In Kyrgyzstan, the government does not officially support any religion. However, a May 6, 2006 decree recognized Islam, the religion of the majority, and Russian Orthodoxy as traditional religious groups. Members of minority—nontraditional—religions have been denied the right to bury their dead in cemeteries controlled by some local administrations, where burials are permitted in accord with Islamic ritual alone. Protestant families seeking to bury relatives in local cemeteries have been attacked by mobs and denied access to cemeteries by public authorities.
Protests were made by Protestant leaders over an incident in May 2008, in the village of Kulanak (Issyk Kul Province). A mob armed with farm implements halted the funeral of a 14-year-old boy from a Baptist family and refused to allow his burial at the local cemetery. The mob subsequently went to the dead boy’s home to threaten and beat mourners. Police arrived, but, according to one witness, stood by as a member of the mob “was hitting the believers and the father.” Police then broke into the house and “took away the body of the boy despite the tears and crying in despair of the family members.” Police reportedly took the boy’s body and buried him in a shallow grave some 40 kilometers from his village. The family said it was subsequently under pressure to leave the community. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church reportedly assured Protestant representatives at a meeting on July 2, 2008, that Baptists and members of other Christian denominations could bury their dead in Orthodox cemeteries. However, most local cemeteries banned the burials of non-Muslims.
While adherents of officially-designated traditional religions in Russia—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—continue to be victimized by violent ultranationalists, an increasingly high level of violence was directed toward nontraditional religions. In many regions of Russia, attacks targeted representatives of minority Christian denominations associated with the West. Frequent victims included members of various Protestant churches including Evangelical and Reformed Christians, Roman Catholics, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis reported six attacks on Protestant churches, two on Catholic churches, as well as one attack on a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting hall and one on a Mormon church in 2007.
Harassment and violence against members of minority religions and faith communities in Russia occurred in the context of public policies and pronouncements restricting the freedom of religion of those professing so-called nontraditional faiths. These included often arbitrary and overly burdensome registration requirements, restrictions on building permits for places of worship, formal or informal bans on the rental of places of assembly for religious services, and sporadic public statements by political leaders denouncing minority faiths.
The SOVA Center observed in a March 2008 report that government and law enforcement officials frequently made negative statements “about representatives of Protestant churches and new religious movements,” the latter usually described by officials, media, and the public as nontraditional religions or “totalitarian sects.” In official rhetoric against these “new movements” and nontraditional faiths—including Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Pentecostals—the public officials emphasized their “alien” nature and foreign funding, while “accusing these groups of espionage.” The public discourse of hostility toward minority religions, official discrimination that limits the rights of freedom of religion, and the government’s failure to protect religious minorities combines to send a message throughout Russian society that, in the SOVA Center’s view, “religious inequality is a norm of public life,” further encouraging religious intolerance and violence.
The SOVA Center has also suggested that violence against religious minorities was exacerbated by an expectation of impunity for such crimes. For example, on the night of January 6, 2007, young people stormed the headquarters of a Latter-day Saints church in Samara, smashing windows and throwing smoke bombs. The SOVA Center argued that the incident showed that extremist groups were confident they could act with impunity: a statement of the extreme nationalist Eurasian Union of Youths (ESM) took credit for the attack, as well as an assault on the office of the Russian Family Planning Association in Orenburg. The statement declared that ESM would continue to bring pressure against the “sectarians,” and that “acts of vandalism are extremely important for the building of a sovereign democracy and a healthy civil society in Russia.” No investigation into the organization’s role in the incidents was reported by law enforcement agencies.
A number of incidents were reported in 2007 and 2008 in which members of other minority religions and their places of worship and assembly were the targets of hate-motivated violence:
- In September 2007 in the Voronezh region, classmates beat David Perov, a first grade school student whose father is a pastor at the local Christ Community Protestant Church, “for refusing to take part in an Orthodox prayer led by a priest whose son was David’s classmate.”
- In August 2007, three young men attacked the Orthodox Cultural and Educational Center in Istrinskiy District (Moscow Oblast), assaulting the building supervisor and breaking windows after apparently mistaking the building for a Jehovah’s Witness facility. “The Center staff tried to convince the attackers to stop the destruction, but the young men said that they had come from Moscow specifically to beat the ‘Jehovists.’”
Arson attacks, in addition to those already cited, included the setting on fire in November 2007 of the home of the rector of a Roman Catholic church in Arkhangelsk—St. Elijah’s Cathedral -and, in December, the burning of a Catholic chapel in the village of Stanitsa Leningradskaya in the Krasnodar Krai.
Vandals also targeted cemeteries and monuments in the Russian Federation, with antireligious hatred motivating attacks on minority faiths as well as on Russian Orthodox churches and sites. For example, vandals in Saint Petersburg twice damaged crosses at the construction site of an Orthodox cathedral, in June and September 2007. Incidents of antireligious vandalism were reported at six Orthodox churches and a number of Orthodox cemeteries across Russia during the year.
Limited progress in police investigations into the types of incidents described above was reported in the Russian Federation, with prosecutions going forward in a number of arson attacks on places of worship in past years. In Novgorod, Russia, in February, a man accused of burning down a Seventh-day Adventist Church in September 2003 was convicted on charges of “intentional destruction of a property.” He was sentenced to two years imprisonment.
In the annual survey of attacks on religious communities in Serbia, covering September 2006 to September 2007, the monitoring group Forum 18 said attacks were more violent and increasingly directed at individuals, although the overall number of attacks declined. It said police “continue to be apparently unwilling to protect members of religious minorities or religious sites at risk of attack—even if they have already been attacked.” The report found that, notwithstanding a number of robberies of places of worship of the Serbian Orthodox Church, “the vast majority of attacks have been on Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, and other religious minority individuals and property.” There are seven traditional religious communities in Serbia: the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Muslim community, the Roman Catholic Church, the Slovak Evangelical Church, the Jewish community, the Reform Christian Church, and the Evangelical Christian Church. Additionally, six nontraditional religious groups received legal status from the Religion Ministry: the Seventh-day Adventists, United Methodist Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Evangelical Church of Serbia, Church of Christ’s Love, and Christ’s Spiritual Church.
Forum 18 stressed reluctance by many religious communities to report attacks to the police or to make public the fact of such attacks. In some cases, smaller traditional communities that have been attacked have denied being victims of bias-motivated violence—with a view to avoiding the stigma of a church under attack. A new religion law categorizes religious communities either as traditional or non-traditional, and some smaller communities classified as traditional have told monitors “they want to follow the lead of the Orthodox and Catholics in not often publicly discussing attacks.”
A number of incidents in Serbia in 2007 included physical assaults:
- On March 28, 2007 a resident of Stari Banovci (Srem District) held at gunpoint two Jehovah’s Witness missionaries, Austrian Wolfgang Hrdina and American Christopher Kunicki, threatening and insulting them for 45 minutes. The same individual reportedly smashed the windshield of Hrdina’s car, and on April 10 he beat Hrdina about the head and kicked him until passersby came to the victim’s aid. It is not known whether prosecutors have investigated the case.
In its 2008 annual report, Amnesty International criticized Serbia for continued “ethnically- and politically- motivated attacks.” The report cited an attack on Života Milanović, a member of the Hare Krishna religious community in Jagodina:
[Milanović] who had been assaulted five times since 2001, was in June 2007 stabbed in the stomach, arms and legs. In November, the NGO Youth Initiative for Human Rights applied on his behalf to the European Court of Human Rights in respect of Serbia’s failure to protect the right to life, provide an efficient legal remedy, and ensure freedom from torture and discrimination.
Other incidents in Serbia in 2007 cited by Forum 18, apart from those in Kosovo, included arson attacks and vandalism of places of worship and the homes of religious leaders:
- On September 23, in Batajnica, the façade and entrance door of a new Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall was damaged by vandals immediately after it opened. One day later, a police inspector began a series of public lectures sponsored by the local Serbian Orthodox Church about dangerous “sects.”
- On the night of September 16, in Kraljevo, vandals daubed the slogan “Stop Sects” on the Evangelical (Pentecostal) church and an Adventist church.
- On May 29, unknown attackers threw stones at an Adventist church in Novi Sad, breaking two windows and shutters. There were also traces of fire damage.
- On March 29, unknown attackers threw stones at the Vojvodina Province headquarters of the Adventist church in Novi Sad, breaking four windows.
- On the night of March 18, in Sombor, attackers smashed windows at the home of the Adventist pastor, with one stone landing “near the bed of two of his young sons.” Police said the attacker was identified, but he was not charged with committing a religiously-motivated crime.
- Vandals in early January attacked a Brethren church, in Sremska Mitrovica, breaking windows and damaging a door and an interior wall;
- On January 8, in Stapar, arsonists attacked an Adventist Church with a Molotov cocktail, causing serious damage to the interior; the fire department took action in time to save the building.
Other reported incidents of vandalism at Adventist churches included a July 9, 2007 case in which an Adventist Church in Belgrade was plastered with stickers with the slogan “Sects are death for the Serbian nation.” Adventist churches in Sombor, Stapari, Kikinda, and Ruma were reportedly the object of attacks by vandals prior to the Belgrade incident.
Attacks on Serbian Orthodox religious sites occurred in Kosovo
, which unilaterally declared independence in February 2008 and gained recognition by many European states. Attacks were made on Orthodox churches and cemeteries associated with the Serbian minority as well as ethnic Serbs participating in Orthodox religious rites.
- On March 2, 2007, two juveniles were detained on suspicion of involvement in vandalism at the Orthodox cemetery in Obliliq.
- On August 17, 2007, vandals defaced the cross on the gate of Orthodox Church in Gjilan, and wrote racist slogans on its walls, including “Death for all Serbs.”
- On May 30, 2007, five young teenagers were detained for damaging an Orthodox church in Prizren; Kosovo police said the vandalism was not classified as “hate-motivated” but was carried out for “financial gain.”
In other incidents, buses carrying members of the Orthodox Serb minority within Kosovo were targeted with stones. In one case, on November 7, 2007, police said young Kosovo Albanians blocked a road in Suchice village, Pristina, while Kosovo Serbs were celebrating a religious festival in the nearby church. No charges were brought against the three suspects in the case, reportedly because of their age.
Amnesty International found that “fear of inter-ethnic attacks restricted the freedom of movement of Serbs and Roma in Kosovo,” while the perpetrators of attacks were rarely brought to justice:
Buses carrying Serb passengers were stoned by Albanian youths; grenades or other explosive devices were thrown at buses or houses. Orthodox churches continued to be looted or vandalized, including in an attack with a rocket-propelled grenade on the Orthodox monastery in Dečan.
The Kosovo Police Service (KPS) spokesman in August 2007 said attacks on religious and cultural sites increased in 2007, with 52 attacks recorded as of that date, but that “the majority of these incidents have criminal activity, rather than ethnic intolerance, as motive and background.” The KPS claimed to have solved 18 of the crimes.
The right to freedom of religion is provided by the Constitution and is “generally respected by the government.” While most religious groups in Turkey recognize that conditions for religious freedom have improved in the past decade, some Muslim and Christian religious minorities continue to experience restrictions on religious freedom. For many non-Muslim groups—particularly the Greek and Armenian Orthodox communities who have long existed in Turkey—these restrictions include “state policies and actions that effectively prevent [them] from sustaining themselves by denying them the right to own and maintain property, to train religious clergy, and to offer religious education above high school.”
Despite the legal safeguards, societal abuses and discrimination based on religious intolerance occur in Turkey, mainly affecting non-Muslim communities—who represent less than one percent of the Turkish population. Although all non-Muslim groups have been victims of bias-motivated violence in the past, in recent years, predominantly affected are those groups, such as the relatively new Protestant community, that are engaged in legally-protected proselytizing activities, as well as Roman Catholics. Additionally, there have been reports of harassment by police of members of the Alevi Muslim minority community.
In 2007 and in the first half of 2008, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian religious leaders, members, and religious property were the subject of threats and sporadic violence, including murder. The Turkish government has generally responded adequately to the most serious attacks, conducting investigations and prosecuting perpetrators. For example, in October 2007 the Supreme Court upheld a sentence of 18 years and 10 months imprisonment imposed upon the accused murderer of Roman Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, who was killed in February 2006.
Threats and violent attacks have taken place in the context of sometimes contradictory positions taken by government officials regarding certain aspects of religious freedom. To some extent, this reflects a society that is grappling with the growth in numbers of Protestant Christians who are ethnically Turkish, a relatively new phenomenon. (Virtually all other Christians in Turkey are members of a different ethnic group.) For example, the Interior Ministry’s Director General of Laws Niyazi Güney declared to Turkish parliamentarians that “missionary work is even more dangerous than terrorism and unfortunately is not considered a crime in Turkey.” In contrast, when asked by the media whether missionary work was in fact a danger to Turkey, Religious Affairs Director Ali Bardakoğlu responded by reaffirming the right to share one’s beliefs: “It is their natural right. We must learn to respect even the personal choice of an atheist, let alone other religions.”
In the most serious incident of violence reported during 2007, a group of young men claiming to be defending Islam and Turkish nationalism murdered three employees of a Christian publishing house in Malatya on April 18. The killers bound and tortured the three Protestant Christians: Turkish citizens Necati Aydın and Uğur Yüksel, and a German colleague Tillman Geske. Police promptly detained five suspects, students who shared a room in a hostel; each reportedly carried letters saying “We did this for our country. They are attacking our religion.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned the Malatya attack, and a small demonstration was held in central Istanbul to protest the murders.
In the months after the murders, Turkish authorities condemned violence against Christians and acted promptly to respond to new threats. On October 3, 2007, after a formal address to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, France, Turkish President Abdullah Gül classified the attacks on Christians as political murders, adding that “there are no attacks targeting Christians in Turkey, but political crimes have occurred and one of them was against a Christian priest. The murderer was captured and is being tried by independent courts.”
However, representatives of Turkey’s Protestant community continue to express concern about persistent violence. In an October 2007 statement, the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey declared that violence had increased significantly in the wake of the April 2007 Malatya murders, noting that Turkish Protestants had already suffered “scores of threats or attacks” on congregations and church buildings during the previous year. In 2008, the organization reported 19 anti-Protestant incidents, including threats to church leaders and attempts to destroy church property, and urged authorities to take action to respond to these incidents. The head of the Alliance, Zekai Tanyar, stressed that Protestants continue to be intimidated by what is perceived as rising intolerance against their community, particularly in smaller cities and towns. As a consequence, many “are reluctant to go to the police when they receive anonymous threats or face what can only be described as discrimination in their dealings with public authorities: they fear they will only draw more attention to themselves and, in any case, will not succeed.” Although state protection has sometimes been provided, this is only in a minority of cases, such as when there are “serious attacks on church buildings and serious threats to the lives of church leaders.”
On December 16, 2007, in Izmir, Turkey, a young man stabbed Roman Catholic priest Adriano Franchini after mass at St. Anthony’s church. Another priest, belonging to the Syriac Christian community in southeast Turkey, was kidnapped on November 28, 2007 in Mardin, but released after two days.
In other reported incidents, Protestant pastors have been threatened with murder and armed men have attempted to gain access to Protestant churches. In January 2008, a court in Samsun heard evidence that a 17-year-old had made repeated telephone death threats to Protestant pastor Orhan Pıçaklar of the Agape Church there, beginning on December 29, 2007. The suspect was detained on January 5, 2008, and sections of the police interrogation report were cited in evidence. The case was heard by Judge Sinan Sönmez of Samsun’s First Minor Petty Offenses Court on January 6, who reportedly ordered the immediate release of the accused “because of his youth.” In December 2007, the Economist
cited threats against the Agape Church’s pastor in an article on why some Christians currently feel under threat in Turkey:
This has been a bad year for Orhan Pıçaklar. As a Protestant missionary in Samsun, on the Black Sea, he has had death threats and his church has been repeatedly stoned. Local newspapers called him a foreign agent. A group of youths tried to kidnap him as he was driving home. His pleas for police protection have gone unheeded.
Other threats were reported in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. On May 6, 2008, three men sought access to the locked Kurtulus Church. One man threatened the Church’s Protestant pastor, and another threatened a church member with a gun.
In Ukraine, where Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion, property of Protestant churches and other minority religions were targeted in a range of incidents. The Armenian Apostolic Church, which has been in Ukraine since the fourteenth century, has also experienced attacks of vandalism. In April, vandals daubed a swastika on the Armenian Apostolic church in Kyiv, and the next day damaged the church’s bell tower where construction work had just been completed.
The Interior Ministry, according to press reports, said it had registered 873 instances of desecration of burial sites from January to mid-May, 2007 in Ukraine, but apparently did not indicate which targeted Jewish, Muslim, or other minorities. The majority of reported desecrations targeted Jewish cemeteries (see additionally the Survey sections on Antisemitic Violence
); although there were, however, several instances in which Christian churches and cemeteries were vandalized, particularly in the Donetsk and Odessa regions, and in the Crimea. On April 30, 2007, vandals destroyed more than 400 tombstones at the Old Crimea cemetery in Mariupol; police arrested the offenders and the trial was pending at the end of the year. In October, vandals desecrated some 30 tombstones in the form of a cross there, toppling them or daubing them with “satanic” symbols.
In Uzbekistan, a longstanding government campaign targeting independent Muslims and alleged members of banned Islamic organizations has resulted in widely documented torture, arbitrary detention and imprisonment, as well as other human rights violations. Minority Christian groups have also suffered under increasing government restrictions on religious activities. In May 2008, members of minority religious congregations were reportedly “afraid to go out on the street where they live for fear of being persecuted” after the airing of a state-run television film that vilified Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. The film used police footage taken during raids on places of worship and described minority Christian activities as “a global problem along with religious dogmatism, fundamentalism, terrorism and drug addiction.”
In June 2008, 26 Protestant congregations in Uzbekistan published an open letter protesting vilification in the media, which named individual religious leaders and churches. Public school and university administrators had been employed to promote these efforts by pressing students to watch a film attacking religious minorities. The letter said that “garbled facts, aggressive attacks, lies and slander” were used to encourage intolerance and hatred toward members of religious minorities.
In December 2006, state television had screened a similar “prime-time national television attack on Protestant churches” over two consecutive nights. One Protestant commentator protested that “we were accused of everything, including turning people into zombies and driving them to psychiatric hospitals. Everyone points at us on the streets.” The program cited officials of the government religious committee condemning missionary activity, named some registered churches as “illegally operating,” and alleged that the United States funded missionary activity through its Peace Corps program. A deacon of Uzbekistan’s Russian Orthodox Church, who declared that “freedom of faith” was fully respected, told viewers “the spreading of sects can be compared to cancer. Members of such a system, whose mind has been poisoned by false religious ideas, try to lead other people to this wrong path.”
The climate of hostility toward minority religions was also encouraged by state action to fine or imprison Uzbek Protestant leaders for their religious activities. In one case in which monitors were asked to withhold certain details, a family was subjected to ongoing threats and violence:
the daughter of a pastor was kidnapped in April  by unknown young men before being freed in a traumatized state. … The kidnapping is the latest in a series of attacks on the family, which has included telephoned threats, hostile visits from neighbors, and beatings, allegedly inspired by the mullahs at the local mosque angry that the pastor is a convert to Christianity who actively preaches his faith.
Threats of prosecution for unregistered religious activity are combined with harassment and threats by local authorities and neighborhood structures, notably the local neighborhood committees (mahallas
) to which local authorities summon residents to compulsory assemblies. In a September 2003 report, Human Rights Watch described the role of the mahalla system in implementing the government’s policies to restrict all forms of religious expression outside official channels. Then, as now, a principal concern was to suppress “independent” Muslims who practice Islam outside of the government channels.
For centuries, the mahalla was an autonomous institution organized around Islamic rituals and social events, but the current government transformed it into a national system for surveillance and control. Uzbekistan is divided up into approximately 12,000 mahallas, each containing between 150 and 1,500 households. The mahalla committees are local government authorities with the power to administer a range of activities.
By keeping files on those considered “overly pious” in their religious expression, carrying out surveillance, and reporting people’s “suspicious” religious activity to police, mahalla committees assist the government in its crackdown against peaceful, independent Muslims who practice Islam outside government-controlled religious institutions.
Mahallas also organize public rallies in which independent Muslims (and others) “are abused, threatened, and demonized.” These are described as a modern version of public meetings organized in the Soviet era in order to denounce and discredit those acting contrary to the interests of the ruling party. Human Rights Watch, which called these “hate rallies” that target individuals to limit their religious freedom, described the procedure:
They are carefully staged spectacles that function as a form of extrajudicial punishment, shaming and humiliating independent Muslims and their immediate relations. Speeches made by officials at the meetings serve as warnings, frightening people into abandoning religious practices the state finds objectionable or disavowing relatives or friends who have been branded “enemies.” Officials discredit the meetings’ subjects as worthless to society, and as bad mothers, fathers, and neighbors, thereby further isolating such people from the support networks that their community would otherwise provide.
In June 2007, Bakhtier Tuichiev, the pastor of a Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Andijan which was denied registration, declared that it had become “too dangerous” to continue, and said the church was to be closed. He referred to pressure “from the leaders of the local mahallas” and from the public prosecutor.