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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: "You don't need a licence to talk about chess or football, but you do about religion"

More than 15 police officers, as well as journalists with a video camera and a state religious affairs official raided the Saturday morning worship service of the Seventh-day Adventist congregation. Police questioned the ten church members present how much they were paid to be Christians, and two were given heavy fines, Protestants complained to Forum 18 News Service. Police insisted to Forum 18 the meeting had been illegal as the congregation is waiting for registration: "You don't need a licence to talk about chess or football, but you do about religion." Protestants complained about an Interior Ministry press release on the raid which said Adventists represent "a faith prohibited by law". "Adventists have lived in Azerbaijan for more than 100 years and have never been banned," Protestants told Forum 18. Fines for religious activity seem set to rise sharply if proposed amendments are approved in Parliament on 21 December. And a Muslim's legal attempt to recover books confiscated by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has been dismissed - despite the confiscations being against the Constitution and law.

AZERBAIJAN: Harsher punishments for religious activity "a question of national security"?

Minimum fines for those who conduct religious worship without state approval could rise 15-fold, if proposed amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences now awaiting consideration by Azerbaijan's full parliament are approved. "It's so that they realise the responsibility for their actions," Rabiyat Aslanova, chair of parliament's Human Rights Committee, told Forum 18 News Service. "People are not fined just for praying to God. This is a question of national security." Human rights defenders and religious communities which are regularly penalised under the Code are concerned. A reader of the works of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi told Forum 18 that "we will suffer even more" if these increased fines are approved – "and so will others". Ali Huseynov, chair of parliament's Legal Policy and State Building Committee, told Forum 18 that Azerbaijan will not seek a legal review of the proposed amendments from the Council of Europe. "Why should we? We have our own experts."

AZERBAIJAN: "A religiously tolerant country"?

Four Baptists in Azerbaijan were yesterday (31 October) given five day jail terms after a police raid the same day on a Harvest Festival celebration in a private home, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Around 80 Baptists were present when police raided. Police first turned off the gas and electricity to prevent church members from preparing a festive meal, and then recorded the names of all those present also photographing and filming them. After a late night closed court hearing, home owner, Ilgar Mamedov and three others – Zalib Ibrahimov, Rauf Gurbanov and Akif Babaev - were given five-day prison terms. Police insisted to Forum 18 that there was nothing unusual about a late Sunday evening court hearing, claiming that "it happens". In a separate case, a court in the capital Baku has handed down a large fine on a Jehovah's Witness to punish her for offering religious literature on the streets. Azerbaijan has also rejected re-registration applications from many religious communities, after it made unregistered activity illegal. Asked about this, an official claimed: "Even our enemies admit that Azerbaijan is a religiously tolerant country".

AZERBAIJAN: Nine month jail term for conscientious objector

Jehovah's Witness Farid Mammedov's appeal against a nine month jail term for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds has failed, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that the appeal hearing was short and "completely ignored" the country's international human rights obligations. "The prosecutor merely repeated the arguments made in the lower court that because no mechanism for alternative service exists, the constitutional right is irrelevant," a Jehovah's Witness present at the hearing told Forum 18. In defiance of its commitments to the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan has still not halted its prosecution of conscientious objectors, or introduced a civilian alternative service. Two other convicted conscientious objectors in March 2008 lodged an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), but no admissibility decision has yet been made on this.

AZERBAIJAN: No re-registration, no building – no worship

Cathedral of Praise Protestant church in Baku – which claims 1,500 members – has been unable to meet for worship since its tent was destroyed in an apparent arson attack in January, its pastor Rasim Halilov told Forum 18 News Service. Its re-registration application was rejected because some of its founders had changed since 2002, a decision it failed to overturn in court. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations said it cannot use another church for worship. Similarly failing to overturn its re-registration denial in court was Baku's Jehovah's Witness community, though it has been able to continue to meet. Eight months after the deadline, only 450 communities have gained compulsory re-registration, including 433 mosques and only 2 Protestant churches. Re-registration for the Catholics – who were forced to apply only for their Baku parish, not for a community covering the whole of Azerbaijan – awaits the outcome of discussions between the nuncio and the Foreign Ministry.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: One year in prison for refusing military oath

Armen Mirzoyan, a young Baptist in Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally unrecognised entity in the south Caucasus, was sentenced to one year's imprisonment on 30 June for refusing to swear the military oath and handle weapons during his compulsory military service, court officials told Forum 18 News Service. "Why has he been sentenced for following the Bible?" his brother Gagik – who had been imprisoned on the same charges by the same judge - told Forum 18. "I asked the officials why they treat Christians like this, and they responded that they follow the laws of Karabakh and no-one can tell them what to do," their mother Anna told Forum 18. Meanwhile, police confiscated religious literature from members of Revival Fire Evangelical Church returning to Karabakh from Armenia. Raids and fines on Protestant Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses continue. "Citizens are free to select their religion and worship," Deputy Foreign Minister Vardan Barsegyan claimed to Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Another mosque threatened, two others reprieved – for now?

Police have refused to explain why they have threatened to close the Sunni mosque in Mushfiqabad near the capital Baku, the latest of a series of mosques to be threatened in Azerbaijan. "Of course we'll continue to pray if the police go ahead and close us down," Imam Mubariz Gachaev told Forum 18 News Service. Police chief Intigam Mirsalaev told him that the mosque is to be closed as it does not have registration, though he gave no order in writing. But another mosque near Baku appears to have been reprieved after police ordered it to close. "People pray there – it is open. Police did not intervene," Police Chief Namik Ismailov told Forum 18 just after the order was given. Days later the community's lawyer told Forum 18 the police had overturned the closure order after questions from abroad, but rebuked the community for harming the country's image internationally. And President Ilham Aliyev suddenly overturned a series of court rulings ordering the confiscation and destruction of the half-finished Fatima Zahra mosque in Baku.

AZERBAIJAN: Nakhichevan - "No trial – they were just held"

Four readers of the works of the late Muslim theologian Said Nursi were held for three days without trial by Azerbaijan's NSM secret police in Nakhichevan, Forum 18 News Service has learned. "There was no administrative trial – they were just held there," Muslims complained. Restrictions in Nakhichevan - an exclave between Armenia, Iran, and Turkey - are even tighter than in the rest of Azerbaijan. No officials, whether in Nakhichevan or in the capital Baku, were prepared to explain why the four Muslims were held without trial. The NSM denied the incident, claiming that they "didn't arrest anyone for reading books. That would be absurd." Trouble began for the Nursi readers when one of them was arrested at Nakhichevan airport after Nursi literature was found on him. Five other local Nursi readers were then arrested at home, and eventually late at night two of them were freed. The remaining four were held in the NSM cellars for three days, a Nursi reader told Forum 18. Like Baha'is and Adventists, Nursi readers have also told Forum 18 that a number of them have left Nakhichevan, to live in other parts of Azerbaijan where pressure on them is not so intense.

AZERBAIJAN: "Unpleasantness with the law" for worshipping?

Religious communities punished for meeting for worship in Azerbaijan, or who have had religious literature confiscated, continue to formally appeal against these human rights violations, they have told Forum 18 News Service. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi have demanded the return of confiscated literature. But despite repeated appeals over more than 15 years – most recently in early 2010 – for the Baptist church in Aliabad to be registered, its application has still not been granted. Police visited its pastor in late April, to warn him not to gather church members for worship or they would face unspecified "unpleasantness with the law". Violations of freedom of religion or belief in Azerbaijan have been occasionally successfully challenged, but the only example in 2010 known to Forum 18 is an appeal against a fine imposed on one Muslim reader of Nursi's works. Despite many such protests not being successful, for example to re-open mosques and churches, one Muslim insisted to Forum 18 that publicly challenging violations is crucial to defend religious freedom.

AZERBAIJAN: Will appeals to re-open mosques succeed?

Two mosque communities from among those closed or demolished in Azerbaijan have recently appealed for their mosques to be allowed to re-open, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Fatima Zahra mosque community in the capital Baku have had their Supreme Court appeal against the confiscation and demolition of their half-finished mosque rejected. But they have told Forum 18 that they will continue to try to save their mosque, even if they have to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The mosque community's lawyer, Aslan Ismailov, told Forum 18 that the latest rejection "is not based on the facts". Elsewhere, members of a Sunni Muslim mosque forcibly closed in September 2009 in Gyanja, have written to President Ilham Aliyev and lower officials for help in getting their mosque reopened. "We asked them why the mosque is still closed and who we can apply to so that we can get it reopened," Forum 18 was told by a community member. Forum 18 is not aware of any successful appeal against the authorities' repeated forcible closures of Muslim and Christian places of worship.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "We are getting ready for war and we need our nation to be united"

Fines today (27 April) on four Protestants bring to nine the number of religious believers punished so far for unregistered religious worship in Nagorno-Karabakh, the internationally unrecognised entity in the south Caucasus, religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service. More fines are likely. The fines follow eight police raids on worship services of Adventists, Evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses since February. "All religious organisations must have registration before they start to meet – it's the law," Deputy Police Chief Mkhitar Grigoryan told Forum 18, without admitting that two of these communities were denied registration. Karabakh's religious affairs official Ashot Sargsyan explained to the Adventists the government's attitude to smaller religious communities: "We are getting ready for war and we need our nation to be united".

AZERBAIJAN: Official denies "unprofessional work" over re-registration denials and delays

Seven months after compulsory re-registration of all Azerbaijan's religious communities began (except in Nakhichevan) and three months after the end of the submission deadline, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has admitted that fewer than half the 534 registered communities have been re-registered. Yet an official denied to Forum 18 News Service its work is "unprofessional". Mosques forcibly closed by the state – including Fatima Zahra mosque in Baku - have been told their applications are invalid. Baku's Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and International Fellowship have also been denied re-registration, Forum 18 has learnt. In the wake of its rejection, Baku's Baptist church was four times visited by police in March, claiming that it was acting "illegally". The International Fellowship – an English-language Protestant church – is now having visas for foreign personnel denied and one has already had to leave.