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Monitoring & analysis of freedom of thought, conscience & belief violations in Central Asia, Russia, South Caucasus, Belarus, Occupied Ukraine https://www.forum18.org
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#BELARUS: Polish priest forced to leave after 25 years

After his last Mass in Grodno’s Holy Redeemer Church on 27 December, Polish citizen Fr Jozef Geza left Belarus after 25 years’ service. Religious affairs official Aleksandr Rumak rejected his bishop’s request to extend the permission which foreign citizens need to conduct religious work. Rumak “won’t comment” on his decision, his colleague Andrei Aryayev said. Last July, Rumak refused the latest request for permission for Fr Klemens Werth. A Russian citizen, he can therefore serve only in an administrative role in Vitebsk diocese.

#BELARUS: Greek Catholic website among religious works banned as "extremist"

A Greek Catholic website and a YouTube interview with a Catholic priest are the latest religious items banned by courts as "extremist" and added to the Information Ministry's "Republican List of Extremist Materials". Deputy Information Minister Igor Buzovsky, who is also Deputy Chair of the "Republican Expert Commission for the Evaluation of Symbols, Attributes, and Information Products for the presence (or absence) in them of signs of Extremism", defended such bans. "This is done exclusively on the basis of the law," he insisted.

#KAZAKHSTAN: Religious censorship at border

For the first known time since February 2020, courts in 2022 fined five individuals several weeks' average wages for trying to import religious literature. Border guards seized the books at Shymkent Airport and at a border crossing from Uzbekistan. A Shymkent Airport border guard insisted that his service had not imposed the two literature seizures at the airport and subsequent fines. "We didn't confiscate any books, we just took them away and handed them on to the police to be examined," he said.

#UKRAINE: First known wartime conscientious objector jailing

46-year-old Christian Vitaly Alekseenko expects to be taken to begin his one-year jail term on 19 January. On 16 January, Ivano-Frankivsk Appeal Court rejected his appeal against his conviction for refusing call up to the military on conscientious grounds. His is the fifth known Ukrainian court conviction since Russia renewed its invasion – the other four men received suspended sentences. "I told the court I agree that I have broken the law of Ukraine," Alekseenko told Forum 18, "but I am not guilty under the law of God."

#KYRGYZSTAN: Violent attacks continue in 2022 and into 2023

Violent attacks against non-Muslims in regions outside the capital Bishkek have continued in 2022 and into 2023, local Protestants told Forum 18. Officials refused to explain why perpetrators are not prosecuted and punished, and what is being done to stop such attacks. When such attacks happen, Protestants stated, "local believers are afraid to complain to the authorities" as "they are afraid of reprisals from the authorities and local mobs for complaining". "These are only isolated cases," Kanatbek Midin uuly of the State Commission for Religious Affairs claimed.

#RUSSIA: Two trials, nine long jail terms

Eight of nine Jehovah's Witnesses convicted on extremism-related charges in two trials in Russia's Far East in December 2022 received jail terms of 6 to 7 years. An Amur Region Prosecutor's Office official justified the jailings: "Any missionary activity of members of a religious organisation liquidated by a court in connection with repeated violations of the law on countering extremist activity will be illegal in nature and subject to liability established by law." The 9 were among 124 Jehovah's Witnesses criminally convicted in 2022. Trials continue.

#BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, January 2023

Forum 18's freedom of religion and belief survey analysis of Belarus notes continuing violations of this freedom and of interlinked freedoms. These include a web of "legal" restrictions on which communities can meet, where, who they are led by, and what literature they may use. These restrictions make the exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permission. Violations have worsened since fraudulent presidential elections in August 2020, and the regime's support for Russia's renewed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

#UKRAINE: Draft law better than others, freedom of religion or belief concerns remain

The Ukrainian government has produced a draft law prohibiting the operation of religious organisations affiliated with "centres of influence of religious organisations or associations with ruling centres" in Russia, but imposing an obligation on the state to prove any affiliation in court. The draft law in its present form raises freedom of religion or belief concerns. If adopted and implemented it may significantly change the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is historically and ecclesiastically linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.

OCCUPIED #UKRAINE: "Disappeared" clergy, seized places of worship, library purge

Russian occupation authorities continue to violate freedom of religion and belief in the Ukrainian territory they currently control. In late 2022 two Greek Catholic priests and a Protestant pastor were the latest known religious leaders seized by occupation authorities. The pastor was freed in January, but it is unknown where the priests are or even if they are still alive. [UPDATE: Russian military seized Orthodox priest Platon Danyshchuk on 26 January.] Raids on and seizures of places of worship continued in January, and a purge of "extremist" books from educational libraries was ordered in Luhansk.

#RUSSIA: Fled fearing prosecution for preaching that war is "terrible"

Moscow Patriarchate priest Aleksandr Dombrovsky fled Russia in January, shortly after police told him the FSB had opened a criminal case against him. He had repeatedly preached against the war in Ukraine. "Everything related to my anti-war position was recorded in a most thorough manner," he told Forum 18. The criminal trial of Fr Ioann Kurmoyarov is due to resume in St Petersburg on 13 February. Fr Gleb Krivoshein became the first known person punished for signing an Orthodox petition against the war.

#UKRAINE: Conscientious objector told "to be ready to be taken to prison"

Ivano-Frankivsk police told Christian conscientious objector Vitaly Alekseenko "to be ready to be taken to prison" on 20 February. He lost his appeal against his one-year jail term on 16 January. "The court gave me the decision to take him to prison. It's my job to carry this out," the police officer told Forum 18. His would be the first wartime conscientious objector jailing. "Unfortunately, the right to alternative service does not extend to martial law," said Viktor Yelensky of the State Service for Ethnic Policies and Freedom of Conscience.

#TAJIKISTAN: Regime bans Ismaili home prayers, lessons for children

At least two Ismaili home owners in Mountainous Badakhshan were fined one month's average wage each for hosting prayers in their homes. The regime banned such meetings in late 2022. Officials told elders on 14 January in Khorugh not to allow prayers in homes, that local people must remove portraits of Ismaili spiritual leader the Aga Khan, and that study at the London-based Institute of Ismaili Studies is no longer allowed. The authorities banned voluntary lessons for children based on a course from the Aga Khan Foundation.

#TAJIKISTAN: Ailing prisoner of conscience again fails in hospital transfer bid

The governor of Strict Regime Prison YaS 3/5 in Khujand refuses to explain why Jehovah's Witness prisoner of conscience Shamil Khakimov – aged 72 and in urgent need of specialised medical care – cannot be transferred to hospital. On 15 February in his absence, Sugd Regional Court rejected Khakimov's latest appeal. Among the 6 other known prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief, Ismaili leader Muzaffar Davlatmirov from Mountainous Badakhshan was in August 2022 transferred to General Regime Prison YaS 3/6 in Yavan. Jailed Islamic Renaissance Party member, Zubaydullo Rozik, was again sent to punishment cell for having a Koran.

#UKRAINE: Conscientious objector now jailed

Ivano-Frankivsk Police took 46-year-old Christian conscientious objector Vitaly Alekseenko into custody on 23 February to begin serving his one-year jail term for refusing the call-up to the military at a time of war. His requests to perform an alternative civilian service were ignored and he has appealed to the Supreme Court. The Defence Ministry insists that alternative service does not exist during wartime. He is the first conscientious objector jailed since Russia's renewed 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Courts have given at least six others suspended prison terms.

#RUSSIA: Tomsk musician's criminal trial to begin 15 March

The criminal trial of Tomsk Christian and musician Anna Chagina on charges of repeatedly "discrediting" the Armed Forces is due to begin on 15 March. She is being tried for social media posts opposing Russia's war in Ukraine, having already received a fine in 2022 for her poster at an anti-war protest which read "Blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)". Tomsk Region Investigative Committee refused to discuss the case. The criminal trial of St Petersburg Orthodox priest Fr Ioann Kurmoyarov is due to resume on 10 April.

#BELARUS: Rent hikes, suspicious fire, enforced church closure, expulsion anniversary

The regime terminated unlimited, free of charge rental agreements with at least four Catholic churches still in state hands. It claimed that, in exchange for signing a new agreement to pay rent, the churches will eventually be allowed to resume using their historical buildings rent-free. "We were told that if we don't sign the new agreement, the church will be given to the museum .. while we'll be allowed to worship there only once a week," said a Catholic close to Corpus Christi Church in Nesvizh.

#CRIMEA: Now 12 jailed Crimean prisoners of conscience

Aleksandr Litvinyuk is not due to complete his jail term and post-prison restrictions until the mid-2030s, by which time he would be over 75. Armyansk Prosecutor's Office refused to put Forum 18 through to Prosecutor Minigul Saddykova, who led the prosecution case in court. Litvinyuk is among 12 Jehovah's Witnesses from Russian-occupied Crimea now jailed for at least six years to punish their exercise of freedom of religion or belief. Two more are serving suspended sentences including Darya Kuzio, wife of one of the prisoners.

#RUSSIA: "Thou shalt not kill" leads to fines

A Moscow court fined Rostislav Charushin for his poster quoting three of the Bible's Ten Commandments which police said "clearly expresses a negative attitude towards the use of the Armed Forces". A Petrozavodsk court is due to hear a case on 20 March against yoga teacher Yekaterina Kukharskaya for putting stickers around the city bearing the Commandment "Thou shalt not kill". Buddhist former leader Telo Tulku Rinpoche – who left Russia in 2022 - became the first religious leader to be declared a "foreign agent" by the Justice Ministry.

#CRIMEA: Five further criminal investigations, two on wanted list

With 12 Crimean Jehovah's Witnesses serving jail terms of at least six years and two serving suspended jail terms, investigators are pursuing criminal cases against a further five. Two more who have left Crimea are on Russia's wanted list and Russia may illegally have sought Interpol Red Notices for them, as it has done for others. Yuliya Burenina of the National Central Bureau for Interpol of Russia's Interior Ministry refused to explain why Russia has sought Red Notices for individuals wanted for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.

#RUSSIA: Two criminal trials to resume in April

The criminal trial of Tomsk musician Anna Chagina on charges of again "discrediting" the Armed Forces resumes on 11 April. She was fined in 2022 for a poster reading "Blessed are the peacemakers". "Many times after [the arrest for the poster], I inwardly turned to these words of Christ and realised that peacemaking begins with what is in a person's heart," Chagina says. In St Petersburg, Fr Ioann Kurmoyarov's trial resumes on 10 April. He says he has been denied medical attention in prison, including from a cardiologist.