Russian Blogger Playing Pokémon Go in Church Convicted of Inciting Religious Hatred

Ruslan Sokolovsky, 22, in court in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on Thursday. He was convicted of inciting religious hatred, the same offense for which two women from the protest band Pussy Riot were sent to prison in 2012. (Konstantin Melnitskiy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

A Russian blogger was convicted on Thursday of inciting religious hatred by playing Pokémon Go in a church and posting a video of it online. He received a suspended sentence of three and a half years.

The blogger, Ruslan Sokolovsky, 22, filmed himself in August as he played the smartphone game — an augmented reality environment in which users try to capture pocket monsters — in a Yekaterinburg church built on the spot where the last Russian czar and his family were said to have been killed.

Judge Yekaterina Shoponyak convicted Mr. Sokolovsky, who had been in detention since October, of inciting religious hatred, the same offense for which two women from the protest band Pussy Riot were sent to prison in 2012.

Mr. Sokolovsky’s behavior and his anti-religious videos manifested a “disrespect for society,” Judge Shoponyak said in televised remarks, and he “intended to offend religious sentiments.”

Judge Shoponyak noted that the defendant was on trial not only for playing the game in the church but also for posting several videos that had offended people. She said the video was a “mockery of the Immaculate Conception,” included “denial of the existence of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad” and gave “an offensive description of Patriarch Kirill” of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Speaking after the verdict, Mr. Sokolovsky thanked reporters for having covered the trial and for drawing attention to his case, saying that without it, “I would probably have been sent to prison.”

Russia, once officially atheist, has changed drastically since the fall of the Soviet Union, and a majority of Russians now identify as Orthodox Christians. Although most Russians are not religiously observant, the Kremlin has sought to use faith to promote its agenda. Last month, the Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, describing the denomination as an extremist organization.

The conviction of members of the band Pussy Riot helped embolden religious activists who have successfully waged campaigns to ban theater performances and shut down exhibitions. Last year, activists began collecting signatures to end state funding for abortion.

Aleksei A. Navalny, a prominent critic of the Kremlin who has spent time in prison for dissident activities, denounced Mr. Sokolovsky’s conviction on Thursday.

“I was born and grew up in the Soviet Union, where 98 percent of citizens were atheists,” Mr. Navalny said on Twitter while the hearing was being streamed online. “And now I’m listening to a verdict where a man has been convicted of atheism.”

SOURCE: NY Times, The Associated Press