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Hungary’s Far-Right Meets in Former Synagogue, Uzbekistan Tightens Faith Restrictions

Plus, signs of unrest in the wake of Kazakhstan’s currency slide and a slapped wrist after another attack on media in Montenegro.

by Ioana Caloianu, Sara Fluck, Annabel Lau, Piers Lawson, and Karlo Marinovic 17 February 2014

1. Hungary’s far-right party rally in ex-synagogue evokes fury


A pre-election rally staged by Hungary's far-right Jobbik party in a former synagogue north of Budapest has been strongly criticized, the BBC reports.


Gabor Vona
The 14 February rally provoked protests from anti-fascist demonstrators and the prominent Jewish group Mazsihisz, who accused Jobbik of “provocation,” Al Jazeera reports.


About 100 protesters, some wearing yellow stars, some waving Star of David flags and some holding candles, called Jobbik members “Nazis,” Euronews reports.


They formed a human chain and unsuccessfully tried to stop Jobbik members from entering the former synagogue, which is now a community center, the BBC reports.


“This is a disgraceful event,” Agnes Drelyo, a protest organizer, told Euronews.


But Jobbik leader Gabor Vona said his party did not intend to “provoke anyone, including the Jewish community,” according to Al Jazeera.


Jobbik won around 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 parliamentary election to become Hungary’s third largest party. In that campaign, it posed as a defender of the nation and invoked a fantastical claim that Israel intended to take over Hungary.


One of Jobbik’s leaders, Marton Gyongyosi, suggested in 2012 that the country’s Jews be screened as possible security risks.


Parliamentary elections will be held in Hungary on 6 April.


Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his conservative, populist Fidesz party are leading the opinion polls ahead of a left-wing coalition led by the Socialists.


The mayor of the town where the rally was held, Esztergom, said she had asked Jobbik not to use the former synagogue but could not prevent the party from doing so, according to the BBC.


2. Uzbekistan codifies some, toughens other religious restrictions


Uzbekistan has put legal muscle behind “its long-established de facto severe state restrictions on religion or belief-related literature, films, recordings, websites, and other materials,” the Forum 18 news service reports.


In a decree issued in late January, the government has banned the distribution of such material “anywhere apart from in fixed commercial points of sale equipped with cash registers,” according to Forum 18, which also writes that the government had originally intended to censor religious material imported into the country but has broadened its scope to include domestically produced material as well.


Any material distributed must be analyzed by an expert chosen by the government, a process the government uses to “justify the destruction of books or magazines,” Forum 18 writes. “The official who produced one such ‘expert analysis’ allegedly manage[ed] to within one working day read 1,300 books, 2,100 brochures, 450 leaflets, 50 magazines, watch 200 videos, and listen to 350 audio cassettes,” the news service notes.


Uzbekistan scrapes the bottom of global surveys on rights and freedoms. Only registered religious groups are allowed to exist there, with high hurdles for registration, and reports are frequent of raids of private houses where people are worshipping.


The government says it targets “extremists” in an effort to prevent the “overthrow of the secular authorities and preclude incitement of interreligious and ethnic instability and hatred in a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society,” according to the U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Uzbekistan published last year.


Forum 18 and others have noted:


  • Harsh restrictions on Muslims marking Ramadan and going on the Hajj pilgrimage
  • “Covert and open surveillance” of all religious communities by the secret police
  • Strict censorship of all religious literature, including the reading of the Bible and Koran in private homes
  • A culture of impunity among officials including unfair trials lacking due legal process
  • Many prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief


The Times of Central Asia, meanwhile, quotes an anonymous article on the opposition People' Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU) website that says President Islam Karimov,76, has decided to stay in power for life.


The article accuses the secret police of resuming 24-hour surveillance of opposition parties and rights activists since the end of January.


It says persecution of “opposition-minded citizens” is to be increased and that Karimov – whom it describes as the “old dictator” – is nervous that his government may be overthrown by a combination of the PMU and rebels of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.


3. Protests against sliding currency lead to arrests in Kazakhstan


Police arrested several protesters in the Kazakhstani capital, Almaty, during a 15 February rally against the devaluation of the tenge national currency, Radio Free Europe reports.


The country’s central bank devalued the tenge by 19 percent against the dollar last week, in a move that provoked outrage and panic across the nation as prices rose and shops that sell imported goods closed.


Protesters called for government action to tackle inflation and other economic woes in what Euronews said was the seventh demonstration in Almaty in 10 days.


The government argues that the tenge had to be devalued to match a drop in value of the Russian ruble, thereby keeping Kazakhstan’s exports competitive in Russia.


Public assembly is illegal in Kazakhstan unless protesters receive permission to congregate 10 days beforehand, according to


Police initially did not intervene during the small rally – which began with about 50 people – even when some shouted what appeared to be calls for the ouster of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, reports. Nazarbaev, 73, is the only president Kazakhstan has had since independence.


Police moved in as the chanting crowd, growing in numbers to around 200, marched toward a central square, reports. Several demonstrators, including Kanagat Takeyeva, a leading protester in a demonstration outside the National Bank headquarters last week, were restrained and driven away in police trucks, according to the news agency.


Last week court proceedings began against two opposition newspapers as the Kazakhstani authorities put more effort into limiting press freedom.


4. Cop suspended over failing to protect newspaper’s vehicle in Montenegro


A police officer has been suspended in Montenegro for failing to guard the area where a car belonging to daily Vijesti newspaper was set on fire last week, Balkan Insight reports. It was the fifth attack on Vijesti's property since 2011, according to the news agency. There were no injuries in the latest incident.


Journalists for and property belonging to independent media in Montenegro have been the frequent targets of attacks, and police have been ordered to step up “operational observations of the media and their property,” Balkan Insight reports. In the arson attack last week, the police officer was not at his assigned location.


In January a reporter for the Dan newspaper was hospitalized after an attack and free-press watchdogs decried an increasing level of “impunity” in attacks on journalists there.


Mihailo Jovovic
In December a bomb exploded outside the home of Vijesti editor Mihailo Jovovic.


Dunja Mijatovic, who monitors press freedom in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, cited a “very dangerous trend of violence and hostility toward members of the media in the country.”


Montenegro ranked 113th of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 press freedom index and it has been urged by Brussels to focus on issues of press freedom as its EU entry talks progress.


“Impunity for violence against media personnel is the rule in Montenegro,” Reporters Without Borders said in a January statement. “The tolerance that the justice system shows toward those who attack journalists is unacceptable.”


5. Pope reassures embattled Polish clergy


Pope Francis II has instructed Polish bishops to persist in their fight for traditional Catholic values after heavy criticism of the church’s role in child abuse scandals and its stance on gay marriage, Polskie Radio reports.


The pope, who has made forgiving remarks about homosexuals, met Polish bishops on 7 February to reassure church authorities that no essential Catholic teachings will be altered.


“The Holy Father laughed [on the issue of gay marriage] and reassured us that … he of course does not want to change anything essential in our faith and that he stands firmly by the church's teaching,” said  Stanislaw Budzik, the archbishop of Lublin, according to Polskie Radio.


The bishops met the pope to discuss current affairs in Poland, where the church is struggling to salvage its reputation following recent abuse scandals, which have been widely reported in the domestic and international media.


The church has been accused of drumming up a phony controversy over the concept of gender issues in order to divert attention from the abuse scandals, OSV Newsweekly, a religious news outlet, reports. The country’s bishops released a letter in December arguing that the study of gender – a staple of many Western humanities curricula – was designed to ascribe differences between men and women to cultural, rather than biological, factors.


The letter said the concept of gender was “deeply destructive” to “the person, inter-human relations and all social life,” according to OSV.


Writing in the Guardian, commentator Agata Pyzik said the letter came as a reaction to the emergence of workshops in Poland created to teach children alternatives to the classic idea of marriage.


Although the pope has struck a nonjudgmental tone on homosexuality, he recently said he considered gay marriage an “anthropological regression,” according to Polskie Radio.


He opposed gay marriage while serving as archbishop in his homeland Argentina, and in 2010 he deemed adoption by gay couples child abuse, according to Gay Star News.


Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Sarah Fluck, Annabel Lau, and Karlo Marinovic are TOL editorial interns.
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