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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

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "If they violate the law by meeting together for religious purposes, they will be fined"

Jehovah's Witnesses in the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the south Caucasus, have lost a legal challenge to the entity's refusal to grant them legal status, Forum 18 News Service has learned. An appeal to the entity's Supreme Court may be made. Ashot Sargsyan, head of the Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs vigorously defended to Forum 18 denial of registration to Jehovah's Witnesses and a local Protestant Church. Sargsyan said that, without registration, individual believers have the right to conduct religious activity – such as to pray - alone at home. But he said neither of the two groups can meet together as a community, even in private. "If they violate the law by meeting together for religious purposes, they will be fined," Sargsyan pledged. Both groups have told Forum 18 that low-profile meetings are not currently being obstructed.

AZERBAIJAN: Police chief deports local-born Baptist – with no documentation

Local Baptist Javid Shingarov (who holds a Russian passport) was cut off from his wife, father and children in his native village near Yalama in northern Azerbaijan when he was yesterday (30 September) deported to Russia. Yalama's police chief Gazanfar Huseinov – who punished him under the Administrative Code with a fine and deportation order for holding religious worship in his home – refused to tell Forum 18 News Service why he had refused to give his verdict in writing and why the Migration Service was apparently not involved. An official of the Human Rights Ombudsperson's office told Forum 18 that failure to give a verdict in writing is a violation of the law and that the Law on Migration puts responsibility for deportation decisions on the State Migration Service, not the police. The Christian books confiscated from Shingarov and others during raids on 9 September have not been returned, while a Baptist whose home was among those raided was pressured to resign from his job as a school director.

AZERBAIJAN: Mosque closed four days before Ramadan ends

Four days before the feast marking the end of Ramadan, religious affairs official Firdovsi Kerimov and the police closed the only Sunni Muslim mosque in Azerbaijan's second city, Gyanja, claiming it was not registered. Imam Ilham Ibrahimov told Forum 18 News Service the mosque has registration under the old Religion Law and has applied for re-registration under the new Religion Law, for which the deadline is 1 January 2010. He said Kerimov "believes it's his role to control religious communities". He added that police warned that if the community prays on the street they will be arrested. Most of the mosques closed over the last year have been Sunni. Meanwhile, Deputy Police Chief Elman Mamedov denied to Forum 18 that violence was used in breaking up a Baptist children's summer camp near Kusar: "No-one was beaten, no-one was insulted, nothing was confiscated. Do you think we're bandits?" One Baptist told Forum 18: "He's completely lying."

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."