04/30/2013, 00.00
RUSSIA

Moscow cracks down on NGOs, targets religious communities

by Nina Achmatova
Under Russia's new 'Foreign Agents Law', the authorities have carried out thorough inspections of religious organisations, including Muslim associations, Catholic parishes, Pentecostal communities and Jehovah's Witnesses, all except one, the Russian Orthodox Church, to the complaint of some.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - With a headline that read "Inspectors go to church", the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper published a long article on the impact of government inspections on non-profit organisations (NGOs), including religious communities, carried out across the country in February and March.

Some religious leaders note that every religious group, from the Catholics to the Pentecostals, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Muslims, was inspected, everyone except the Russian Orthodox Church.

Officially, inspections are designed to see if these organisation respect a new law adopted in late 2012 that requires NGOs to register as "foreign agents" if they receive foreign funding. Failure to comply with the law entails hefty fines and up to two years in prison.

One in four NGOs visited by the Secret Service, the Internal Revenue Agency and police was religious in nature, www.openinform.ru reported, including 400 local Jehovah's Witnesses assemblies

Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora human rights organisation and a member of the Federal Council for the Development of Civil Society, told Nezavisimaia Gazeta that the list was drafted based on information from the NGOs themselves, the press and police.

Catholic organisations were not spared. On 1 April, the Caritas centre in St Petersburg was visited, as reported by its director Natalya Pevtsova. Police also visited Caritas offices in Moscow.

Unconfirmed reports by the Russian Bishops' Conference indicate that Caritas offices were also inspected in Vladimir, Vologda, Berezniki, Kaluga, Perm, Tula, Tver, Smolensk, Orel, Kursk, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Murmansk and Novgorod.

Officially, inspections were also meant to check for the presence of terrorists and extremists as well as to see if the buildings met the necessary health and safety standards.

A parish in Novocherkassk, southern Russia, was in fact fined for violating fire regulations. The parish priest, Fr Alexei Polisko, who has to pay a fine of 450,000 ruble (US$ 15,000), slammed the authorities, calling their action incomprehensible. With only 9,200 rubles in the parish coffers, "with such a fine, they want to kill us," the clergyman said.

Other parishes in Saratov and the Rostov region-Volgodonsk, Azov, Rostov-on-Don and-were inspected as well.

According to reports by the Secretary-General of the Russian Bishops' Conference, Fr Igor Kovalevsky, even Catholic churches were inspected in Orel and Kirov. But for now, none were penalised.

In its article, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, i.e. the Mormon community, were also visited.

The inspectors inspected the Muslim organisation 'Mercy' in Butovo, just outside Moscow, and the Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical faith, as reported by its director, Rev Ivan Borichevskiy.

Konstantin Bendas, of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians, said that religious organisations in 40 different regions of Russia were inspected.

According to Dmitri Lavrov, secretary of the Advisory Committee of the Protestant Churches in Russia, "everyone was inspected, except our brothers of the Russian Orthodox Church."

Pavel Chikov of Agora said that Justice Ministry figures indicate that the Moscow Patriarchate received the most foreign donations.

"This means that the authorities had reason to check only some NGOs that received foreign funds," said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis on minorities and intolerance.

"Why religious groups were included in the list of NGOs to inspect is not clear, and perhaps we shall never know," Verkhovsky added. "Nevertheless, it is a form of pressure" on such groups.

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