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31 March 2009

UZBEKISTAN: Cleric takes part in police raid on religious community

Police in Uzbekistan "decided to invite" a Russian Orthodox priest to take part in a raid on a group of Baptists, a police officer has told Forum 18 News Service. Father Igor Skorik of Almalyk's Assumption of the Mother of God Church pressured Baptists not to attend unregistered worship and to come to his church instead, church members told Forum 18. The use of a cleric of one religious community to pressure members of another in cooperation with the authorities is a disturbing new development. The raid on a private home was led by Major Urazali Kholbekov, from the Tashkent Regional Criminal Investigation and Counter-Terrorism Department, who apparently arranged for Fr Skorik to take part in the raid. Fr Igor claimed he did not violate the law by taking part. "I was not there to check up on the Baptists but to just advise them," he insisted. Local Baptists point out that the raid and Fr Skorik's participation violates both Uzbek law and international human rights law. Church members were arrested, and police claimed Baptists were "at risk of danger in the case of a terrorist act which could be carried out by people in their home".

24 February 2009

AZERBAIJAN: Literature censorship for export also?

Azerbaijan's wide-ranging religious literature censorship system has started to affect the export of such literature, Forum 18 News Service has found. Customs authorities recently confiscated Christian religious literature from Azerbaijani citizens leaving Azerbaijan. No mention is made in Azerbaijan's laws of censorship of religious literature taken out of the country. Similarly, Forum 18 was told by a customs official that customs regulations are also silent on this point. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, speaking after the confiscation of Muslim literature, told Forum 18 that "our society doesn't need books that don't suit our laws and our beliefs." He claimed that unspecified religious literature could cause unspecified "social harm and possibly inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence." Jehovah's Witnesses have filed three lawsuits specifically against the censorship system, which, they point out, is a violation of the right to religious freedom as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party.

12 February 2009

AZERBAIJAN: Pastor convicted not jailed, insists charges fabricated

Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov has been convicted of possessing an illegal weapon, but insists that he is innocent. "I will continue to fight against this sentence and to clear my name," he told Forum 18 News Service. Unless Shabanov's conviction is quashed, he will have a criminal record. The head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 though that "the main thing is that Hamid won't have to go to prison." Both the prosecutor and police have refused to talk to Forum 18 about the case and conviction. Concern is being expressed about the arrest of one of Shabanov's relatives, Teyyub Eyvazov, who police claim possessed drugs. Some Baptists think that this is the latest attempt by the authorities to pressure them, although Eyvazov is not a Christian. Meanwhile, yet another raid has been made on a Jehovah's Witness meeting. "It is ironic that at the previous police raid in Gyanja the police said we did not have registration and therefore our meeting was unlawful," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. "But why, then, do they also raid meetings in Baku, where we do have registration?"

29 January 2009

AZERBAIJAN: Government still keeps Mosque, Baptist church, and Georgian Orthodox churches closed

Five months after the authorities closed the Abu-Bekr Mosque in Azerbaijan's capital Baku, the mosque community is still banned form worshipping in it, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Another appeal is due to be heard on 19 February. No official has been able to explain to Forum 18 why the Mosque should remain closed, or why a Baptist church is also kept closed. A court has told the Mosque's lawyer that giving reasons is "not appropriate." The authorities have also refused to explain to Forum 18 why an unpublished nationwide ban on praying outside mosques, when mosques are full, remains in force. Also banned from meeting in their own place of worship are Georgian Orthodox villagers in north-west Azerbaijan. The Georgian Orthodox Church would like to fully reopen four churches in the region, and establish a monastery. At present the authorities allow worship lasting no more than 30 minutes in only three of the churches only. "But our services need at least an hour and a half," Bishop Sergi Chekurishvili told Forum 18. He fears that many Georgian Orthodox are deprived of the sacraments, and can die without access to communion.

28 January 2009

AZERBAIJAN: Unregistered worship "illegal" - but under what law?

Police in Azerbaijan have raided another Jehovah's Witness meeting, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the latest raid, nine Jehovah's Witnesses were detained and threatened. "We consider the police raid unlawful since the Constitution of Azerbaijan gives us the right to gather for worship and Azerbaijani law does not require registration to come together to study the Holy Scriptures," a Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18. The community will continue to meet, he insisted. Officials repeatedly insist that unregistered worship is banned by the Administrative Code. Article 299 of this Code lists three "offences": avoiding state registration, violating regulations over organising religious events and attracting children to religious events. Violations can be punished with fines of between 10 and 15 times the minimum monthly wage. However, state registration is not legally required for religious activity to be conducted. Meanwhile Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov's trial is once again due to resume, after repeated delays, on 4 February.

5 January 2009

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Repressive new Religion Law signed

The President of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, Bako Sahakyan, has signed a repressive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It comes into force ten days after its official publication, which is expected to be after the current Christmas holidays. No officials were available to discuss the new Law, because of public holidays for Christmas which the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates on 6 January 2009. The main restrictions in the new Law are: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; highly restrictive requirements to gain legal recognition; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith while restricting other faiths to similarly undefined "rallying their own faithful". Many articles of the Law are formulated in a way that lacks clarity, making the intended implementation of the Law uncertain. The Law also does not resolve the issue of conscientious objection to military service.

4 December 2008

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "The Law is like rubber"

President Bako Sahakyan of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh is considering a restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. The new Law imposes vaguely formulated restrictions, including: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith, while banning "soul-hunting" and restricting others to undefined "rallying their own faithful". Garik Grigoryan, head of the parliamentary Commission on State Legal Issues, claimed to Forum 18 that "it will be a more liberal, democratic Law." Members of religious communities have expressed serious concerns to Forum 18. One member of the Armenian Apostolic Church rhetorically asked Forum 18: "Where's the freedom?" Another described the Law as "like rubber," noting that "you can't see exactly how it's going to be put into practice." The Law also does not resolve the issue of a civilian alternative to compulsory military service.

13 November 2008

AZERBAIJAN: New excuses for mosque closure, new raid on Jehovah's Witnesses

Azerbaijan continues to obstruct religious worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. Police in the capital Baku have put forward new claims as to why the Abu-Bekr mosque cannot be reopened. The latest police claims, for which no evidence has been produced, are that there is a threat of terrorist attack, that local people object to the mosque, and that it was built illegally. However, Deputy Police Chief Alekper Ismailov claimed to Forum 18 that the authorities do not want to keep the mosque closed. A nationwide "temporary" ban on praying outside mosques also remains in force. Separately, Baku police have also raided a legal Jehovah's Witness meeting for worship, confiscated legally imported literature, and detained two people for five hours as part of a "passport check." Police Chief Firuddin Jamalov initially claimed to Forum 18 that "it was not us", but in the face of evidence changed his claim to "this is not the subject of a phone conversation." Meanwhile, the trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov is due to resume in Zakatala on 17 November.

6 November 2008

AZERBAIJAN: Pastor awaits trial hearing under house arrest

Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov – on trial since July for allegedly possessing an illegal gun – was transferred from prison to house arrest at a hearing in Zakatala on 5 November, church members told Forum 18 News Service. He had been detained for twenty weeks. His next hearing is due on 17 November. He insisted that the accusation against him is fabricated. "The police came into my house back in June and placed the pistol there," he told Forum 18. "The first time I saw it was when they claim to have found it." He believes he will eventually be cleared. "The Word of God is stronger than a pistol." Shabanov's church has been denied legal status since the 1990s, one of three Baptist congregations whose applications have failed. Also denied registration is an Assemblies of God congregation in Baku, whose pastor insisted to Forum 18 that the authorities simply do not want to register any more Christian churches. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations refused to discuss registration denials with Forum 18, but its head Hidayat Orujev told the local media on 5 November: "Not one religious organisation applying recently for registration was denied it."

3 November 2008

AZERBAIJAN: Authorities "dragging out" Baptist pastor's trial and Baku mosque case

The long-delayed trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov in Zakatala on charges of possessing an illegal weapon is due to resume on 5 November, his lawyer and family told Forum 18 News Service. The charges carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Church members say police planted the weapon in the pastor's home to punish him for his leadership of the church. Meanwhile, four days after ruling that the closed Abu-Bekr mosque in Baku should be allowed to reopen, the same judge overturned his own decision, the mosque's lawyer Javanshir Suleymanov told Forum 18. He says police claim the mosque faces a threat of a second attack. "This is just stupid. They don't have the right to scare people like that," Suleymanov told Forum 18. He pointed out that if such a serious threat exists it would be investigated by the NSM secret police, not the ordinary police. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations refused to discuss these cases with Forum 18.

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