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Pokemon Go

Blasphemers? Russia wants to catch ’em all, starting with blogger who played Pokemon Go in church

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 May, 2017, 9:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 May, 2017, 9:46am

A Russian blogger was convicted and given a suspended sentence Thursday for inciting religious hatred by playing Pokemon Go in a church, the latest example of Russian authorities’ willingness to uphold strict blasphemy laws in what was once an officially atheist state.

Ruslan Sokolovsky, 22, was given a 3 ½-year suspended sentence for playing the game on his mobile phone during a service in August in the Church of All Saints, an Orthodox church in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city located on the edge of the Ural Mountains. Sokolovsky was detained in October.

The incident came to the attention of authorities after Sokolovsky posted a video on his blog last year showing him playing the game in the church, said to be built on the spot where the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered in 1918.

The judge in the case said Sokolovsky’s video showed his “disrespect for society” and that he “intended to offend religious sentiments.” He faced a maximum sentence of seven years under a law that prohibits the “violation of the right to freedom of conscience and belief.” Prosecutors only sought half that.

Sokolovsky was convicted under the same law that sent two women from the Pussy Riot punk-rock collective to prison for two years in 2012. The group staged an unauthorised performance against President Vladimir Putin in a cathedral in Moscow.

Judge Yekaterina Shoponyak said Sokolovsky had been on trial not only for playing the game in the church but also for “offending believers.”

She said his video made a “mockery of the immaculate conception,” denied “the existence of Jesus and Prophet Muhammad” and gave ”an offensive description of Patriarch Kirill,“ the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pokemon Go is an augmented-reality game that uses GPS technology enabling players to catch virtual monsters in real-world locations.

After the verdict Thursday, Sokolovsky thanked the media for raising the alarm about the trial. “I would probably have been sent to prison if it wasn’t for the journalists’ support,” he said. Earlier this year Sokolovsky said he “may be an idiot, but was by no means an extremist.”

Human rights groups condemned the verdict.

“While some may see Ruslan Sokolovsky’s comments on religion as disparaging, this alone is not enough to throw him behind bars,” said Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International’s Russia operation. “Make no mistake, this is neither piety nor a genuine effort to protect the freedom of religion in Russia — especially coming after the authorities only last month banned Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is another assault on freedom of expression.”

Russia’s Supreme Court ruled in April that the Christian sect was an “extremist” group that posed a threat to public order and security. The court ordered the closure of the Jehovah Witnesses’ headquarters in Russia along with 395 local chapters. It also ordered the state to seize its property in Russia. Jehovah Witnesses is an evangelical group with 8.3 million adherents founded in Pennsylvania in the 1870s.

Many prominent figures in Russia expressed outrage at Sokolovsky’s conviction, seeing it as a condemnation of atheism. During Soviet times, religion was ridiculed and atheism was actively encouraged.

“I was born and grew up in the Soviet Union where 98 per cent of citizens were atheists,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on Twitter while the hearing was being webcast. “And now I’m listening to a verdict where a man has been convicted for atheism.”