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Russia criminalizes more religious worship in occupied Crimea
18 Jehovah’s Witness communities in Russian-occupied Crimea have just been formally banned as supposedly ‘extremist organizations’. This means that members could now face criminal charges for activities linked with their worship. They will not be the only Ukrainians put on trial for their faith since Russia’s invasion of Crimea. 19 Crimean Muslims have either being convicted or are in indefinite custody on unproven charges of involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization which is legal in Ukraine. Here too there are compelling grounds for believing that the persecution is essentially for peacefully practising their faith in a way that the regime views as ‘dissident’.
Pressure against most religious faiths in Crimea began with Russia’s invasion and annexation in 2014, but it has now taken on disturbing new proportions with individuals facing court proceedings for exercising their right to worship as they wish.
The Crimean Human Rights Group recently scrutinized the official Crimean Magistrate’s Courts website and found six rulings in administrative cases this year alone for religious activities. These, the human rights activists say, are a direct consequence of the so-called ‘Yarovaya package’ of laws adopted by Russia in July 2016, purportedly to fight ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’. There was concern from the outset over most of the proposed amendments, including strict restrictions on what was considered ‘missionary activities’.
On February 9, 2017, Bakhchysarai magistrate Artem Cherkashin imposed a fine on Arsen Ganiev, for distributing calendars and information about planned festivities to mark Mavlid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed and a book in a restaurant. This was deemed ‘missionary activities in an unauthorized place’.
On Feb 18, Yalta magistrate Yelena Bekenstein fined the head of the local Seventh Day Adventist Church Hryhory Stasyuk 30 thousand roubles for not having a sign over the building where the Adventists listen to teachings. On May 11, Bakhchysarai Magistrate Yelena Yesina imposed an identical fine for this same alleged ‘offence’ against an Evangelical Church.
On June 15, Kerch magistrate Khazret Chich fined two people 5 thousand roubles each for taking part in worship at a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ gathering. A Jehovah’s Witness was fined the same amount by Yalta magistrate Pyotr Kireev on June 19. The ‘judge’ claimed that the man had engaged in missionary activities by reading the Bible, singing songs and praying.
67-year-old Vitaly Arsenyuk died of a heart attack the night after a court in Dzhankoy accused him of the same Jehovah’s Witness ‘missionary activities’.
If, so far, these court proceedings have been over so-called administrative offences, that will now almost certainly change. Russia’s extraordinary ban of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in April was upheld at appeal level and came into force on July 18, 2017. The ban on a world faith is in itself profoundly shocking, but it is especially so in Crimea. Russia is in breach of international law over its application of Russian legislation on occupied territory, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are legal in Ukraine, as in any democratic country.
There is also another likely source of persecution. A young Jehovah’s witness from Bakhchysarai was recently told to provide ‘proof of change of faith’ in order to be eligible for alternative civilian service. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden to bear arms and Russia could well soon continue Soviet repression, imprisoning young men who refuse to do Russian military service while being prevented from doing alternative service.
It should be stressed that Russia has no right to conscript any Crimeans, with this, like its persecution on religious grounds being clear violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.
Almost all faiths have experienced serious pressure since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Churches other than the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate have faced all kinds of harassment, with the regulations on Russian re-registration and restrictions on Ukrainian citizens serving to drive many out and / or prevent them from functioning legally. Most also report heightened attention from Russia’s FSB [Security Service], prohibitive increases in rent, etc.
Archbishop Kliment, the Head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate in Crimea, was briefly detained on Oct 19, 2016 on his return to the peninsula just a week after he addressed an urgent plea to international bodies to “take decisive measures to protect fundamental rights of Ukrainians in Crimea”, The Archbishop had spoken of the persecution which the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate has been subjected to since Russia’s annexation, and of the danger which the Ukrainian language was facing under Russian occupation. He called on the international community to help protect the national, cultural and religious rights of all Ukrainian citizens in Crimea. While seemingly wary of provoking international protest by openly banning the Church, Russia has done everything to drive its clergy and believers away.
Protestant churches are in the same position. Back in 2015, Anatoly Kalyuzhny, Pastor of the New Life Church, accused the authorities of being extremely selective in their treatment of religious communities and reported that not one protestant community had received full registration in Crimea. He said then that Protestants had always been viewed by Russia as alien, and that this was making itself felt in occupied Crimea.
Russia under Vladimir Putin has increasingly assigned the Russian Orthodox Church the role of ‘official religion’, and this is being applied in Crimea under Russian occupation. ‘Official’ – and Kremlin-loyal – leaders of other faiths are also given preferential treatment, while others face harassment. Since the Mufti of Crimea decided to cooperate with the occupation regime, the Spiritual Directorate under his leadership has remained untouched. Not so other Muslims.
Armed searches of mosques, religious schools and private homes began within months of annexation, with the FSB claiming that they were looking for “arms, drugs and prohibited literature”. Among the 19 Crimean Muslims imprisoned on unproven charges of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful movement which is legal in Ukraine, several had been earlier approached by the FSB with attempts to recruit them as ‘informers’.
Said Ismagilov, Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine earlier condemned the Russian occupation regime for placing classical Muslim religious works on the list of ‘prohibited literature’.
After the first inter-faith press conference warning of religious persecution in Crimea, back in November, 2014, Said Ismagilov asked bitterly: “Who could have imagined that in the 21st century in the centre of Europe we would be seeing widespread repression unleashed on the basis of religion?”