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Rights group: Russian religious freedom in danger

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Religious freedoms are being rapidly curtailed throughout Russia as the Orthodox Church seeks to boost its dominance, human rights activists warned Monday.

In its annual report on religions freedoms, the independent Moscow-based Liberty of Conscience Institute expressed concern that growing state support for the Russian Orthodox Church is coming at the expense of minority denominations.

President Dmitry Medvedev’s inititiative to permanently assign Orthodox priests to army units and introduce religious education classes at state schools could prove detrimental to the idea of Russia as a secular state, the report said.

Those moves breach the constitution and are aimed at “fostering loyalty to the regime,” Sergei Mozgovoi, co-chair of the institute’s board, told reporters.

Attaching chaiplans to army units in particular could incite abuse toward non-Christian conscripts, he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church withered under eight decades of Soviet rule, but has enjoyed a resurgence over the past two decades. The church has more than 100 million followers in Russia and millions more elsewhere. Polls show only about 5 percent of Russians are strict followers, however.

Government and religion are officially separated under Russia’s post-Soviet constitution, but the Liberty of Conscience Institute says ties between state and church have become “symbiotic.”

In a move criticized by the report’s authors, the government is giving vigorous backing to a law that could see the church reclaim valuable property confisciated by Soviet authorities.

Sergei Buryanov, who jointly chairs the institute, accused Russian authorities of using legislation designed to fight extremism to stifle dissent.

Russia is witnessing “a large-scale and systematic persecution” of religious minorities that mainly targets Muslims, he said.

Recent moves against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia has also alarmed religious freedoms activists.

Russia’s highest court last month upheld a ruling halting the activities of a regional branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses and banning dozens of its publications. That followed a 2004 ruling by the Moscow City Court prohibiting a branch in the Russian capital from engaging in religious activity.

The institute said the crackdown on religious freedoms has become so fierce that there may soon be no religious minorities in Russia.

© 2010 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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