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5 January 2006

TURKMENISTAN: Government severely restricts Haj numbers

Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.

23 November 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Baha'is and Baptists want confiscated property back

Baha'is and Baptists in Azerbaijan have both told Forum 18 News Service of their concerns about buildings, confiscated from them in the Soviet period, which they want returned. Both communities have had evasive replies from the state. The Baha'is think that a house central to their community's history may be demolished, and the Baptists want a historic church in central Baku, the capital, back. Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that "it's not just a property we want to get back to sell - our church wants to worship there once again." The Baptists visited the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, but were told that "there is no law on restitution so it can't be returned." Other places of worship also remain in state hands, but not all the religious communities involved are unhappy with this. Lutherans in Baku, for example, have told Forum 18 that they are happy they can use their church – now a concert hall – for Sunday worship.

16 November 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Disturbing numbers of police raids on religious communities

Police raids on religious communities have continued to take place at a disturbing rate, Forum 18 News Service has found, especially on summer camps and open air preaching outside the confines of state-registered religious buildings. Baptists, independent Muslims outside the state-controlled Caucasian Muslim Board, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna communities, and Baha'is are amongst those who have been attacked by the authorities. Nakhichevan, an exclave wedged between Turkey, Armenia and Iran, is the "worst region in the country" for religious freedom, a Hare Krishna devotee told Forum 18. This is an observation that people of several faiths have frequently made to Forum 18. One of the most serious attacks was a raid on a Baptist children's summer camp, in which ordinary police and NSM secret police officers arrived "in many cars, shouting and swearing, even at the women," a church member who was handcuffed and beaten up in front of children told Forum 18.

3 November 2005

AZERBAIJAN: "If communities don't complain they will be suppressed even more"

Azerbaijan's system of state registration is used by the authorities to discriminate against religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Disfavoured communities, such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Baha'is, are denied legal status and face repeated obstructions. But those who the authorities favour, such as ethnic Udi Christians (who have not yet formed a church) and the Molokans are given extensive registration help by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. The State Committee is not the only source of problems; local authorities who have taken a dislike to a religious community deploy numerous tactics to prevent registration applications from even reaching the State Committee. Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Forum 18 that "If communities don't complain they will be suppressed even more. We have a proverb: no-one gives milk to a child that doesn't cry."

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.

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