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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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AZERBAIJAN: Pastor threatened with jail for allowing children in church

Police in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have threatened Adventist pastor Elshan Samedov with prison, if he refuses to ban children from attending worship services and does not halt worship in two church-owned properties. "People don't have the right to meet for religious purposes just where they want," Major Alovset Mamedov told Forum 18 News Service, "they need to have permission." Mamedov "threatened to imprison me for turning people into Christians," Samedov stated. "He violates our rights to worship God – and he insulted my personal dignity. Who gave him the right to violate my rights?" Major Mamedov demanded that Pastor Samedov sign a statement that he would prevent children from attending services in future, but he refused to do this. Following a separate raid in the capital Baku, police tried to pressure eight Adventists into giving up their faith and fined them under the Administrative Code for holding meetings "not connected with the conducting of religious rituals with the aim of attracting young people and youth."

ARMENIA: 82 religious prisoners of conscience is new record

With 82 Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for refusing military service and the military-controlled alternative service on grounds of religious conscience, the Armenian authorities have reached a new record. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service that 73 of them are serving terms of 18 to 36 months' imprisonment, while nine more are awaiting trial. Seven are due for trial on 15 October, while the new call-up about to begin is likely to bring more arrests. "Alternative service is under the control of the Defence Ministry – I believe this should not be the case," Armen Harutyunyan, Armenia's Human Rights Ombudsperson, told Forum 18. But Artur Agabekyan, chair of the parliamentary Defence Committee, rejects this. "The alternative civilian service has no connection with the Defence Ministry," he claimed to Forum 18. Local journalist Vahan Ishkhanian says there is no appetite for change within Armenia. "They say we already have a law that meets European standards. I believe any change depends on the Council of Europe."

ARMENIA: 72 religious prisoners of conscience is new record

Armenia has a record number of religious conscientious objectors to military service in jail, despite a 2004 promise to free these prisoners of conscience, Forum 18 News Service has found. 72 Jehovah's Witnesses are now in jail. Four of these prisoners have been jailed within the past month, with an average jail sentence for each of the four young men of just under two and a half years. Armenia claims to have a civilian alternative service, but the allegedly "civilian" service is under the complete control of the Armenian General Staff, supervised by the Military Police under military law, and pacifists are forced to wear uniform provided by the military. Jehovah's Witnesses and Molokans insist that they would be happy to perform a genuinely civilian alternative service – but Armenia does not allow this. The father of a Molokan Protestant Christian conscientious objector told Forum 18 that "we're not satisfied with the current alternative service. It's against our faith to take weapons and to kill people."

AZERBAIJAN: Raid on Jehovah's Witnesses deliberately timed?

Azerbaijan's latest manifestation of hostility to Protestant Christian and other religious minorities, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, is a 24 December raid on the Kingdom Hall in the capital, Baku, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We suspect that the police and prosecutor used the holiday season - when foreign representations obviously have only minimum staff - to make this attack," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Property was confiscated, money was apparently stolen by police, congregation members were detained and at least two were beaten up. In a repeated pattern during police raids on religious minorities, a local TV station which encourages religious intolerance was present. Six foreign attendees – three of whom grew up in Azerbaijan - may be deported. Forum 18 was able to speak to the Migration Police, but not to Hidayat Orujev, chair of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, or other officials there, for comment.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: No guarantees for religious conscientious objectors

The proposed Nagorno-Karabakh Constitution may have little practical impact. However, human rights activists and religious believers are concerned, they have told Forum 18 News Service, about the absence of any guarantee of alternative non-military service. "If alternative service is not there in the constitution, it doesn't make it impossible for it to be introduced later - the Constitution is not dogma. But it does make it more difficult," Albert Voskanyan of the Centre for Civilian Initiatives told Forum 18. "It is bad that such a provision is not there, just as it is bad it is not there in the Armenian Constitution," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Lyova Markaryan told Forum 18. Two Jehovah's Witnesses and one Baptist have been jailed in recent years for refusing military service on grounds of conscience. Some have also expressed concern about the draft Constitution's recognition of the Armenian Apostolic Church's "exclusive mission" as the "national church."

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Uncertainty faces Baptist conscientious objector

It is unclear whether the authorities will take further action against a young Baptist conscript who refuses to swear the military oath and bear arms on grounds of conscience, Forum 18 News Service has found. Gagik Mirzoyan was freed from prison at the end of a jail sentence, held by the Military Police and, after eight days, transferred to a military unit. "They are still pressuring him to swear the military oath and take up weapons," Baptist pastor Garnik Abreyan told Forum 18. "He still has three months to serve of his military service and we just don't know what they will do with him." Albert Voskanyan, of the Centre for Civilian Initiatives – who has regularly visited both Gagik Mirzoyan and jailed Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Areg Hovhanesyan – told Forum 18 that "the danger is real that Mirzoyan could be imprisoned again." Deputy Foreign Minister Masis Mailyan told Forum 18 that he does not know what the military will now do.

TURKMENISTAN: Demolition of places of worship continues

In large-scale demolition projects in Turkmenistan, those expelled from their home get no compensation and often nowhere to live. Amongst the buildings demolished are religious communities' places of worship. The last surviving pre-revolutionary Armenian Apostolic church and a family-owned Sunni mosque in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi have been destroyed, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Exiled human rights activist Vyacheslav Mamedov told Forum 18 that the mosque "was used on Muslim festivals and for family events like weddings, funerals and sadakas [commemorations of the dead]." The former Armenian church "was a very beautiful building," Mamedov recalled. He told Forum 18 that there is widespread anger and fear over the destruction of the town's historic centre. Amongst places of worship in Turkmenistan, known to Forum 18 to have been demolished in the past, are mosques, an Adventist church, and a Hare Krishna temple.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Will imprisoned Baptist face new sentence?

Fellow Baptists fear that Gagik Mirzoyan could face new charges when his current sentence for refusing to perform military duties expires on 5 September. "All kinds of officials have told us he will be sentenced again – and that next time the sentence will be harsher," Baptist pastor Garnik Abreyan told Forum 18 News Service from Stepanakert, capital of the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. A Karabakh native, Mirzoyan was imprisoned after refusing on grounds of religious faith to swear the military oath and handle weapons when conscripted into the army in 2004. Despite being beaten in prison in February and sent to the punishment cells, Mirzoyan told visiting civil society activist Albert Voskanyan that he has "no complaints" about his current treatment. Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan is serving a four-year sentence in the same prison for refusing Karabakh's compulsory military service.

ARMENIA: Will new alternative service law end defiance of Council of Europe?

As Armenia prepares the fourth version of its Alternative Service Law, first adopted in 2004, Justice Minister David Harutyunyan has told Forum 18 News Service that the draft now being prepared will "very soon" be sent to parliament. He rejected Council of Europe assessments that the country has violated its commitments to end the imprisonment of conscientious objectors (48 are currently in prison with four more awaiting trial) and to introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service, despite admitting to Forum 18 that alternative service remains under military control. Bojana Urumova, the Council of Europe representative to Armenia, told Forum 18 that "alternative service cannot be said to exist in Armenia". "The government doesn't want to introduce a genuine alternative service," local journalist Vahan Ishkhanian complained to Forum 18. "Only if the Council of Europe is persistent and does not allow itself to be fooled by the deception will the Armenian government be forced to introduce a genuinely civilian service."

ARMENIA: Nearly 50 Jehovah's Witness and Molokan prisoners of conscience

Numbers of religious prisoners of conscience in Armenian jails continue to increase, despite a January 2004 promise to the Council of Europe to free all conscientious objectors and introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service. There are now 48 Jehovah's Witness and Molokan prisoners, Forum 18 News Service has found. Molokans are a Russian Christian group with pacifist leanings. Four more Jehovah's Witnesses await trial after abandoning 'civilian' service run by the Armenian Army's General Staff, with military regulations imposed on participants. A defence lawyer has complained to Forum 18 that these trials are being deliberately dragging out by the authorities. Armenia's Deputy Prosecutor-General, Kevork Danielyan, has claimed to Forum 18 that "the Jehovah's Witnesses are exploiting inadequacies in the law." He failed to explain to Forum 18 why they might be organising their own imprisonment and exploiting the law to achieve this. Officials have claimed to Forum 18 that more legal amendments are in preparation.

COMMENTARY: What are the roots of Turkey's attitude to religious freedom?

The complexity of Turkish attitudes to religious freedom is rarely understood and addressed, even by observers who live in the country, argues Canon Ian Sherwood, an Irish priest who has been Anglican Chaplain in Istanbul http://web.archive.org/web/20080229064600/http://www.anglicanistanbul.com/ since 1989. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org he notes that "one has to keep reiterating that minorities are Turkish by modern citizenship but often are made to feel foreign, even if their customs and deeper ethnic identities predate the majority culture by many centuries." The deep-rooted problems of non-Islamic religious minorities are "principally an innate social attitude that rests very much deeper than anything that could be usefully addressed by European regulation." He comments that observers find it difficult to understand "the injustices experienced by minority religious groups." These "seem to be particular to Turkey, as Turkey struggles to face west with an Islamic and eastern inheritance."

GEORGIA: Religious minorities still second-class faiths?

Only two in-country non-Orthodox religious communities in Georgia – the Mormons and the Muslims - have received state registration, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Jehovah's Witnesses were only registered as a branch of their US headquarters. Registration – which grants rights to own property communally, run bank accounts, and have a legal personality – is only possible as a non-commercial organisation, not a religious community. In addition to their unhappiness with the exclusive privileges the state has given the Georgian Orthodox Church, some religious communities – among them the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church and the Muslims – want registration to be possible as religious communities. Hostility towards any non-Georgian Orthodox Church community is widespread, preventing the building of places of worship and even, according to Ombudsperson Sozar Subari, leading to compulsory baptisms of children without their parents' permission.