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Old days are here again

Russia | It's not like the communist era, but Russia and its former satellites are restricting religious practice again

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

During an April court hearing in Kazakhstan, evangelical minister Vissa Kim learned he would pay a stiff price for a common pastoral task: praying for a sick woman. A city court judge in Taraz City fined Kim 10 months worth of minimum wages in the prayer-related case after finding him guilty of Criminal Code Article 111: "causing severe damage to health due to negligence."

Church members said that the pastor had prayed for the woman's health at her request after a church service in 2008. She reportedly stopped attending church and complained to police that her health had deteriorated after the prayer. Local officials charged Kim with harming the woman: Forum 18 News Service reported that a police expert told the court that laying hands on her during prayer was "hypnotizing," and that singing psalms and hymns amounts to "neuro-linguistic programming." When Forum 18 asked a local police officer whether they targeted Kim for his faith, the officer replied: "There is no persecution in Kazakhstan."

Kim and others facing religious oppression in the former Soviet republic would likely disagree, and they wouldn't be alone. Though a handful of religious groups in Russia and the former Soviet republics have long faced varying degrees of oppression from government officials, some report the harassment is growing. A brutal encounter with Islamic extremists who killed 40 people after detonating bombs in a Moscow subway station in March may add to their problems: As governments clamp down on religious extremists, especially in the predominantly Muslim countries of Central Asia, other religious groups may be caught in the same net.

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For now, religious freedom advocates say several religious groups-including Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, and some Muslims-face ongoing hassle from authorities in the region. Evangelicals report that in Russia and a handful of the former Soviet republics harassment comes in common forms: Foreigners face complicated visa procedures, churches face complex registration processes and increased scrutiny, and some indigenous Christians face serious consequences for practicing basic Christianity.

Some examples suggest a wider pattern:

So far, David Fortune hasn't endured serious consequences in his work as a pastor in Azerbaijan, but the Canadian pastor is facing new bureaucratic headaches. From his home in the nation bordering Iran, Fortune says that a new law requires all religious organizations to re-register with the government. (Registration grants official permission to operate as a church.)

The requirement comes attached to strict revisions of the predominantly Muslim country's religion laws last year. In addition to requiring re-registration for all religious organizations, the law also aims to bar any Muslim imam trained outside the country from working in Azerbaijan mosques-an attempt at taming terrorism.

Those revisions have entangled Fortune and his church, Baku International Fellowship, an English-speaking, Protestant church where Fortune has worked for three years. When church leaders applied for re-registration last year, government officials gave a perplexing reply: They didn't reject the request, but they wouldn't accept it. Fortune says they haven't offered an explanation. A similar fiasco has unfolded for many other churches in the country, and the government admits it has processed fewer than half of the registration requests.

For Fortune, that means he faces problems obtaining a visa to work in the country. The pastor says after the government granted one-year visas for his family for the last three years, they denied new visas in January. That's left Fortune pursuing visas for shorter periods of time and pressing authorities for more information. So far, officials have offered little explanation.

Other foreigners in Azerbaijan say these kinds of snags are common. Officials create bureaucratic hoops and perpetuate confusion that makes meeting requirements nearly impossible. "It changes from week to week," said one worker who asked not to be identified for security. "Just when you think you've got them figured out, they flip-flop, and rarely for the better."

New requirements, he said, reflect an ongoing suspicion of outsiders, a desire to protect business interests-including a massive oil industry-and a fear of extremism: "A lot of these new immigration laws are kind of blanket laws aimed at Muslim extremists, and the rest of us are just getting caught in the tailwind."

Foreign workers in nearby nations like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia report similar problems with visa restrictions. An American Christian living in Kazakhstan said the U.S. Embassy notified him that a new law would limit foreign presence in the country: If enforced, business visas would allow outsiders to remain in-country only four months out of the year. For workers using business visas at religious organizations registered as NGOs, the new law could cause major disruptions.

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