Government authorities continued to detain, imprison, and fine members of minority religious groups. Police conducted raids on the private homes and places of worship of minority religious groups, disrupting religious services and confiscating religious publications they deemed “extremist.” Authorities revoked the status of some minority religious groups, forcing them to suspend their activities, and imposed a number of restrictions that infringed on the religious practices of other minority religious groups, in particular Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Scientologists, including limiting their ability to obtain land and build places of worship. The MOJ declared a Jewish charity organization to be a “foreign agent.” The government granted privileges to the ROC that were accorded to no other religious group.
In June the Moscow District military court convicted eight people for cooperating with the international pan‑Islamic political organization Hizb ut‑Tahrir, issuing sentences ranging between approximately five and 10 years’ imprisonment in a penal colony. They were found guilty under provisions of the law dealing with participating in the activity of an extremist organization and organizing and participating in the activities of a terrorist organization.
In August police in Stavropol Kray detained five members of the Old Russian Ingilistic Church of Orthodox Old Believers‑Ingilings, a neopagan group, on suspicion of inciting religious and ethnic hatred. Authorities said the detainees, whose organization’s activities they had previously declared extremist and banned, were spreading their teachings on the internet and holding regular meetings. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
In February Federal Security Service (FSB) officers detained more than 20 Muslims suspected of belonging to Hizb ut‑Tahrir in Ufa and a number of municipalities in Ufimsky and Chishminsky Districts of Bashkortostan, in connection with a criminal case under the section of the criminal code dealing with organizing the activities of a terrorist organization. FSB agents searched 30 homes, seizing what they deemed to be extremist literature, leaflets, and electronic media. The detainees included Rustem Latypov, the head of the Center for Research of Muslim Issues, an NGO, and Lenar Vakhitov, the leader of the For the Rights of the Muslims movement.
In August news media reported authorities charged Semyon Tykman, a teacher at an Ohr Avner Foundation‑sponsored Jewish school, with “instigation of hatred and humiliation of human dignity.” If convicted, Tykman could face up to four years’ imprisonment. The Sverdlovsk Oblast branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee refused to provide further information on the case.
The FSB made more than 25 raids against suspected Hizb ut‑Tahrir groups, confiscating what it said was extremist literature and communications equipment. In October the FSB detained 22 Hizb ut‑Tahrir members in Moscow during a joint raid with the Interior Ministry. The SOVA Center, a research NGO focused on nationalism, xenophobia, and state‑religious group relations, considered this case to be pretextual, in line with its view that terrorist accusations against Hizb ut‑Tahrir followers were illegal if based solely on party activities such as reading literature or conducting meetings.
In November a court in Novosibirsk dismissed charges against 15 of 16 followers of Tablighi Jamaat who had been indicted for participating in the activity of an extremist organization, because the statute of limitations had expired. All 16 had been accused of disseminating ideas of a banned organization, recruiting followers, and participating in Tablighi Jamaat meetings. The trial of the remaining defendant, Dzhurahudzhaeva Ibrahim, a citizen of Tajikistan charged with illegally crossing the border, was pending at year’s end.
Two years after police raided two Muslim homes in Krasnoyarsk during celebrations of the end‑of‑Ramadan festival of Eid al‑Fitr, prosecutors dropped criminal charges of “extremism” against Yelena Gerasimova, as the two‑year statute of limitations to complete cases had expired. The other homeowner, Tatyana Guzenko, was fined three months’ average local wages (100,000 rubles, $1,355). Also in Krasnoyarsk, the criminal trial of three other Muslim men on extremism charges began in July.
In April Baptist pastor Pavel Pilipchuk was imprisoned for five days in Orel after refusing to pay a fine for organizing an open air meeting for worship without informing the city administration beforehand. He was initially fined 20,000 rubles ($271) in 2014, and the court doubled the fine for nonpayment.
In January a member of the Church of Evangelical Christians‑Baptists was arrested in Tomsk and charged with holding an unauthorized public event after police found him handing out copies of the New Testament and Psalms to people on the street. A court fined the man 10,000 rubles ($136).
A 50‑year‑old woman in Krasnoyarsk was convicted of extremism and sentenced to pay a fine of 10,000 rubles ($136) August 13 for reading and discussing works of Sunni Muslim theologian Said Nursi. She was also found to have materially supported the “organization” of Nurjular by conducting meetings. The government continued to ban Nurjular, which it stated was a religious association of followers of Nursi. Religious rights advocates and followers of Nursi said a Nurjular organization did not exist.
On November 23, the Moscow city court banned the activity of the Church of Scientology of Moscow and ordered that it be dissolved. The court accepted the MOJ’s argument that the term Scientology was trademarked and thus could not be considered a religious organization covered by the constitution’s freedom of religion clause. The MOJ also stated the Church of Scientology conducted its business in St. Petersburg, contrary to the charter identifying Moscow as the location of all activity.
Throughout the year, authorities attempted to dissolve a number of minority religious associations on grounds they were conducting extremist activity.
On August 5, the Supreme Court confirmed the Krasnodar Regional Court’s decision to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Krasnodar Territory. The Krasnodar Regional Court had ruled in March that a local Jehovah’s Witnesses group in Abinsk was an extremist organization and ordered it to disband. The court cited the distribution of brochures included on the federal list of extremist materials by one of the group’s members as a basis for its decision. Following the court ruling, the prosecutor warned the organization to discontinue the activity, but members continued to distribute religious literature. The group’s legal defense had appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the decision was unlawful and unreasonable, and a violation of constitutional rights.
In July the government banned JW.ORG, the official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, when the MOJ added the website to the federal list of extremist materials. Internet providers throughout the country blocked access to the website, and it became a criminal offense to promote it from within the country.
According to the MOJ, the government approved 1,335 new registrations of religious organizations, most of which were ROC‑affiliated.
In February the Supreme Court upheld a local government ban on hijabs in schools in the region of Mordovia, dismissing the appeal of the Muslim community of Mordovia. Mordovian Minister of Education Dmitry Livanov said he believed children wearing hijabs should study at religious schools. Representatives of the Mordovian Muslim community stated the ban violated their constitutional right to freedom of faith.
Across the country, police with the support of local authorities conducted raids on minority religious groups, in private homes and places of worship, confiscating and destroying religious literature and other property.
Religious minorities said local authorities utilized the country’s anti‑extremism laws to ban sacred and essential religious texts. The MOJ’s list of extremist materials grew to 3,209 entries from 2,500 at the end of 2014, including 69 texts from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, four from Falun Gong, and seven from Scientology. Items added to the list of extremist materials included neo‑Nazi internet videos, the book Islamic Aqeedah by Jamila Muhammad Zina, and some materials by Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church Andrey Maklakov.
In October security forces raided the offices of the Church of Scientology of Moscow, stating the organization used office recording devices and video cameras to conduct surveillance of members of the church. Authorities opened a criminal investigation, which was continuing at year’s end.
In a retrial on November 30, the Taganrog city court convicted 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses of extremism, issuing suspended prison sentences to four Church elders and fines for all 16 defendants, ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 rubles ($271 to $1,355), which the court also suspended. In the court’s previous July 2014 decision, the judge had convicted only the four Church elders and three others, finding the remaining nine Church members not guilty. The Rostov regional court had ordered a retrial in December 2014.
In December the prosecutor’s office in Shakhti fined two Jehovah’s Witnesses for proselytizing in the city’s central park, stating they violated the law regulating meetings and failed to submit notification about a public event. The prosecutor’s office stated Witnesses also displayed religious literature containing a reference to the banned Jehovah’s Witnesses website. The Witnesses were fined 10,000 rubles ($136) each and warned they could be held responsible for “extremist activity” if they continued their activities.
Authorities utilized laws protecting religious groups to punish individuals protesting against the ROC.
In September a court found a Kaluga resident guilty of “mockery of the institution of monasticism” for posting on his VKontakte social network page pictures “designed to discredit the Christian faith, church traditions…and the very institution of the [ROC] Church.” The man pleaded guilty to the charges and received a 350,000 ruble fine ($5,054).
In November a court in Arkhangelsk convicted a resident for “inciting social hatred against religion” after investigators found he had published texts on his Twitter account directed against the ROC. The court sentenced him to 120 hours of compulsory labor.
In August a court in Yuzhno‑Sakhalinsk ruled as extremist a 32‑page book entitled The Prayer [Dua] to God: Its Meaning and Place in Islam for containing “a concealed appeal to commit illegal extremist actions” and stating the “superiority of one group of people to other people on the basis of their attitude to religion, their affiliation with Islam.” The ruling prompted protests from the Muslim community, including the Chechen Head (of government), Ramzan Kadyrov. In September Muslims in Yuzhno‑Sakhalinsk planned to hold demonstrations against the ruling, but cancelled the rallies due to pressure from the FSB, according to a Russian Far East Islamic community news portal. In November a higher court reversed the original court’s ruling.
In May the Kirovsky District Prosecutor's Office of Yekaterinburg seized books on Jewish traditions and training notebooks from the library of Or Avner, a Jewish grammar school, in order to examine them for “the presence of extremist materials in these books.” According to Rabbi Zelig Ashkenazi, approximately 100 books were seized.
In September the Bashkortostan’s prosecutors office declared 13 Hizb ut‑Tahrir texts extremist.
On November 18, the principal of the private English school PM ‑ Studio in Chelyabinsk was fined 2,000 rubles ($27) for circulating the book What is Scientology? which the MOJ had listed as “extremist material” in 2010, along with several other books by Scientology’s founder.
In August following raids on two mosques, prosecutors in Mordovia seized literature included on the federal list of extremist materials. The titles of the books and pamphlets were not made public.
In January journalists in Kamchatka reported they received a letter from the Kamchatka Krai agency supervising personal data protection, mass communications, and information technology advising them not to publish caricatures of religious figures or reference hyperlinks to other media that published such caricatures. Kamchatka officials warned it would be a violation of federal law “on countering extremist activity” to publish such materials.
As of August customs agents had seized at least 10.5 million books and pamphlets from Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country, according to a representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The representative stated that, beginning in March, the government had stopped the importation of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ liturgical books, based on the suspicion such books might contain extremist material. According to the representative, the government did not recognize the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of the Bible as falling under the protection of the October amendment making it illegal to declare key texts of the four traditional religions as extremist. He said seized literature included 4,000 copies of the Bible, of which 1,881 were in the Ossetian language.
In September an Arkhangelsk regional court dismissed an extremism case against Jehovah’s Witnesses members from Kotlas. Following a search of a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ church, authorities had seized 632 copies of religious books they said were on the federal list of extremist materials. The court determined the publications were not extremist in nature.
Local officials continued to prevent religious organizations from obtaining land and denied construction permits for houses of worship. In some cases, authorities also announced plans to confiscate places of worship. In at least one publicized case, local authorities worked with a minority religious group to approve the construction of a new facility.
The Moscow Cathedral Mosque opened September 23 with a ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The facility, built with mostly private funds, could accommodate approximately 10,000 people during services, but Muslim leaders stated Moscow’s four mosques were inadequate for Moscow’s estimated two million Muslims. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin continued to refuse permits for new mosque construction and the Moscow Muslim community continued to speak out about a lack of mosques in the city.
In July authorities in the city of Ussuriisk began the process of confiscating a newly built mosque, citing a “failure to register” the property, and ordering the mosque be disconnected from the city power grid. Local Muslims said the city intended to auction the property and they had received an invitation to bid on it from the city.
In September St. Petersburg Governor Georgyj Poltavchenko cancelled the construction permit for a new ROC church in the city’s Malinovka Park. City officials cited local residents’ objections and legal violations by the project’s investor as reasons for the cancellation and offered the ROC a different site in the same district.
The federal agency in charge of consumer rights announced plans to appeal to the Supreme Court to revoke the construction permit for a Lutheran church that had received approval to build a church on the grounds of a park in Yekaterinburg. According to the government, the church should not be built in the park because the grounds, which contained an abandoned cemetery, were of historic and cultural significance. The Lutherans argued the construction fully conformed to the law governing the transfer of religious property from municipalities to religious organizations, since the Lutheran community had previously held services in the park. In August the Sverdlovsk Oblast vice prime minister criticized opponents of the construction of the church, calling them “extremists,” and accusing them of “creating interethnic and interconfessional tensions.”
The Lutheran Community Council in Yekaterinburg filed a complaint with the regional prosecutor’s office, stating protesters who put up a sign reading “Hitler was also a Lutheran” and painted Nazi symbols on the existing Lutheran Church were inciting conflict. In December the mayor of Yekaterinburg prohibited the construction of the church from going forward.
In August Stanislav Bashankaev, a ruling United Russia Party member, announced an agreement with the Chechen deputy minister of economic and territorial development and trade to build the first Buddhist temple in the North Caucasus. The facility was to be named “Paradise Pagoda” and built in Grozny, the Chechen capital.
Unlike in previous years, when only minority religious organizations faced difficulties in obtaining restitution of properties previously confiscated, the ROC reported difficulty in reclaiming its former properties.
In September the St. Petersburg governor’s office rejected a proposed return of the iconic St. Isaac’s Cathedral (currently a museum) to the ROC. Officials cited public opposition to the transfer and the city’s inability to finance maintenance of the historic building without income from admission fees. Church representatives said the decision was illegal and planned to appeal it.
In October the NGO Union of Museums of Russia proposed the introduction of a temporary moratorium on the transfer back to the ROC of former religious buildings currently serving as museums.
Following accusations of harassment against Muslim prisoners in Kurgan, a July probe by the Kurgan Public Supervisory Commission revealed Muslim inmates were subjected to various forms of religious discrimination. The prison administration banned inmates from attending religious services at the on‑site mosque and confiscated Qurans and prayer rugs. Some Muslim prisoners were held in solitary confinement under “contrived” pretenses, according to a relative of one of the prisoners. Human rights activists reported the prison’s Orthodox church was always open, but the mosque was frequently closed. Authorities prohibited copies of the Quran in the original Arabic in the prison, stating they needed to examine the contents for extremism.
While neither the constitution nor the law accorded explicit privileges or advantages to the ROC, in practice the government cooperated more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations. The ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries, giving it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, police, and the military forces. The government also provided the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded no other religious organization. According to a report by the Center for Economic and Political Reforms, a local NGO established in 2015, major presidential grants benefited organizations either directly controlled by or having ties to the ROC as a form of “hidden government support” for the ROC. The report stated the government allocated at least 63 grants totaling more than 256 million rubles ($3.5 million) from 2013‑2015 to ROC‑related organizations that were close to the government.
In October the FSB ordered a prominent Tibetan Buddhist lama, Shiwalha Rinpoche, who had lived in Tuva for 11 years, to leave the country. In the expulsion order the FSB cited the law regulating entries and departures from national territory, noting foreign citizens could be declared “undesirable” if they posed “a genuine threat to national defense and security, to public order, or to public health,” or if their expulsion ensured “the protection of the constitutional system, of the morals, rights, and legal interests of others.” Shiwalha told media “last year, FSB officials came to one of [my] lectures,” where “they listened and then suggested that [I] give fewer sermons.” Shiwalha departed the country October 16, despite an announcement by the Tuva government that it would appeal the expulsion order to the Supreme Court.
In September during the Rosh Hashanah holiday, the MOJ designated the Jewish Community Cultural Center Hesed‑Teshuva in Ryazan as a “foreign agent.” The cultural center received donations from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The finding required the organization to indicate this designation on all its publications or face fines of at least 300,000 rubles ($4,065.) In the past, the connotations of such a designation often hindered the ability of organizations to carry on their work. The MOJ website stated the cultural center was designated as a “foreign agent” due to its “political activities,” which it described as “conducting public events, shaping public opinion.” The cultural center subsequently posted on its website and included in its publications the legally‑required language indicating its inclusion on the “foreign agent” list.
In June city authorities in the central city of Nizhnevartovsk wrote several yoga studios, asking them to stop holding classes in municipal buildings in an effort to “prevent the spread of new religious cults and movements.” Local authorities scheduled consultations on July 7 to determine whether yoga classes should be permitted in municipal buildings. By year’s end there was no information as to whether the authorities had reached a final determination on this issue.