Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Media, NGOs, and religious groups reported physical assaults related to religious identity during the year, although according to data collected by the SOVA Center, there were fewer recorded instances of violence based on religious identity than in prior years. SOVA recorded three acts of violence directed against religious groups compared to 21 such acts in 2016. SOVA also separately recorded 13 acts of violence against Central Asians and individuals from the Caucasus during the same period compared to 31 in 2016. Because ethnicity and religion are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many of these incidents as being solely based on religious identity. The media also attributed some of these attacks to the political or human rights activities of the victims.
On May 2, the SOVA Center reported that in April in Penza Oblast, three unidentified persons beat an imam in his home. The assailants kicked him and hit him with a bat.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses there were 12 cases of physical assaults, one of which included a threat of murder, on adherents between September 2016 and August. In March a man with a dog threatened to set the animal loose on attendees during a religious service in a Kingdom Hall in St. Petersburg. He attacked one individual, shouted insults, and damaged the building. The same month in Moscow, a man threatened two Jehovah’s Witnesses with a knife, injuring one of them.
The SOVA Center reported that on August 17, in Nikonovsky village in the Moscow region, a local resident shouted insults and physically attacked a 56-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. According to the report, the attacker approached three Jehovah’s Witnesses sitting on a bench and holding a Bible in their hands. The attacker shouted, “Get out! You are banned!” and struck one of the Witnesses on the head with a glass jar before scattering the contents of her bag. The victim suffered a concussion and was taken to the hospital. The victims filed a police report, but the results of the case were not known.
The Slavic Center for Law and Justice reported two armed men broke into a Pentecostal church in January, beat two parishioners, and threatened them at knifepoint. The assailants demanded to see a list of church members, identified themselves as “native Orthodox,” and promised to eradicate all “sectarians.” The assailants reportedly had been known for prior antigovernment internet posts.
Following the March 31 adoption by the Chechen Parliament of amendments to the local law allowing students to wear clothes reflecting their religious beliefs, the head of the ROC-MP legal service said it violated “the principle of secular education in state schools,” and should be adjusted. She said “the federal law does not give students the right to wear clothes ‘in accordance with religious beliefs.’” According to the presidential press secretary, the Kremlin had not yet taken a position on the legislation. In January the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion reported that according to a poll, 47 percent of Russians saw nothing offensive in the practice of Muslim girls wearing hijabs in schools, compared to 35 percent in 2012. Forty-seven percent were against this practice, down from 53 percent in 2012.
The Press Secretary of the ROC-MP, Patriarch Kirill, said in June it would be desirable to include study of the basics of the Church Slavonic language in the school curriculum for cultural purposes. Earlier in the year, the president of the Russian Academy of Education, Professor Liudmila Verbitskaia, called for consideration of teaching Church Slavonic in schools.
Media and NGOs reported attempted arson attacks by critics of the film Matilda, which premiered in October and depicted Tsar Nicholas II, when he was an unmarried crown prince, romantically involved with a ballerina. The Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas II in 2000 and some Orthodox critics called the film blasphemous. According to the news outlet Znak, one individual in Yekaterinburg ran his car filled with containers of gasoline into a theater screening the film. According to media outlets, on September 11, arsonists set fire to two cars outside the law firm representing the film’s director. Interfax reported that on September 12, the Cinema Park and Formula Kino network of movie theaters announced they would not screen the film due to threats against the theaters. There were calls to ban the film by government officials, including head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. In a letter to the minister of culture posted online on August 8 by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kadyrov stated that tens of thousands of believers of different faiths requested the film not be allowed to air in the country because they regard it as deliberate mockery of the feelings of believers.
The SOVA Center reported 26 acts of vandalism motivated by religious, ethnic, or ideological hatred during the year (compared to 28 such acts in 2016). The majority of the sites belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which the SOVA Center attributed to the Supreme Court ban on the organization. Acts of vandalism included the defacement of 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses buildings, eight Orthodox monuments, a Protestant church, and a Pentecostal building. In August in the Murmansk region, unidentified vandals desecrated a Buddhist stupa.
Between September 2016 and August, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 16 attacks on Kingdom Halls, including one resulting in damage from arson, with at least nine of these cases following the April Supreme Court ban. On April 30 in Lutsino, Moscow Oblast, the home of a Jehovah’s Witnesses family was burned to the ground, along with the adjoining home of their elderly parents. On May 24, in Zheshart in the Komi Republic, arsonists caused significant damage to a building used by Jehovah’s Witnesses for religious services. According to the SOVA Center, the first instance of vandalism occurred within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision on April 20, when a group of unidentified men in two cars drove up to a Jehovah’s Witnesses building in St. Petersburg and blocked the vehicle exit. One of the assailants shouted threats and threw rocks at the building’s glass windows and door.
According to the SOVA Center, on February 3, in Saransk four unidentified men riding a bus yelled obscenities at a Tatar girl wearing a hijab and threatened to hit her with a glass bottle. Witnesses report she exited the bus following the incident.
According to jw.org, on May 11 a group of men interrupted Jehovah’s Witnesses religious services in Tyumen and threatened to harm the attendees.
The ROC called Jehovah’s Witnesses a dangerous, totalitarian, and harmful sect and supported its ban by the government. “The decision on the ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a positive step in the fight against the spread of cultist ideas, which have nothing in common with the Christian religion…Their doctrine contains a multitude of false teachings…and therefore they cannot in any way be called Christian,” the head of the ROC synod’s Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion, said on the program Church and World on the Rossiia-24 television channel.
According to a study published by the SOVA Center and the Fare Network in June, soccer fans often displayed neo-Nazi symbols at championships hosted by the Amateur Football League and many other amateur competitions. The 2016-17 season was also marked by the appearance of banners featuring anti-Semitic stereotypes and caricatures. The report noted soccer league and law enforcement agencies were making efforts to curb the presence of far-right symbolism at matches.