Speaking at a news conference, they blamed the government for discriminating against believers of confessions other than the mainstrean religions in Russia.
Anatolii Pchelintsev, who heads the Institute for Religion and Law, says the government earmarks substantial sums to the Russian Orthodox Church while other confessions are denied financial aid.
“Unfortunately, money to build religious edifices is allocated from the federal and local budgets only to the Russian Orthodox Church," Pchelintsev says. "Today we see that the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church drives around in Mercedes and is provided with a federal security service at the expense of taxpayers. Why such love to only one confession? According to the constitution, Russia is a secular state, where all religious groups are equal before the law.”
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), he says, established in 2004 that Russia regularly violates the rights of religious groups.
Pchelintsev estimates that around 15,000 religious organizations are currently active in Russia, although only about one-third of them are registered.
But the authorities, he laments, frequently create obstacles for many of these groups to rent out or buy premises to practice their faith. Lately, he says, visas have also been denied to an unsually large number of foreign religious representatives:
“Attempts to rent out premises are hindered by law-enforcement bodies in a series of regions. Unfortunately this happens frequently," Pchelintsev says. "Lately, there has been a tendency to forbid joint prayer with foreigners of the same confession. Only in the past few months, many foreign representatives of various confessions have been denied entry in Russia.”
On 23 March, a British and a Danish member of the Salvation Army were denied a visa to Russia, Pchelintsev says, adding that the same situation could be observed with Catholics, Protestants, and Baptists.
As a sign of growing religious intolerance, Baptist churches and synagogues have also been vandalized in Russia in recent years.
Participants at the conference highlighted the situation of Muslims, who they say are the first victims of discrimination in Russia.
Since the Beslan hostage tragedy in September, rights groups argue, the idea that Islam is linked to terrorism has gained considerable traction in Russia.
More than 300 people, half of them children, died in a violent school siege in Russia’s southern city of Beslan. The hostage taking was later claimed by separatist rebels from predominantly Muslim Chechnya.
Participants at the conference pinned some of the blame for the deteriorating attitude towards Muslims on the Russian press, whom they accused of spreading xenophobic stereotypes.
Oleg Mironov. who acted as the ombudsman for human rights in Russia between 1998 and 2004, says the ongoing war in Chechnya, which has been claiming lives daily on both sides for the past decade, has exacerbated anti-Islamic feelings in Russia. And the federal government, he says, is to blame for the mess.
“[There are] strong anti-Caucasian and, as a result, anti-Islamic feelings [in Russia]," Mironov says. "The reason for this is Chechnya, they say. Yes, Chechnya probably played an important role. But what happened in Chechnya is the fault of Russia’s federal authorities. They were incapable of preventing the conflict. The mistakes of the country’s leadership can aggravate all these processes.”
Muslim representatives and rights groups have voiced concern over the increasing number of reports saying ordinary Muslims suffered violent or humiliating treatment at the hands of police.
They blame the authorities for targeting ordinary Muslims as part of Russia’s recent campaign to crack down on Islamic extremism and terrorism.
Trials of Muslims accused of links with the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Russia brands a terrorist organization, are also on the rise. Rights groups say there is usually no solid evidence to substantiate the charges in these trials, which tend to fizzle out for lack of evidence or end with a mild sentence.