Forum 18 News Service: A Journalist Monitoring Religious Freedom

August 13th, 2012 2:23 pm

Geraldine Fagan

Forum 18 News Service is a Christian initiative defending the right of all people to religious freedom, irrespective of their beliefs. It reports on violations of religious freedom in former Soviet states. We focus on the former Soviet Union for two reasons. As the location of the communist experiment to destroy religion, similar problems affecting religious freedom exist in its successor states. It is also the area in which our journalists have particular expertise. As Moscow correspondent for Forum 18, my brief includes Russia and Belarus.

Forum 18 has been operating since 2003 and has three full-time journalists. Reports go out in English via email and the internet to anyone who wishes to receive them. Our news is followed by politicians and diplomats from Europe and North America, as well as representatives of international bodies such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Our readers also include members of churches and other faith communities, human rights groups, journalists, ordinary people, and academics studying religion and culture in the former Soviet Union. Websites in the region which specialize in religious affairs often translate our news into Russian and other local languages.

As a journalist, I prefer the term ‘religious freedom’, as it is short but still maintains the essential point, the right to believe. It is the term used most widely in the United States, whose congress set up a Commission on International Religious Freedom in 1998. ‘Religious freedom’ does include the rights of atheists and agnostics, but the European human rights community tends to prefer more neutral-sounding terminology, such as ‘freedom of conscience’, ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ and ‘freedom of religion or belief’. Freedom of conscience also includes the right to refuse military service on possibly non-religious grounds.

Legal Framework

Freedom of religion is established in international legal frameworks, which are the main mechanism for believers to secure and defend their rights. The document most commonly cited is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Forum 18 is named after Article 18 of this Declaration, which reads:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Nations which allow the manifestation of only one worldview in public life are reluctant to support this. The Soviet bloc states abstained from the vote for the Universal Declaration, as their governments promoted atheist propaganda but permitted religious activity only in private or within very narrow limits in the public sphere.

The Universal Declaration is a statement, not a law. However, Article 18 is supported in international law, most notably in Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also adopted by the United Nations, came into force in the Soviet Union and its successor states in 1976. Its own Article 18 upholding religious freedom reads:

Article 18.

i. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. 

ii. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms was adopted by member states of the Council of Europe in 1950. Violations of the Convention are reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to which residents of any member state can lodge a complaint. The Convention came into force for Russia in 1998 but has no status in Belarus, which is not a member of the Council of Europe. Article 9.i. of the Convention reads:

Article 9.

i. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

Monitoring Religious Freedom

So how does Forum 18 monitor religious freedom? How do we determine whether people are free to choose and practise their beliefs in the different states we study? As journalists, we ask representatives of different faiths whether they are able to do various things. Are they able to join together for worship without restriction by their government? Can they meet in private homes? Can they rent public property in the same way as their fellow citizens who join together for sports or music? Do government officials prevent them from using, buying or building their own property for religious activity? We also ask them whether they are able to organize their communities in accordance with their beliefs. Can they elect their own leaders, raise their children in a particular faith, and work with fellow-believers from abroad without state interference?

Furthermore, we inquire about their ability to share their beliefs in the public arena. Can they conduct mission? Can they operate Sunday schools, catechism classes or hold public lectures about their faith? Can they hold religious processions? Can they operate charitable activities motivated by their beliefs? Can they import or produce and circulate material about their beliefs?

As well as directly contacting representatives of faith communities, we monitor local, usually Russian-language, media for reports on violations of religious freedom. We also always contact relevant government officials and ask them why violations are taking place. Often violations of religious freedom are due to a state adopting restrictive legislation on religion. This is not always the case, however. Individual state representatives, such as bureaucrats or the police, may stop citizens from practicing their beliefs simply because they are opposed to them. Whatever the method, repressive states are rarely as careless as to violate religious freedom bluntly and openly. They usually create a web of restrictive rules whose end result is to ghettoise faith communities. At this point we can now turn to some examples:

The Salvation Army

The well-known international evangelical organization with a special focus on charity, the Salvation Army began to operate in Russia in 1913, but its work was cut short by the Bolshevik Revolution four years later. It returned to Russia at the end of the communist period, obtaining legal status as a religious organization by registering under a 1990 law which affirmed religious freedom. Then, in 1997, Russia replaced this law with a more restrictive one, which demanded that all religious organizations re-register with the state. In Moscow, the authorities refused to re-register the Salvation Army for a number of bureaucratic reasons. The Salvation Army was unable to appeal this refusal before the re-registration deadline passed at the end of 2000. As it tried to do so, it was even accused by one Moscow court of being a paramilitary organization because it calls itself an army and its members wear uniforms.

Landlords began to cancel the Salvation Army’s rental contracts, disrupting a meals-on-wheels service to the elderly and the organization’s weekly worship services. In September 2001, a local court ruled that the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army should lose its legal status, as it had not re-registered. The Salvation Army’s successful complaint to Russia’s Constitutional Court managed to prevent this. In February 2002, the Constitutional Court ruled that a religious organization could have its legal status taken away only if shown not to exist or to be in violation of the Constitution. But the Moscow authorities still refused to re-register the Salvation Army, leaving its legal position uncertain. Responding to the Salvation Army’s complaint, the European Court of Human Rights in October 2006 ruled that the Russian authorities had wrongly refused to re-register the Salvation Army. They paid compensation on time, but remedied the original violation by re-registering the organization only very recently, on 10 April 2009 – ten years since it filed its application.

I chose this example shows that, as long as a faith community in Russia has access to legal support and is very patient, it can obtain justice via the law, in the European Court if not at home, but this is rare. Raising awareness about and encouraging support for religious freedom across society however, is far more important in ensuring that a government respects it.

Belarus

In Belarus, the religious freedom situation is perhaps more serious. There is no possibility of appeal to the European Court, and the government seeks even tighter control over its citizens’ beliefs. Unlike Russia, laws adopted in Belarus in 2002 clearly state that all religious activity which does not have state permission is illegal. This results in the most blatant violations of religious freedom.

On 16 March 2008, a small group of Pentecostals met for Sunday worship at a private home in Mosty, a town in north-west Belarus. But local state officials soon arrived at the house and drew up charges against the group’s pastor, Valentin Borovik, for leading a service without registering his religious organization. Belarusian law says that group religious activity without state registration is illegal, including home groups. At Mosty District Court on 28 April 2008, Pastor Borovik was found guilty of an administrative offence and fined the equivalent of 40 Euros. He attempted to appeal the verdict, arguing that:

I and my fellow citizens are believers, Christians. In accordance with the Bible we meet regularly as believers for joint prayer and Bible study … we are only realizing our constitutional right to joint profession of religion.

The case was sent for appeal on 9 June 2008, but Pastor Borovik was again accused of leading an illegal religious organization and the fine was raised to the equivalent of 95 Euros. As evidence of wrongdoing, the court reported that at home meetings the Pentecostals ‘read the Gospel, discuss questions of religious faith, sing songs and conduct religious rites.’ Pastor Borovik took his complaint as far as possible, but the Belarusian Supreme Court simply dismissed his argument that compulsory registration goes against European norms.

At Forum 18, we hear a variety of cases. The victims are usually Protestant, but we reported one case which involved a Bible fellowship belonging to the official Belarusian Orthodox Church. The KGB secret police raided one of the group’s meetings at a private apartment in the Belarusian city of Gomel in March 2007. During their three-hour search of the apartment, the KGB downloaded data from a computer, confiscated notebooks and questioned and photographed those present. The owner of the apartment was later issued an official warning.

Another type of religious freedom violation typical in Belarus is when a religious community has a public worship building, but the state refuses to grant official permission to use it. The community must have this state permission under Belarusian law, and without it, those believers are in a very insecure position. Further problems arise because, as in Russia, the law forced all religious organizations to re-register.

The local Hare Krishna community is unable to re-register its community in Minsk or to register a nationwide umbrella organization because the state refuses to approve its temple building in Minsk as a legal address. Responding to a complaint from two members of the Hare Krishna community, the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded on 23 August 2005 that Belarus had therefore violated the religious freedom guarantees of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The state rejected this conclusion on the basis of Belarusian law – even though international law takes precedence – and has not remedied the situation. The Hare Krishnas are no longer being pressured for using their temple as in earlier years, but they dare not risk public activity. As their representative explained to me, ‘On the one hand we exist, but on the other we have no rights.’

Separate from a valid visa, a foreign citizen must obtain permission from the authorities to work with a local religious community. The top religious affairs official in Belarus decides whether the work is necessary or not and can refuse permission without explanation. The foreign citizen can conduct religious activity only within approved houses of worship belonging to or premises continually rented by the umbrella organization’s affiliate communities. The transfer of a foreign religious worker from one religious organization to another – such as between parishes – still requires state permission, even for a single worship service. In September 2006, a Polish Catholic priest was detained after he celebrated Mass in breach of this rule while passing through Minsk.

These restrictions are felt particularly by the Catholic Church. Catholic seminary education was severely restricted in the Soviet Union, so the Church in Belarus is heavily dependent upon foreign clergy – usually from Poland – to serve its parishes. Of the 430 or so Catholic priests in Belarus, about 160 are foreign citizens. Since the end of 2005, 22 Polish Catholic priests and nuns have been forced to leave Belarus. It seems that the government does not like particularly active or outspoken clergy. In one recent case, a Polish Catholic priest was forced to leave because he organized an ecumenical Christian music festival in the town of Borisov, even though it had state permission. An official from the local ideology department stopped the festival just minutes before it was about to begin.

These are some of the many situations I have written about. As well as interviewing people and keeping a close eye on local media reports, however there is another important aspect of our work monitoring religious freedom as journalists. People often do not tell us about violations of their religious freedom because they are afraid of the consequences. Raising awareness about and encouraging support for religious freedom across society is therefore the most crucial form of defence.

Born in the United Kingdom, Geraldine Fagan studied Russian and German at Oxford University. She has monitored religious freedom in the former Soviet Union since 1999, currently as Moscow correspondent for Forum 18 News Service (www.forum18.org). She is an Orthodox Christian.

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