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Authorities sealed off place of worship – Case against Russia filed at European Court

  • Religious freedom of Russian Christians violated
  • ADF International files case on behalf of affected church leader

STRASBOURG (5 December 2019) – Amidst reports of increasing religious persecution in Russia and in the run up to Christmas, an international human rights organization has brought a case alleging violations of freedom of religion before the European Court of Human Rights. Today, ADF International filed an application on behalf of pastor Vitaliy Bak against Russia with Europe’s top human rights court. 820 million Europeans from 47 different nations are subject to its rulings.

“No one should be persecuted because of their faith. Everyone has the fundamental right to choose their religion and practice it alone and with others, in public and in private. The raid and forced closure of pastor Vitaliy Bak’s property by Russian authorities is deeply concerning for religious minorities in the country. This house was the only place in which his group could meet together. Religious communities should be free to worship without government interference. Pastor Bak’s case marks a dangerous return to darker times in history, when the places of worship of disfavored religious groups were routinely shut down using the excuse of alleged administrative violations. We are bringing this case before the European court in order to reopen pastor Bak’s place of worship and to ensure that Russia guarantees all its citizens their inherent right to freely practice their faith,” said Felix Böllmann, Legal Counsel for ADF International and lead counsel for Vitaliy Bak at the European Court of Human Rights.

Religious minorities in Russia

Bak is the leader of a Baptist community in Verkhnebakansky, Russia. Authorities sealed areas of his property shut in July 2019. Formally, they accused the community of unlawfully using a residential property for worship. In addition, they said the building had not been secured in accordance with Russian anti-terror laws. The first lawsuit demanded a ban on religious activities in the building. At the first level, the court ruled in favour of the Baptist community, but the authorities won the following three appeals. While these appeals were pending, an agent of the Federal Security Service together with police and local government officials raided the building during a festive religious service. After the refusal of his final appeal in Russia, pastor Bak has now taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Vitaliy Bak, the applicant in this case, said, “I bought this house for myself and my family. The Russian law says I can host religious meetings in my private property and that’s what I was doing until the authorities came for us. It started with the threat of legal proceedings and a demolition order, and culminated in a raid during a service and the forced closure of the building. Now I can’t use my own property and my religious community has no place to meet. This affects our friends and families and some have stopped coming because they fear what the authorities will do next. My dream is that our small group of believers will be able to worship together safely and enjoy the freedom protected in the Russian constitution.”

Russia in conflict with international law

According to the US report on religious freedom in 2018, Russia prosecuted members of many Christian denominations and others for so-called “unlawful missionary activity” under antiterrorism laws. Police conducted raids on the private homes and places of worship of religious minorities. These groups report that local authorities have used anti-extremism laws to add to the government’s list of banned religious texts. Officials prevented religious minority organizations from obtaining land and denied them construction permits for houses of worship.

Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right to freedom of religion or belief which includes the right to manifest one’s religion in community with others. Under Russian law, communities with the status of a religious group cannot own property and must therefore meet in residential buildings. Additionally, Article 11 protects the right to freedom of assembly and Article 14 secures freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion.

“Everyone has the right to choose their religion and to express it publicly and privately. This includes the freedom to do so in community with others. By ratifying the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia has agreed to be held to account on its human rights record. Respecting the religious freedom of its citizens is not just a right protected by the Convention, but a litmus test for democracy. We are hopeful that the Court will agree to hear the case of Vitaliy Bak and his community,” said Robert Clarke, Director of European Advocacy for ADF International.

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