Religious freedom in Crimea

CRIMEA: Religious freedom survey, March 2015

ICC Note:

“One year after Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea…the forced imposition of Russian restrictions on religion has brought difficulties for those trying to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. Individuals and religious communities have faced raids, fines, religious literature seizures, government surveillance, expulsions of invited foreign religious leaders, unilateral cancellation of property rental contracts and obstructions to regaining places of worship confiscated in the Soviet period.” 

By Felix Corley

3/28/2015 Crimea (Forum 18)-One year after Russia’s March 2014 annexation of the peninsula, Forum 18 News Service’s religious freedom survey of Crimea notes that the forced imposition of Russian restrictions on religion has brought difficulties for those trying to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. Individuals and religious communities have faced raids, fines, religious literature seizures, government surveillance, expulsions of invited foreign religious leaders, unilateral cancellation of property rental contracts and obstructions to regaining places of worship confiscated in the Soviet period.

Members of a wide range of religious communities have noted to Forum 18 that Russian law includes far more restrictions on religious activity than does Ukrainian law. Some Protestants have told the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission, a joint initiative of Russian and Ukrainian human rights defenders, that they have been forced to halt some public activities they used to undertake, including sports outreach events and preaching outside.

Members of a wide range of religious communities have become highly cautious about discussing anything that could be interpreted as criticism of Russian rule for fear of possible reprisals. This includes a reluctance to discuss restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 notes.

Several religious leaders have complained of state surveillance of them and their communities’ activity, as well as visits and questioning by FSB security service officers. However, they are highly reluctant to discuss such visits.

“Churches and pastors are now trying to distance themselves from politics,” one Protestant told Forum 18. “For example, pastors no longer post material on social media sites. They also preach more often that our kingdom isn’t of this world.”

Only one percent re-registered

Weeks after the 1 March extended deadline expired for the compulsory re-registration under Russian law of Crimea’s 1,546 religious communities which had state registration with the Ukrainian authorities, only 14 have received it, according to Russia’s Justice Ministry. A further two have been re-registered but are awaiting approval from the tax authorities. Of the rest, only about 150 other applications are currently being considered locally, Irina Demetskaya, head of the Registration Department for Non-Commercial Organisations at the Justice Department in Simferopol, told Forum 18 on 18 March. A further 13 are being reviewed by the Justice Ministry in Moscow.

This means that only about one percent of religious communities which had legal status under Ukrainian law now have it under Russian law. Forum 18 also notes that so far, just over a tenth of religious communities which had registration under Ukrainian law have applied for the compulsory re-registration under Russian law.

Without registration under Russian law, religious communities can meet for religious purposes. However, they cannot enjoy the rights that legal entities have, including to enter into contracts to rent property, employ people or invite foreigners for religious activity.

The re-registration deadline was originally set for 31 December 2014. However, a law was hurriedly adopted in late December 2014 extending the deadline until 1 March 2015.

The Justice Ministry in Moscow re-registered two centralised religious organisations: the Russian Orthodox Simferopol and Crimea Diocese (on 23 December 2014), and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol or Muftiate (on 16 February 2015). These needed to be registered in Moscow as they function in more than one administrative region (Sevastopol is administratively separate from the Republic of Crimea). The Muftiate received its registration certificate on 27 February.

In addition, the Justice Ministry website lists the 12 local religious communities re-registered by the Justice Department in Crimea as of 23 March. Nine of them were re-registered in late January, and three in February. Three are Jewish communities and the rest various Protestant communities.

As of 23 March, the Justice Ministry website lists no religious communities re-registered in the administratively separate city of Sevastopol.

Effort and expense

The registration documents list the extensive range of documents religious communities wanting re-registration were required to submit. These included: each organisation’s statute, two records of community meetings, and an official instruction, as well as a list of all the community members, a notarised copy, information on the “bases of the religious belief”, and a letter of guarantee.

Religious communities have complained to the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission of the effort and the expense of assembling all this documentation for re-registration applications.

Aleksandr Selevko, head of the Religious Affairs Department at Crimea’s Culture Ministry in Simferopol, admits that the re-registration process has been chaotic and difficult for many religious communities. “We wrote several times to the Council of Ministers asking for a solution to these problems,” he told Forum 18 on 25 March.

However, Lyudmila Lubina, Crimea’s government-appointed human rights Ombudsperson, said that no religious community had complained to her about any difficulties over re-registration. “I admit that the re-registration procedure is much more difficult than in Ukraine,” she told Forum 18 from Simferopol on 10 March. “It’s the same whether it’s a religious or commercial organisation.”

150 initial rejections

About 150 re-registration applications were refused in the months up to the original re-registration deadline of the end of 2014, Demetskaya admitted to Forum 18. “The first sets of documents were very bad,” she claimed, without specifying what had been wrong with them. “They were all corrected and resubmitted.”

Among those initially returned were all twenty Jehovah’s Witness applications. Also among those rejected the first time were the applications from the Catholic Church, whose Crimean parishes are part of the Odessa and Simferopol Diocese. They were rejected because some of the documentation was in Ukrainian. The Church resubmitted the amended applications to the Justice Ministry in Moscow on 21 January 2015.

[Full Story]

ICC is on a mission to help persecuted Christians. Will you join us?