FaithWorld

Russian extremism law targets religious minorities, dissenters

jehovah (Photo: Alexander Kalistratov leaves a court building in Gorno-Altaysk, December 16, 2010/Alexandr Tyryshkin)

When armed Russian security officers forced their way into Alexander Kalistratov’s home, he hardly imagined they were after his books. The local leader of a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia now faces up to two years in prison if found guilty this week of inciting religious hatred for distributing literature about his beliefs.

“They swept everything from my shelves without even bothering to sort it, even my Bible,” Kalistratov, a street sweeper, said by telephone from the Siberian town of Gorno-Altaysk, 3,600 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow. His trial is the first of a dozen pending against Jehovah’s Witnesses and scores of others caught up in the widening net of criminal prosecutions brought under Russia’s anti-extremism law.

Rights activists say the vaguely worded legislation, first passed in 2002, is increasingly being exploited by the authorities to persecute religious minorities, intimidate the media and clamp down on opposition activists.

“It can be used to target anybody … political, religious or even completely apolitical groups such as labor union activists,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, whose SOVA rights group monitors hate crimes, extremism and religious freedoms. “In practice, it’s a universal tool.

In the case against Kalistratov, activists say local authorities are really aiming at cracking down on groups frowned upon by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church has undergone a revival since the fall of the Soviet Union ended decades of repression under Communism and it has strong ties to the state. It has repeatedly complained that other churches are poaching converts in its territory.

Funeral may show if Michael Jackson converted to Islam

jackson-niqab

One of the many rumours that swirled around Michael Jackson in the final years of his life was that he had secretly converted to Islam and taken the name Mikaeel. The “King of Pop” does not seem to have spoken about this publicly himself, and that scene in Bahrain when he went shopping badly disguised in an Arab woman’s abaya could be put down to his well-known penchant for dressing up. So unless there is some statement in his will or documentary evidence in his estate, his funeral expected this week may be the last time to test whether this rumour has any basis in fact. (Photo: Veiled Jackson greets security guard as he enters shopping mall in Manama, Bahrain with veiled child, 25 Jan 2006/Hamad Mohammed)

The Jacksons are Jehovah’s Witnesses and could be expected to bury Michael in the tradition of that faith. When he announced the death, his brother Jermaine — a Muslim — ended with the words: “May Allah be with you, Michael, always.” Jermaine said in 2007 he was trying to convince Michael to convert.

The post-mortem period hasn’t looked very Muslim so far. Traditions vary, but in Islamic funeral practices in general, autopsies and cremation are out and the body should be buried quickly, usually in a day or two. Jackson is reported to have asked for cremation in his will and his family has asked for a second autopsy after the first one failed to pinpoint the cause of death without long toxicology tests.