A pagan forest ritual was held in Russia's Mari El region after a local official called for "radical followers" of the Mari religion to be prevented from worshipping on government land.
A group of Mari gather for pagan prayers during a ritual in a forest near Yoshkar-Ola -- around 120 kilometers north of Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan region -- on May 30.
The Mari are an ethnic minority of some 350,000 people in central Russia who have been described as "Europe's last pagans." The Mari who follow their pre-Christian religion engage in unique rituals and animal sacrifices in sacred forest groves. The ceremony, photographed by RFE/RL, is one of several held in the region each spring.
In April, a letter from a senior Mari El official called for the "prevention of the use of municipal institutions as a platform for holding events by radical followers of the Mari traditional religion."
The letter sent shock waves through the Mari community, which noted that the official's vague wording appeared to describe all followers of the religion as "radical." Some fear the state may be seeking to take control of the Mari's sacred forest rituals.
The Mari's sacred tree groves are located in a forest that belongs to the state. Official permission is required for Russians to gather in numbers in public.
The ceremony was led by activist and researcher Vitaly Tanakov, who responded to the controversial letter by stressing the "harmless nature" of the Maris' faith. He told RFE/RL the canons of Mari beliefs "do not permit us to condemn anyone."
The activist says: "As in ancient times, the priests called for peace and harmony, so it remains.... This also applies to prayers -- we ask for grace for seedlings, crops, and livestock. And that's all, we don't put forward any political demands at the prayers."
Other religious minorities in the Mari El region are also being pressured by the authorities. On June 1, a Jehovah's Witness whose home is a short distance from where this Mari ceremony took place was given a 6 1/2-year suspended sentence for "extremism."