Hundreds of Religious Organizations in Russia Investigated

RUSSIA: Why were hundreds of religious organisations checked?

By Geraldine Fagan

ICC Note:

The recent  inspection of Russian non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) has many concerned. It seems that even though religious organizations are exempt from many of the reasons that the NGO’s needed to be inspected it didn’t matter, which lead to the claim that “there’s a political subtext.” The true intention remains to be seen, however suspicions have been raised.

5/22/2013 Russia (Forum18)- Many hundreds of religious communities across Russia were among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) inspected by state officials this Spring, in a sweep apparently seeking to uncover foreign backing for political opposition initiatives. It “wasn’t simply the initiative of the Prosecutor”, Konstantin Andreyev, a Moscow-based lawyer specialising in the rights of religious organisations, explained to Forum 18 News Service on 16 May. “There’s a political subtext.”

Yet Forum 18 notes that controversial new regulations on foreign funding for NGOs – including designation of some as “foreign agents” – do not apply to religious organisations. “But because they fall under the category of NGOs,” agreed Andreyev, “they were included in this sweep.”

Results to be assessed at end of May

To the alarm of human rights defenders, NGOs across Russia underwent unexpected government check-ups beginning in March and April 2013. Check-ups ranged from a simple telephone request for documents to multiple, extensive searches.

NGOs inspected included prominent human rights groups, both Russian (Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group) and international (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch). European cultural organisations such as the Goethe Institute, Danish Cultural Institute and Alliance Française were also checked, according to Russian human rights organisation Agora, itself inspected.

Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council estimated that several thousand NGOs were inspected in total, according to a report prepared for its 15 April extraordinary meeting on the check-ups and published on its website.

The results of the sweep will be assessed at the end of May 2013, according to a 23 April letter to Council chair Mikhail Fedotov from Deputy General Prosecutor Viktor Grin, seen by Forum 18.

A press spokesperson at the General Prosecutor’s Office insisted to Forum 18 in March that all questions be submitted by fax. Forum 18 has earlier faxed questions to the Office’s press service but received no response (see F18News 21 March 2013 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1815).

Religious communities included

By 24 April, when inspections appeared to be ending, Agora human rights organisation could name 262 NGOs inspected in 55 of Russia’s 83 regions. Seen by Forum 18, this list spans a broad range of organisations, including those supporting children, consumer rights, the disabled, the environment, prisoner welfare and public health.

Agora’s list also includes hundreds of religious organisations, including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

Agora’s list draws partly on a government list of nine organisations functioning in two or more Russian regions. Seen by Forum 18, four of its entries are religious organisations: the Catholic charity Caritas; the Jehovah’s Witnesses; congregations of the Latvia-based New Generation Pentecostal Church; and parishes inside Russia loyal to the portion of the émigré Russian Orthodox Church Abroad that opposed reunification with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007.

Several entries on Agora’s list refer to multiple Pentecostal and Jehovah’s Witness communities, suggesting that a disproportionately large number of NGOs checked were religious.

While no precise figures were collected, around 100 churches were checked during April out of over 2,000 in the Russia-wide Pentecostal union led by Bishop Eduard Grabovenko, his assistant Ivan Borichevsky estimated to Forum 18 on 13 May.

The sweep affected around 300 congregations out of over 3,000 in the Russia-wide Pentecostal union led by Bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky, his assistant Konstantin Bendas told Forum 18 on 14 May.

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