the Jewish Autonomous Region on May 16.
The Investigative Committee, the FSB, and officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism carried out raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in 22 regions between January and August. As of year’s end, 79 Jehovah’s Witnesses were subject to criminal investigations, according to Forum 18. Of these, 22 were in pretrial detention, 17 were under house arrest, and 30 were under travel restrictions. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities detained 72 individuals during the year, including minors.
According to the SOVA Center, in October alone, authorities arrested two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Smolensk and another five in Kirov, ordered two who had been arrested in April in Murmansk to remain in detention, and told seven not to leave Orenburg. In the same month, authorities began auctioning Jehovah’s Witnesses’ properties in Krasnodar, Tatarstan, and Buryatia, and voided initiatives by Jehovah’s Witnesses to transfer properties to foreign affiliates.
International media reported that Denis Christensen, a Danish citizen and elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Oryol Congregation who was detained in May 2017, remained in detention and on trial in Oryol’s Railway District Court at year’s end for “extremist activity.” According to Forum 18, between October 2017 and September 2018 Christensen appeared in court 38 times.
On February 14, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Ruslan Sokolovsky, a blogger from Yekaterinburg, who was arrested in 2016 for “inciting enmity and hatred” and “offending the feelings of believers” by playing the game Pokemon Go in an Orthodox church and posting antireligious videos online. In 2017, the Sverdlovsk District Court on appeal upheld his conviction of incitement to hatred and offense of religious feelings but overturned his convictions on other charges and reduced his suspended prison sentence to two years and three months.
According to COS representatives and media, in October authorities extended through February 2019 the detention of Ivan Matsitsky and Sahib Aliyev, director and accountant, respectively, of the St. Petersburg branch of the COS. Matsitsky and Aliyev were arrested in June 2017 along with three other COS St. Petersburg leaders as part of a probe into what police said was possible “illegal entrepreneurship” (i.e., selling religious books), incitement of hatred, and organizing an extremist conspiracy. As of the year’s end, two other defendants in the case remain under house arrest, and one was released from house arrest in June but remained under investigation. Authorities continued to refuse to register the St. Petersburg and Moscow COS branches as religious organizations despite a 2014 ECHR ruling that the government’s refusal was a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
According to the Russian Legal Information Agency, the government opened a criminal case in April against one of the COS leaders in St. Petersburg, who was alleged to have laundered 17 million rubles ($244,000), but the agency did not name the individual.
Imam Makhmud Velitov of Moscow’s Yardam Mosque filed a case with the ECHR in October 2017 related to his conviction in 2017 on terrorism charges for advocating the “doctrine of political Islam” of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization. The ECHR communicated the complaint to the government in January and in October the government asked the ECHR to reject the case. The ECHR’s decision remained pending at year’s end.
In January the Kurgan Regional Court dismissed a prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal of Imam Ali Yakupov of the Kurgan Mosque, who was charged in 2015 with inciting hatred for comments he allegedly made saying God would punish Chinese Communists for prohibiting hijabs. According to the SOVA Center, the court found that the case had already been thoroughly investigated by lower courts.
In January the Magistrate Court of Sochi dismissed a case against Viktor Nochevnova, who was found guilty in 2017 of insulting the feelings of believers and fined 50,000 rubles ($720) for reposting seven cartoon depictions of Jesus on his social media VKontakte page.
Maria Motuznaya, from Barnaul, was put on trial on August 6 for publishing two side-by-side images on her VKontakte page, one depicting Jesus Christ expelling cigarette smoke through a hole in his palm, and another depicting a religious procession along a broken road, accompanied by the comment, “Two main evils of Russia.” The government charged her with “demeaning the dignity of race and insulting the feelings of believers.” On October 9, a court returned the case to the prosecutor for further development. The case remained pending at year’s end. According to the SOVA Center, Motuznaya said in October she had left the country for Ukraine, and intended to seek political asylum abroad.
According to the Ministry of Justice, at the end of the year there were 31,054 registered religious organizations in Russia, most of which were ROC-affiliated.
In some cases it was difficult for minority religious organizations to obtain state registration. In September the SOVA Center reported that the parish of St. Maria Gatchinskaya in the Leningrad Region convinced the city court to invalidate the MOJ’s opinion blocking its registration as a religious organization. While the court directed the MOJ to reconsider the registration, it refused to require the MOJ to register the parish. The parish belonged to the Suzdal Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, which is not affiliated with the ROC.
Media, NGOs, and religious minorities reported continued efforts by authorities to dissolve minority religious associations, often on the grounds they were conducting “extremist” activity.
The SOVA Center, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers International, and religious groups said the Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ about which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.” In June the Expert Religious Studies Council recommended the MOJ deny religious organization status to the “Community of Slavic Faith on Vyatka (Kirovskaya).”
The government continued to restrict missionary activity, with officials often citing concerns about missionaries being sources of foreign influence. For example, according to the SOVA Center, in July in Bryansk Region, Vitaly Boksha, a Baptist layperson, was fined for “illegal” missionary work occurring on May 15, when the court said he gave neighbors literature describing evangelical Baptist beliefs. Neighbors stated that they received the literature, but did not attend a service at the church. On July 3, the Mglinsky District Court convicted Boksha and fined him 5,000 rubles ($72). Boksha filed an appeal with the regional court, and in August the higher court vacated the conviction and fine.
Representatives of minority religious associations and NGOs continued to state that the Yarovaya Package, enacted for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, was employed by authorities to limit religious freedom. They said the broad definition of “missionary activity” in the legislation meant it included not only proselytizing, but also disseminating religious materials, preaching, and engaging in interfaith discussions about religion, including in private residences, without prior authorization. In April Forum 18 said the legal framework for an individual exercising his or her beliefs outside a designated place of worship was unclear and that the authorities applied the law inconsistently. Forum 18 stated, “This imposes a large burden on individuals and organizations in fines, legal costs, and bureaucratic hurdles – particularly for smaller religious communities.” In April ISKCON attorney Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18, “The fines are large, and where the boundaries of lawful behavior lie is incomprehensible…. [E]veryone has become much more cautious in their public actions. The public activity of religious associations has decreased noticeably.” In April Pentecostal Union attorney Vladimir Ozolin told Forum 18 that “religious associations are also worried because they do not know how to profess their religion now and share it with others without violating the law. Churches face extra problems here, because no one knows what the permission to carry out missionary activity should look like – its form has not been established by law. In addition, state bodies do not conduct explanatory work and do not use warnings, but immediately issue fines.”
Forum 18 said authorities were pursuing more cases under the missionary provisions of the Yarovaya Package and fewer cases using laws regarding procedures for “gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket” during the year, thus yielding potentially larger fines of up to 50,000 rubles ($720). According to the SOVA Center, the government prosecuted 42 legal entities and 105 individuals during the first six months of the year for missionary activity. In its December report, Free Russia Forum said that in 2017 (the most recent data available) the courts received approximately 488 cases of illegal missionary activity, sentenced 274 people, and imposed fines totaling 3,594,700 rubles ($51,600). According to Forum 18, in 2017 (the most recent data available) religious communities and individuals prosecuted for missionary activity included Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baptist Union, the Council of Churches, ISKCON, Muslims, individuals associated with the Bible distribution organization the Gideons, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, a Kabbalah teacher, the New Apostolic Church, and the ROC Abroad. Authorities reportedly charged individuals with unauthorized missionary activity for activities such as holding prayer meetings at home, posting worship times on a religious community’s website, and giving a lecture on yoga. Forum 18 reported courts often imposed the minimum fines for first time offenses and larger fines for repeat offenses.
Free Russia Forum said that in 2018 authorities began using new means to restrict so-called missionary activity, including confiscating and demolishing Protestant houses of worship and restricting leaders of certain religious communities from entering the country. According to the SOVA Center, in one instance the Russian Border Service denied entry to Evgeny Peresvotov, a Ukrainian national and pastor of the Russian Christian Center “Vosstanovleniye.”
According to Forum 18, in March the Constitutional Court issued a partial clarification of the Yarovaya Package amendment on missionary activity. The court ruled that providing information about religious events would constitute an “offense” only if it were aimed at attracting people who were not already members of the religious organization.
Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law – the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Kanjur.
According to the SOVA Center, during the first half of the year, authorities added several Islamic and Jehovah’s Witnesses texts to the MOJ’s list of extremist materials. The list grew to 4,514 entries by October, reflecting a slightly smaller increase than in 2017. During the first six months of the year, authorities imposed 1,133 sanctions for distribution of extremist materials, compared to 1,846 imposed in all of 2017. The SOVA Center also noted 24 cases through November 1 of prosecutors sanctioning library staff of schools, training centers, and prisons for being noncompliant with the Federal List of Extremist Materials. According to Forum 18, in some cases, those in charge of places of worship and other public or semipublic spaces were often held responsible for distribution of banned religious publications, which could have been left at the site by anyone at any time, even before the ban.
In February the SOVA Center reported that the local prosecutor’s office in Kabardino-Balkaria Republic sent four cases to the court in order to restrict access to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ websites. The office noted that the sites included “various sections, publications, magazines, books, videos, [and] news about the religious organization.” Seventh-day Adventist lawyer Vasily Nichik told Forum 18 a month later that Nizhny Novgorod was “among the foremost in terms of persecution in the field of religious freedoms,” and added, “In these matters, very often everything depends on the personalities within the system.”
According to Forum 18, since 2017 authorities levied several fines or imposed other rulings against Jesus Embassy, a Pentecostal church in Nizhny Novgorod, and its members. During the year a court fined the church for not specifying its full name in videos of worship services, the posting of which was also alleged to constitute “missionary activity,” resulting in more fines. Authorities also fined and ordered deported two Pentecostal African students for unauthorized “missionary activity.” Kudzai Nyamarebvu, a medical student from Zimbabwe, faced prosecution three times in six months, first for posting a video inviting fellow African students to a “welcome party” at the church, which her attorney maintained was a secular event; second, for reposting a video of another African student talking about how God had helped her recover from an illness; and third, for an interview she gave discussing her first two prosecutions, which was published on the Pentecostal Union’s website. Forum 18 said that in June a Prioksky District Court judge found her guilty of “hidden missionary activity, not expressed in either words or gestures.”
According to Forum 18, an unknown person removed a church sign showing a Seventh-day Adventist church’s full official name in Nizhny Novgorod and replaced it with one bearing an incomplete name. In the morning, a group of police officers arrived, and the community, primarily composed of retirees, was fined 30,000 rubles ($430) for incorrect signage.
Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including their homes, “not for its intended purpose” (i.e., for religious services), continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and continued to deny construction permits for houses of worship. In a March report, Forum 18 stated that, within a contradictory and unclear legal framework, officials increased the numbers of fines for meeting for worship on land designated for residential or commercial use only. Forum 18 reported one defense lawyer said inspections and punishments were like “a lottery.”
In April a senior member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Development of Civil Society said there was a new tendency among regional authorities to restrict the construction or restoration of houses of prayer and churches on residential lands. In two separate cases in March, authorities demolished residences on private land that were being used as churches, one in Novorosijsk and one in Abinsk.
Forum 18 reported that after two rounds of appeals, on January 25, a court upheld a 10,000-ruble ($140) fine imposed on Oleg Leshchenko, owner of a house in the Rostov Region town of Volgodonsk in which the Rebirth of the Don Missionary Society of Evangelical Christians held services three times per week. The court fined Leshchenko for conducting religious services on premises that were not designated for religious services (his own house).
According to the SOVA Center, in September the ECHR informed the government that it had accepted the complaint of the Trinity Parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) in the Moscow Region concerning a federal court decision to demolish its church in Noginsk. Authorities ordered the church, which was erected in 2015, be demolished after an ROC priest reportedly convinced local officials to bring suit against the church in a local court in 2016. The complaint was pending in the ECHR at year’s end.
The SOVA Center said in January that monks in a Buddhist monastery on Kachkanar Mountain (approximately 125 miles north of Yekaterinburg) challenged the findings of a study commissioned by the regional governor that found it was not a legitimate religious community. These developments were part of a long-running case in which a metallurgical company sought the demolition of the monastery, which had been tentatively scheduled to occur during the winter of 2017-18 but had not begun by year’s end.
According to a November article in World Religion News, the government continued to criticize the Enlightenment Stupa in Moscow. In September local authorities tried to remove the stupa but backed down due to protests. Authorities denied Buddhists access to the stupa in 2017, resulting in it falling into disrepair. The article stated that the International Center of the Roerichs, an art museum, tried to fix the stupa, but authorities prevented its repair. The article said the shrine continued to await possible repair or relocation.
As in years past, according to NGOs, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations. Although neither the constitution nor the law explicitly accorded privileges or advantages to the ROC, they said the ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries, giving it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization.
In October the Ecumenical Patriarchate released a statement agreeing to grant autocephalous (independent) status to a new unified Ukrainian Church. According to a September 30 article in The Wall Street Journal, the Russian government had pressed Patriarch Bartholomew not to take this step. Prior to Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision, a group of government-connected hackers, indicted in the United States in July, reportedly stole thousands of email messages from his aides. According to article, the government also “resorted to traditionally bullying, issuing unspecified threats and denouncing Patriarch Bartholomew as an agent of the U.S. and the Vatican.”
Members of the Jewish community reported President Vladimir Putin stated during an interview in March that interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections came from “Ukrainians, Tatars, and Jews.”
On December 11, at a Kremlin meeting with the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, political scientist Yekaterina Shulman told President Putin, “Of the 489 entries on the list of extremist organizations, 404 of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses chapters even though they do not incite violence or carry it out.” President Putin responded, “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too. I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into.” According to the state-run news agency TASS, on December 18, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “Here we need to analyze each particular case.” TASS quoted Peskov as saying, “It is impossible here to solve this problem conceptually because there are various pros and cons, but an additional study on this issue will be carried out at least.”
In January the ECHR informed the government that it had accepted Pentecostal pastor Victor-Immanuel Mani’s challenge of a fine levied against him under the Yarovaya Package for missionary activity. According to Forum 18, Mani, an Indian national with a Russian-citizen wife and child, had held religious meetings in rented premises in Naberezhnye Chelny and advertised them on the church’s social network VKontakte page without necessary authorization documents from the local religious organization. In November 2017, the Supreme Court overturned a deportation order of the lower court but left a 30,000-ruble ($430) fine in place.
Novaya Gazeta and international media reported that in October the Supreme Court upheld the deportation of Chief Rabbi of Omsk Asher Krichevsky, an Israeli-born U.S citizen. In January officials revoked his residency permit, along with those of his wife and six children, after the FSB accused him of planning or supporting “terrorist activity.” In May a lower court ordered him deported for “threatening national security and the constitutional order.” Krichevsky was the ninth foreign-born rabbi deported in the past 10 years, according to The Jewish Chronicle.
According to the SOVA Center, in August the Borisoglebsk City Court of the Voronezh Region discontinued proceedings in the case of the pastor of the local religious organization, the Restoration Christian Center. In 2017, authorities filed a criminal case against organizers of the center, alleging they illegally held six drug addicts and kidnapped two others, despite other drug addicts at the center testifying they were there voluntarily. Authorities detained five of the center’s Russian employees, three of whom were later released and placed under house arrest.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 3, the St. Petersburg Court upheld a 2017 ruling by the district court ordering the confiscation of the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses said that on August 3, the property was officially registered in the name of the government.
In January the ECHR accepted complaints from Jehovah’s Witnesses related to, among other things, the seizure of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($90.8 million). On September 17, Deputy Minister of Justice Mikhail Halperin requested an additional three months to respond to ECHR questions. At end of year, the case was still pending.
Although it lacked legal status as a religious organization, COS of Moscow was able to provide various services such as assistance to drug addicts throughout the country.