05/18/2017, 16.33
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Sokolovskij's conviction and the crime of atheism

by Vladimir Rozanskij

A court sentences the young man to three and a half years in prison for offending religious feelings. He had played Pokemon Go in a church and said he was atheist. Famous TV personality Vladimir Pozner reacts to the controversy. After the of Pussy Riots incident, a 2013 law criminalises offending religious beliefs. The case has embarrassed the Orthodox Church.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Russia is abuzz with the story of Ruslan Sokolovsky, a blogger who was arrested last year for playing Pokemon Go inside Yekaterinburg’s Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints, which was built in memory of the martyred Tsar Nicholas II and his family murdered in the city by the Bolsheviks in July 1918.

On 11 May, a court sentenced Sokolovsky to three and a half years in prison for “offending religious sensibilities”. On 15 May, one of Russia’s most famous journalists, talk show host Vladimir Pozner reacted to the court decision. Speaking live on his evening eponymous show Pozner, on Russia’s First Channel, he made a provocative appeal.

“Dear viewers! I consider it necessary to warn you that I may be brought to trial and sentenced to time in prison. This for me is as unexpected as it is to you, so let me explain.”

"As it is known, I am an atheist. I stridently believe there is no God. It's not that I run around shouting, 'There is no God, there is no God from morning to evening, but I do not hide my convictions. I would like to get an exhaustive clarification. By propagating this view, am I violating the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation?”

"Perhaps [Russian Orthodox] Patriarch Kirill could say whether I am insulting his religious feelings by saying that there is no God. Perhaps the chief justice of the Constitutional Court can tell me if I have the right to think what I think and say what I say.”

Addressing Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Pozner asked whether the lack of religious faith is in of itself grounds for conviction.

In a press release, members of the Constitutional Court stated that they cannot respond publicly to Pozner's questions since there are procedures to follow under the law to make such a request.

In reality, the journalist’s provocative questions centred on the motivations behind Sokolovsky's conviction. The latter do not only refer to his playing Pokemon Go in a church, but also to his insults against Jesus and Muhammed, his statement that he did not believe in their historical existence, and more generally on his "denying the existence of God".

Behind Pozner’s decision to go out a limb is a consequence of the debate in the State Duma when some members said that stating one’s atheism should be viewed as a violation of the law.

The issue raised by Russia's foremost TV journalist in fact goes back a number of years, to June 2013 to be precise, when, under the direct encouragement of the Orthodox Church, the Duma passed new legislation that criminalises offending religious beliefs.

At the time, many warned that such legislation could pave the way for persecution and limit freedom of conscience, of which the Sokolovskij case is a clear example.

In its response to Pozner’s questions, the Orthodox Church denied that it put pressure on the courts.

«We believe that if a person adheres to atheistic beliefs, that does not offend anyone’s feelings,” said Vakhtang Kipshidze, deputy chairman of the Synodal Department of the Moscow Patriarchate on relations of the Church with society and the media.

For Kipshidze, Sokolovsky’s conviction is not due to his beliefs but to his insulting statements. "It is a matter of respecting the dignity of people, not to persecute one affiliation or another world view," he noted. “Both believers and non-believers have the same dignity as all are created in the image and likeness of God."

The case has clearly embarrassed the Orthodox Church, which strongly lobbied for the law that now has severely punished the young provocateur. The latter tried to imitate Pussy Riot, a group that in 2012 ridiculed the ties linking the Church to the country’s rulers. The 2013 law is the result of that case.

Now, disproportionate sentences end up turning against the justice system and the Church itself, seen as obscurantist and illiberal. Likewise, the heavy-handedness against 23-year-old Ruslan threatens to stain further the leaders of the Putin regime, as well as the Orthodox Church and its patriarch.

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