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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: "They believe talking about their faith is not a crime"

Arrested by police in Yevlakh in late August for "preaching the Nursi religious trend" – a reference to the teachings of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi - Hasil Mamedov was imprisoned for seven days and Yusif Mamedov and Arif Yunusov for five days each on charges of hooliganism, court officials told Forum 18 News Service. "The police accused them of hooliganism, but they were not guilty of any wrongdoing," their lawyer Farhat Mamedov told Forum 18. "They believe talking about their faith is not a crime." Other Nursi followers have been fined. Jehovah's Witness Tarana Khutsishvili, whose husband was deported to punish him for his religious activity in July, again had a meeting in her home raided by a dozen police in August. Although in her last month of pregnancy, police threatened her with arrest and told others to pay large fines.

AZERBAIJAN: Jehovah's Witnesses deported, Baptist next

On 10 September Javid Shingarov, a Baptist from the small town of Yalama in northern Azerbaijan, was fined and ordered deported for hosting religious events in his home. "I fined him – he violated the procedure for foreign citizens to live in Azerbaijan by propagandizing for his faith," police chief Gazanfar Huseinov told Forum 18 News Service. "He invited friends and neighbours for religious events at his home." Shingarov told Forum 18 he was born in Azerbaijan but has a Russian passport. He said Yalama is his only home and is where his wife, two children and elderly father live. "It is 99 per cent certain that they will deport me." In July, two Jehovah's Witnesses – both Georgian citizens - were deported with no documentation for alleged "religious propaganda". One was an ethnic Georgian born and brought up in Azerbaijan, the other an ethnic Azeri, born and brought up in Georgia.

AZERBAIJAN: "The government doesn't want to give up control over religion"

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has modified the text of legal changes targeting the freedom of religion or belief of Muslims, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The Caucasian Muslim Board alone will now appoint mosque leaders, only subsequently informing the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. Non-citizens and citizens who have gained their religious education abroad will still be banned from leading Muslim rituals. Parliamentary deputy Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev of the Great Formation Party stated that the revised text is "a little better". "But it doesn't resolve the problem," he told Forum 18. "The government doesn't want to give up control over religion." He also noted that the President has no legal authority to make changes to the amendments without parliamentary approval. Also, in addition to the state's continuing harassment of minorities such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi are also being targeted. Three followers of his approach to Islam have been detained and internally deported.

AZERBAIJAN: Parliament approves latest Religion Law changes

Azerbaijan's Parliament, the Milli Mejlis, today (30 June) adopted controversial new amendments to the Religion Law, a month after the last restrictive amendments to the same Law came into force. A parliamentary official told Forum 18 News Service that they "will be sent on to the Presidential Administration for final approval within days." The amendments require all leaders of Muslim communities to be appointed by the state, and state that "religious rituals of the Islamic faith can be carried out only by citizens of Azerbaijan who have received their education in Azerbaijan." Despite these restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, parliamentary deputy Ali Huseynov, who heads the Legal Policy and State Building Committee – which arranged the amendments' passage through Parliament - stated they "do not at all restrict freedom of conscience". Forum 18 was unable to find out from Huseynov why he thinks limiting the freedom of communities to choose their own religious leaders does not limit freedom of conscience.

AZERBAIJAN: "Why shouldn't we bring order to this?"

Complaining of the latest closure of a mosque in Azerbaijan is Muslim rights activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev. He told Forum 18 News Service that local officials and police banned Muslims from praying at the Khazrat Fatima mosque in Baku, cut off the power and threatened to demolish the uncompleted building. "The time the community had to complete construction work is over," local police chief Jovdat Mamedov told Forum 18. "The city authorities ordered them to stop. It's a problem of documentation." Parliamentary deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova defended the moves against mosques, insisting to Forum 18 that only "illegal structures" had been demolished or closed. "Why shouldn't we bring order to this?" Police elsewhere in Baku warned Jehovah's Witnesses they would be closed down if they allow children to attend, while two female Jehovah's Witnesses have officially complained of police interrogations during which they were pressured to change their faith.

AZERBAIJAN: Muslim opposition to new Religion Law changes

A deputy chairman of the Caucasian Muslim Board, Haji Salman Musaev – stressing he was speaking personally – has told Forum 18 News Service of his opposition to the further two amendments to the Religion Law due for consideration in the Milli Mejlis (parliament) on 30 June. The changes would ban foreigners and those who have studied Islam abroad from leading Muslim prayers and require state approval for all mosque leaders. "If religion here is separate from the state, they should explain why this is necessary," he told Forum 18. Opposition Milli Mejlis deputy Iqbal Agazade – who opposes the changes – told Forum 18 he fears they will be adopted. "Only about eight – maximum ten – deputies will vote against them." The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly called on Azerbaijan to send the restrictive May 2009 Religion Law amendments to its Venice Commission for review. But ruling party Milli Mejlis deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova told Forum 18: "Why should we check our every step with the Council of Europe? This would be wrong – a violation of our sovereignty."

AZERBAIJAN: Further repressive Religion Law changes target Muslims

Two weeks after Azerbaijan's repressive amendments to its Religion Law came into force, the Milli Mejlis (Parliament) is considering repressive amendments to six laws, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Further changes to the Religion Law ban foreign citizens, and those who have not had Islamic education within Azerbaijan, from leading prayers in mosques and at places of pilgrimage. They also require everyone who leads mosques and places of pilgrimage to have state approval. Deputy Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev, who voted against the last repressive amendments will also be voting against the latest repressive amendments. They "seriously violate the Constitution" he told Forum 18. He pointed out that the last amendments targeted everyone's freedom of religion or belief, and the latest amendments specifically target the religious freedom of Muslims. The amendments will be considered at an extraordinary session of the Milli Mejlis, to be held tomorrow (19 June), an official told Forum 18. Muslims have also expressed outrage over the demolition of two mosques and the closure of a number of others in recent months.

AZERBAIJAN: Repressive new Religion Law and new punishments enter into force

Azerbaijan's repressive new Religion Law, and amendments to both the Criminal Code and the Administrative Code came into force on 31 May, Forum 18 News Service has learned. New "offences" - such as more severe censorship - and new punishments are introduced for religious activities and organisations the government does not like. All registered religious organisations must re-register by 1 January 2010, the third time re-registration has been demanded in less than twenty years. It is implied that unregistered organisations are illegal, and stated that "all religious organisations" can act only after gaining state registration. Parliamentary Deputy Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev told Forum 18 that "the new Religion Law will limit people's rights to freedom of conscience – that is clear." He thinks the Law should have been drafted in accordance with international human rights standards, and that this would have been more likely if expert advice from organisations like the OSCE and Council of Europe had been sought.

AZERBAIJAN: Will Presidential Administration explain why it thinks amendments needed?

The Presidential Administration produced controversial amendments limiting freedom of religion or belief, but has not explained why it thought they were needed, or why it proposed amendments violating Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments. Parliamentary deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova told Forum 18 News Service that the amendments are due to be sent to President Ilham Aliyev for signature on 18 May. "We have approved a lot of laws this week, but we may get these amendments to him on Saturday [16 May] if the final version is complete by then," she said. Human rights defenders and religious leaders condemned the secrecy and lack of public discussion which accompanied the amendments. Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that he wants the President "to look at our Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and reject the Law as it violates the Constitution."

AZERBAIJAN: Religion Law amendments contradict themselves

The latest available text of the amendments to Azerbaijan's Religion Law – approved by Parliament on 8 May - changes it to claim that "legislation on religious liberty consists of the Constitution, International agreements agreed by Azerbaijan, this Law and other relevant legislative documents," Forum 18 News Service notes. However the amendments contradict international human rights standards agreed by Azerbaijan. Examples include making legal status dependent on communities fulfilling highly intrusive requirements, including unspecified doctrinal tests. Officials are also given many reasons for refusing to register or ban organisations, including such formulations as "violating social order or social rules." The amendments do not state whether legislation which breaks international human rights standards ­ such as the amendments ­ are therefore illegal. Religious communities and human rights defenders have condemned the changes. Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, for example, complained that restrictions on selling religious literature and conducting religious education mean that "officials will interpret this as being a ban on activity which is not specifically approved."

AZERBAIJAN: Will revised Religion Law ban unregistered worship?

Azerbaijan is apparently rushing restrictive amendments to its Religion Law through parliament, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Only the parliamentary deputies have the text, and it will only be published after its adoption," a parliamentary aide told Forum 18. The amendments - which reportedly include a ban on unregistered religious activity - have not been made public, and the full parliament is due to begin consideration of them on Friday 8 May. The refusal to make the text public denies the opportunity for public discussion of the proposals, complains Eldar Zeynalov of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan. "Everything prepared in top secrecy is bad for human rights," he told Forum 18. Parliamentary Deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova, who chairs one of two committees which prepared the draft, told Forum 18 that state registration will be compulsory, but claimed that: "No one will be punished for practicing without registration, as long as they don't preach against the national interest or denigrate the dignity of others." She declined to discuss what this means, and confirmed that religious communities will have to re-register. Religious communities - especially of minority faiths – have struggled to re-register after previous changes.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "They can continue to pray, but not meet together for worship"

A Protestant community, Revival Fire Evangelical Church, has become the first and so far only religious community to be denied legal status by the unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It is uncertain what practical impact this will have. Ashot Sargsyan, head of the state Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 that "they can continue to pray, but won't have the right to meet together for worship as before." Asked what would happen if they do meet for worship, he responded: "The police will fine them and if they persist they will face Administrative Court." This was contradicted by Yuri Hairapetyan, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, who claimed that "they will be able to function but simply won't have legal status." Sargsyan claimed that "the church worked against the Constitution and against our laws," but when asked what court decisions had determined this replied that "no court has reviewed this issue."