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1 November 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Selective obstruction of foreign religious workers

Azerbaijani religious communities inviting foreign religious workers are being selectively obstructed, Forum 18 News Service has found. In June, a Swedish pastor of a charismatic church, Mats-Jan Söderberg, was given two weeks to leave Azerbaijan – after being resident for more than a decade. Other religious communities - such as the Lutherans and Catholics - have told Forum 18 that they believe religious communities should have the right to invite foreign citizens to lead them, if the community wants this. The Catholic Church, Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches, Jewish communities, the Hare Krishna community and the Baha'i community are not experiencing currently visa problems for foreigners who work with them. A problem that Azeris have also complained to Forum 18 about is the intense pressure the authorities apply to non-Muslim religious communities, to get state registration as part of a foreign religious organisation.

25 October 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Family and mosque appeal for imam's freedom

The family and mosque community of the only Sunni Muslim mosque in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have appealed for their imam, Kazim Aliyev, to be freed – three and a half years after his arrest. His family have told Forum 18 News Service that they reject absolutely the government accusation that Aliyev was preparing an armed anti-government uprising to create an Islamic state. Aliyev, who is married with three young children, is being held in prison camp 15 in Baku and his lawyer, Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, insists that he has been wrongfully jailed. A European Court of Human Rights appeal is currently under way. Zeynalov told Forum 18 that he believes Aliyev's refusal to demand set fees for carrying out religious rituals angered other imams in the town, and that this may have provoked the charges. Aliyev was initially held by the Military Counter-Intelligence Department for espionage, but the allegations were later changed.

18 October 2005

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, October 2005

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, including denials of the right of legally registered religious communities to worship. In a typical example of this approach - which other religious minorities have also experienced - police raided a legally registered Baptist church in northern Turkmenistan, claiming that "individuals can only believe alone on their own at home." Unregistered religious activity continues – in defiance of international human rights agreements – to be attacked. There has been an increase in attempts to impose a state religious personality cult of President Niyazov on all Turkmen citizens, with mosques being particularly targeted. Turkmenistan continues to fail to implement its international human rights commitments, and also continues to take direct governmental action to deny religious freedom to peaceful Turkmen citizens.

5 September 2005

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Baptist conscript now imprisoned

Military leaders in the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus have successfully appealed to the courts for Gagik Mirzoyan - handed a suspended sentence in July for refusing to handle weapons or swear the military oath on grounds of religious faith – to be sent to prison. On 5 September Hadrut district court imprisoned the embattled Baptist conscript for one year. The court told Mirzoyan that if he declared then and there he would swear the oath it would free him and send him back to his unit. "Gagik responded that he couldn't do so as the Bible doesn't allow it," a fellow Baptist told Forum 18 News Service. "He was sentenced and police took him away immediately." Two Jehovah's Witnesses have also been sentenced to prison in Nagorno-Karabakh this year for refusing compulsory military service because of their religious convictions.

13 July 2005

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Suspended sentence for embattled Baptist conscript

Embattled Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan received a two-year sentence, suspended for one year, at his 7 July trial. He had refused to swear the military oath or serve with weapons since being called up into the army of the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. "This means he won't have to serve any time in prison - if of course he does nothing wrong over the next year," Albert Voskanyan of the local Centre for Civilian Initiatives told Forum 18 News Service. Beaten twice since his conscription last December, Mirzoyan spent 10 days in prison for preaching his faith in his army unit. "After a lot of pressure, Gagik was finally happy because he could see his brothers and sisters from the church at his trial," a Baptist told Forum 18.

27 June 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Religious NGOs still banned from registering

The Justice Ministry has again denied registration to a religious NGO, the Azerbaijan Centre for Religion and Democracy, in its latest use of this long-standing ministry tactic to obstruct religious NGOs' activities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is despite Deputy Justice Minister Togrul Musaev's claims that "decisive measures" had been taken to resolve the problem. Musaev has refused to tell Forum 18 when the denial of registration to religion-related NGOs will end and Fazil Mamedov, who heads the registration department at the Justice Ministry, denies that the problem exists. Eldar Zeynalov, who heads the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Forum 18 that "such groups are denied registration because of their criticism of the official religious structures." The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Baku office states that protection of freedom of association is enshrined in OSCE commitments and that religious charities founded as NGOs should not be hindered from registering.

21 June 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Police with hostile TV crew raid meeting

Some 25 police and a hostile film crew from Space TV raided a Jehovah's Witness congress in the capital Baku on 12 June, echoing similar earlier raids on both Jehovah's Witnesses and Adventists in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja [Gäncä]. Both police and the public prosecutor have refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service why a legally registered religious community was raided, a policeman stating that they "were fined and then released. We won't give out any other information by phone." Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 that "when the police arrived they gave the journalists orders of what to film," and that journalists tried to film interviews with local Jehovah's Witnesses and people from Georgia and the Netherlands against their will. Space TV falsely claimed that a criminal prosecution had been launched with the raid on "a non-traditional religion," but insists – against the evidence – that it also showed the Jehovah's Witness side of the story.

1 June 2005

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

29 April 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Human rights commissioner defends religious freedom violations

Azerbaijan's human rights commissioner, or ombudsperson, Elmira Suleymanova, has repeatedly refused to recognise religious freedom violations – such as police raids on religious minorities and compulsory religious censorship - as human rights violations. Talking to Forum 18 News Service, Suleymanova categorically denied that there are frequent raids. Forum 18 has documented such raids. "This view is completely at variance with reality and constitutes untrue information," she claimed. Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointing to cases such as Suleymanova's apparent failure to take action over the six-month imprisonment of imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev and the violent expulsion of the community from their mosque, told Forum 18 "That's why people often speak of her as the 'governmental ombudsperson' ".

26 April 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Official refuses to say why Jehovah's Witness meeting "illegal"

Local religious affairs official Firdovsi Kerimov, who joined a 17 April police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting in a private home in Gyanja [Gäncä], has refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service why he believes the meeting was "illegal". Those at the meeting were taken to the police station and threatened with administrative fines if they repeat their "offence", while 200 Jehovah's Witness books were confiscated. Local police chief Sahib Ismailov told Forum 18 the meeting was illegal because the group is unregistered. "When officials claim religious communities can't meet without registration they don't know the law, as the law doesn't say this," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. "Either that or they don't want to uphold the law."

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