After Pussy Riot: Russia strengthens anti-blasphemy laws

The relationship between politics and religion is interesting. Russia is an example of a country where attitudes toward religion have gone from one extreme to another. For much of the 20th century the country under Soviet rule actively sought to eliminate religion. Religion was a threat to the power structure of the country at the time. Things changed in the 1990s, and modern Russia now has laws guaranteeing religious freedom. The politics in the country changed and now the church, and in particular the Russian Orthodox Church, enjoys significant influence on Russian politics. 

An example of this is the Pussy Riot case, as reported by Atheist Alliance International in August 2012. This brought to international attention how powerful the Russian Orthodox Church really is and how strongly dissent is still dealt with in Russia. That case relates to the actions of five women of the Pussy Riot collective, who performed a protest piece in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Three of the women were arrested, charged and convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced to two years imprisonment. As reported by RAPSI News one of the convicted three, Samutsevich, has since had her sentence reduced to probation

There was much criticism at the time from the international community regarding the harshness of the sentences handed out to the convicted women. However, the reaction from Russian MPs since then has not favoured the support of free-speech, but rather to seek harsher anti-blasphemy laws. Laws were then proposed setting fines and long jail sentences for those who insult religious feelings. Critics at the time warned that under the proposed laws the teaching of evolution or the Big Bang theory could be considered as insulting to believers and punishable under the proposed laws.

There have since been three readings of the proposed laws, and the state of Duma, part of the Russian Confederation, has passed an anti-blasphemy bill, which introduces fines of up to 500,000 roubles ($15,430) and the possibility of prison sentences of up to three years for “offending the feelings of religious believers.”   

The new laws have been heavily criticized by human rights advocates. Veteran activist Lev Ponomaryov stated that “It's a step back from the secular nature of Russia recognized by the Constitution”, commenting also that the bill introduces terms, such as ‘feelings’, which are illegal. Ponomaryov and others also fear that the new law may be used for political purposes and will put pressure on free speech.

Indeed, and that is the crux of the matter. For while the country has changed from being officially atheist (under communism) to its modern stance of supporting religious belief, one thing that has not changed is intolerance of dissent. The new anti-blasphemy laws show that free speech is not guaranteed in Russia, as much now as it was last century.

Syrian rebels execute an atheist boy

But are Assad's soldiers the only ones committing war crimes? Of course not. Just recently Amnesty warned over increasing war crimes perpetrated by Syrian rebels. Sen. John McCain in a recent interview said that he's willing to excuse war crimes committed by Syrian rebels because apparently he doesn't want an extremist takeover of Syria. He probably didn't hear about al-Qaeda advising Syrian rebels to create an anti-Western state.

Because of the situation in Syria, some might call Syria the playground of the devil. But the devil, in most cases, is religious fanatics often claiming to fight for Syria. In a country torn apart by sectarian violence, there is no difference between a rebel and a terrorist. In fact, many fighters among Syrian rebels ARE terrorists affiliated with terror groups. The cloak of ‘rebels’ only worked for these groups for some time because of their anti-government stance, holding Bashar al-Assad and his regime responsible for war crimes against the people.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the boy had been in an argument with someone about the existence of God, and was heard to say: “Even if the Prophet Mohammad returns, I will not become a believer.” But other sources say that the boy's executioners, who spoke Arabic and not the Syrian dialect, misinterpreted the boy’s comment. The Islamists who executed Qataa are said to belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a militant group that started off known as the Nusra Front. One of the Islamists was heard to say: “Generous citizens of Aleppo, disbelieving in God is polytheism and cursing the prophet is a polytheism. Whoever curses even once will be punished like this”. Qataa's parents say he had taken part in pro-democracy demonstrations in Aleppo.

A latest news story [warning: link contains graphic image] coming out of Syria has shocked everyone and is just another addition to the long list of atrocities committed by Syrian ‘rebels’. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – an anti-Assad Britain-based group monitoring the actions of some Islamist fighters – has reported the death of a 15-year-old atheist boy named Mohammad Qataa, allegedly shot in the face in an execution by Syrian rebels in front of his family.

If Iran and Hezbollah are financing Assad, then Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also financing terrorism by funding al-Qaeda affiliated Syrian rebels. It is very difficult to decide who is committing more war crimes – rebels or Assad’s forces – but one thing is sure: it’s almost never wise to support a bunch of Islamist terrorists against another bunch of Islamist terrorists.

More than 94,000 people have been killed and some 1.6 million Syrians have fled the country since the civil war began in March 2011. While the US, UK and France mull over arming Syrian rebels, leaders should put all the options on the table AND take a look at past mistakes before making a decision. Here is a good article on The Moral Minimum in Arming Rebels highlighting similar past human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing in Libya.

The Church of Anti-Vaccination

There is, however, a loophole in the new law. If parents can prove that vaccination could cause a dangerous medical reaction to their child, or if their objection is for religious reasons, they are entitled to avoid the ban. 

The New South Wales State Government recently legislated that childcare centres are permitted to ban children whose parents refuse to vaccinate them. The decision came after a campaign by NSW newspaper The Telegraph to prevent children whose parents objected to vaccinations, thereby spreading contagious diseases among the other children.

The Church of Conscious Living was created in 2008 and owes its creation to the anti-vaccination movement, with co-founder Jane Leonforte formerly serving as vice-president of the South Australian anti-vaccination group, Vaccination Information Serving Australia. In an email sent in 2007, she raised the concern that moves in the US towards compulsory vaccination may happen in Australia, and that concerned parents should do what they could to prevent it. She proposed a solution: ‘To this end, we have decided to create a ‘religion’, so, amongst other things, we can claim ‘religious exemption’, if the need ever arises, for ourselves and our children.’

Soon after the announcement of the law, the founder of the Australian Vaccination Network Meryl Dorey, who has been involved in aggressive campaigns in regards to the anti-vaccine movement in Australia, has since been encouraging supporters to join the Church of Conscious Living.

As yet, there have not been any moves to amend the law, though Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek stated that any objector would have to consult with an immunisation provider first, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott claimed that there would be a crackdown on exemptions if his party wins the next election. As it stands, the loophole is allowing parents to use a sham religion as an excuse for avoiding potentially life-saving healthcare options, which is neither good for religious groups nor the secular community.

Despite openly admitting in an email that the Church of Conscious Living was created to claim religious exemptions, the law still allows parents trying to get around it to join this sham religion. The NSW Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, has admitted that there is nothing she can do to prevent parents claiming the religious exemption, as “the NSW government is not legally able to prevent people practising a religion or following religious beliefs.”

Are atheists more helpful than Christians?

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The tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma had a casualty count of two dozen killed and hundreds injured, with the cost of damage still being tallied, according to a recent report. Directly after the event, social media sites began seeing a plethora of tweets and posts of the damage from first-hand accounts, as well as a tremendous amount of hopes, good thoughts and prayers – just as anyone might expect. On the ground, many relief organisations moved in to give aid to those whose lives had just been drastically altered by the storms. 

But what were the reactions of those who not only believe in a divine creator, but also claim to know the mind of the creator or have a direct link to the divinity? First, I checked into what the largest, worldwide, Christian organization was doing to see what aid was coming from their leader. The Vatican’s response was to offer prayers, but not aid.  Here are some notable citations from public prayers given by Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome:

“Let us pray for the victims and the missing, especially the children, struck by the violent tornado that hit Oklahoma City yesterday. Hear us, O Lord.  Conscious of the tragic loss of life and the immensity of the work of rebuilding that lies ahead, he asks Almighty God to grant eternal rest to the departed, comfort to the afflicted, and strength and hope to the homeless and injured”.

“Upon the local civil and religious leaders, and upon all involved in the relief efforts His Holiness invokes the Risen Lord's gifts of consolation, strength and perseverance in every good”.

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Negotiations with an Extremist Islamist Group: A Possibility or a Fantasy?

Following all the pre-election and post-election hype, protests and disagreements surrounding the Pakistan 2013 Elections, the government now wants to enter negotiations for peace with the extremist Islamist group TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban). As ironic as it is, a PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) party member even went so far as to call them citizens of Pakistan. Let’s not forget that the TTP has killed thousands of innocent citizens of Pakistan. People are afraid for their lives, in a country that vowed to protect them.

The TTP has an extremist interpretation of Sharia law, and it wants to apply that to Pakistan. It is responsible for many other atrocities that, while justified by Islam, cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. There is no doubt that the majority of citizens in Pakistan are Muslim, but most are moderate and liberal minded; they want peace and do not subscribe to any Sharia law that is against the basic rights of humanity.

Talks and negotiations have been tried, and failed due to the rigidity of TTP’s demands, and the group seems content not to budge on them. TTP members preach that they will keep killing innocent citizens of Pakistan until their demands are met and they take Pakistan under their own control. But if Pakistan is to accept their demands then it is a slap to the very core of Jinnah’s Pakistan: a free state where everyone has equal rights and safety to live. It also dishonours the thousands of martyrs in the Pakistani Army who lay down their lives to protect citizens from these extremists.

Since the TTP is against education for girls, believing in the oppression of women, what can you expect in a Pakistan or a part of Pakistan under their control? A community moving backwards to a barbaric time. Talks are not a way to go forward with a group whose demands put the sovereignty of the nation of Pakistan under threat. If a small scale operation like the Lal Masjid Operation can be put into action to curb extremists from harming the country and civilians, then it is tempting to think that a large scale operation consisting the full force of the Pakistani army, navy, and air force could solve the problem of this extremist Islamist group whose agenda is to send suicide bombs to packed markets and public places with the intent to kill.  But that of course risks injuring innocents and martyring the TTP, encouraging yet more people to commit violence.

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