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More than half of the Russian republic of Mari El's 700,000 residents are ethnic Mari. (file photo)

YOSHKAR-OLA, Russia -- Members of Russia's Mari minority have voiced concern over what they see as efforts to restrict the practice of their ancient pagan religion.

Mikhail Danilov, the minister for domestic development in the western Russian republic of Mari El, has instructed local authorities not to allow "radically-inclined followers of the Mari traditional religion" to worship on municipal property.

The written instructions were issued in April but only became known to the public on May 19.

Local residents told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that they were "offended" by the instructions.

One of the residents said that the aim was to "establish stricter control over worship."

Igor Kudryavtsev, the head of regional organization that promotes Mari language and culture, told RFE/RL that it intended to issue a statement within the next few days.

Around 52 percent of Mari El's 700,000 residents are ethnic Mari. The community is working to preserve its traditions and Finno- Ugric language.

Their religion is based on worshipping the forces of nature.

Kazakhstan - Administrator of the satirical public Qaznews24 Temirlan Ensebek at the exit from the police building. Almaty, 15May2021.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging Kazakhstan to drop charges against a 25-year-old blogger accused of "disseminating knowingly false information" on his now defunct satirical Instagram account.

Police detained Temirlan Ensebek for questioning on May 15 after they searched his home in the Central Asian nation’s largest city, Almaty, and confiscated a laptop and two mobile phones.

If convicted, Ensebek could face up to three years in prison.

Ensebek created the Qaznews24 Instagram page last month in which he joked about the situation in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic and mocked, among other things, the state sponsored personality cult around former President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The Qaznews24 account had garnered more than 5,000 followers before being deleted.

"Respecting and protecting free speech means allowing people to express criticism and satire without fear of retribution," HRW said in a statement on May 20.

The New York-based human rights watchdog urged the Kazakh government to "amend or repeal laws that criminalize peaceful expression of critical views, such as article 274 of the Criminal Code, to prevent further arbitrary prosecutions that violate human rights."

"The authorities may be trying to send the message that satire has no place in Kazakhstan, but all they have shown is that they can't take a joke."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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