Religion News in Brief

AP News
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Posted: Dec 09, 2009 12:31 PM

Russia's highest court has upheld a ruling that halts the activities of a regional branch of Jehovah's Witnesses and bans dozens of its publications.

In September, a court in Rostov-on-Don had outlawed the group's activities in the region, seized its assets there and labeled 34 of its publications extremist. The Russian Supreme Court upheld the ruling, court spokesman Pavel Odintsov said Tuesday.

The list of banned books includes a children's book of Bible stories, and the Jehovah's Witnesses' signature magazine, The Watchtower.

"We are deeply disappointed with that decision," Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Yaroslav Sivulskiy said. "We are concerned that it may affect all our activities, including imports of our publications which are printed in Germany."

Sivulskiy said that the Supreme Court specifically ruled that the 34 publications should be added to the federal list of publications considered extremist. He said that would effectively ban the publications throughout Russia.

"We consider it to be a rollback to the past," Sivulskiy said in a reference to the Soviet era, when many members of Jehovah's Witnesses, including his father, were put in prisons. "The Supreme Court makes it illegal for us to profess our views."

The group plans to appeal to the European Court for Human Rights. Sivulskiy said there are at least 160,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.

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Rastafarian inmates approach 10 years in segregation in US prisons for refusing to cut hair

RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) _ Next week will mark a decade that at least six Rastafarian inmates have been held in segregation in Virginia prisons for refusing to cut their hair.

Virginia Department of Corrections instituted a policy on Dec. 15, 1999, that requires men to cut their hair above the shirt collar and bans beards, goatees and long sideburns. The Rastafarian faith urges followers to let their hair grow unbridled.

Department spokesman Larry Traylor confirmed that at least six inmates have been in segregation for 10 years but said a total number was not available.

The policy, which has been upheld by the courts, outlaws hair styles and beards that "could conceal contraband; promote identification with gangs; create a health, hygiene or sanitation hazard; or could significantly compromise the ability to identify an offender." Inmates who refuse to comply will remain in segregation, according to the policy.

Inmates in segregation are isolated in a small cell, allowed out for three showers and five hourlong recreation periods a week. Segregated inmates cannot participate in recreational, educational or rehabilitative treatment programs.

"This has a disturbingly mean-spirited aspect to it," said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "This is not about corrections. This is not about security, but it's about punishment. In this instance, people are being punished for their religious beliefs."

The ACLU challenged the grooming policy in federal court in 2003 but lost on behalf of Rastafarian and Muslim prisoners _ to whom growing their hair or facial hair is a fundamental tenant of their religion.

Federal law says prisons can only impede inmates' religious liberties for compelling reasons, like safety. The federal courts agreed that the policy was the least restrictive means necessary to ensure the security, health and safety of the inmates. A federal appeals court upheld the decision in 2007.

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Iraqi refugee group seeks Mass. cultural center to teach ancient Mandaean religion

BOSTON (AP) _ Refugee activists are developing plans to build a Mandaean cultural center somewhere in Massachusetts so the increasing number of Iraqi Mandaeans settling in the area can try to preserve their rapidly disappearing two-millennia-old religion.

Mandaean doctor Wisam Breegi said activists hope to raise $2.5 million for a cultural center in Boston or Worcester to offer job training to Mandaean refugees and teach Mandaean religion to refugee children.

Mandaeanism is a tiny, ancient religion that views John the Baptist as its great teacher. Around 60,000 Mandaeans remain in the world after fleeing Iraq and Iran because of persecution.

Breegi said a center could attract one of the world's two dozen remaining Mandaean priests to Massachusetts, where more than 100 families have resettled, making the state home to one of the largest Mandaean settlements in the United States.

"We're getting to be diluted and we're going to lose our identity if we don't do something," said Breegi, who has helped hundreds of refugees resettle in Massachusetts and is leading efforts to create a center. "It will probably take a long time, but I think we can do this."

Breegi said organizers are looking at a number of potential sites located beside a running body of water _ a requirement for a Mandaean house of worship.

The religion does not allow converts, and those who marry non-Mandaeans are no longer considered Mandaean to some. In the 1990s about 70,000 Mandaeans lived in Iraq. Today, only around 3,000 or so remain and another 5,000 to 10,000 live in Iran.