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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

AZERBAIJAN: "There is no discrimination"?

After Azerbaijan's deportation of a former leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Russian citizen Ivan Uzun, and the denial of re-entry to Moldovan citizen Gheorghiy Sobor, Adventists have told Forum 18 News Service they are trying to resolve problems with the government through dialogue. Sobor lives in the capital Baku with his Azerbaijani wife and their three young children. He thinks he may have been denied re-entry as he helped Adventists gain state permission to import books. His wife Aida told Forum 18 that: "Without any court decision and without the possibility for him to respond, they have separated Gheorghiy from his family and children. Such an action contradicts basic human rights and international law at the same time as Azerbaijan considers itself a democratic country". Yusif Askerov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed that "there is no discrimination". Adventists stress that they have been present in the country for more than a century. An Adventist told Forum 18 that: "We're working to build bridges with the government".

AZERBAIJAN: Pressure and punishments for worship without state permission increasing?

Azerbaijan appears to be increasing raids on and threats to religious communities for worshipping without state permission, Forum 18 News Service notes. An imam near the capital Baku, Mubariz Gachaev, received threats in late December 2010 that he would be imprisoned if his mosque continues to hold unregistered worship. A Protestant in northern Azerbaijan, Ilham Balabeyov, was in mid-January 2011 fined three weeks' average local wages for leading unregistered worship. Police also summoned him to a police station and detained him there for all of the day his church marks Christmas. Members of a forcibly closed Sunni mosque in Gyanja have told Forum 18 that the only religious activity they are now allowed to conduct is to meet in small groups, under police surveillance, to pray in private homes. As of today (24 January) only 510 religious communities are registered. It seems that many applications are either being denied or left without answer. No legal challenges to re-registration denials have yet succeeded. All unregistered religious activity is illegal, against international human rights law.

AZERBAIJAN: "Massive" increased fines for exercising freedom of religion or belief

Just before Azerbaijan increased penalties for exercising the internationally-recognised right to freedom of religion or belief, six Jehovah's Witnesses were punished in Gyanja for exercising their human rights. Under the Code of Administrative Offences, three were fined, one was warned and two – both Georgians – were deported, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. Had they been fined ten days later, they would have faced far higher penalties. Amendments to increase fines under two Articles of the Administrative Code that create offences for exercising freedom of religion or belief – Article 299 and Article 300 - were signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev on 29 December 2010. "These Articles punish what can be considered as normal religious activity," Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Forum 18. He said that the increased fines are "massive", and those fined, especially those without access to higher-paid work, will struggle to pay them. Zeynalov also warned that finding defence lawyers for those accused could be difficult.

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.