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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: Suspended sentence for embattled Baptist conscript

Embattled Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan received a two-year sentence, suspended for one year, at his 7 July trial. He had refused to swear the military oath or serve with weapons since being called up into the army of the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. "This means he won't have to serve any time in prison - if of course he does nothing wrong over the next year," Albert Voskanyan of the local Centre for Civilian Initiatives told Forum 18 News Service. Beaten twice since his conscription last December, Mirzoyan spent 10 days in prison for preaching his faith in his army unit. "After a lot of pressure, Gagik was finally happy because he could see his brothers and sisters from the church at his trial," a Baptist told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious NGOs still banned from registering

The Justice Ministry has again denied registration to a religious NGO, the Azerbaijan Centre for Religion and Democracy, in its latest use of this long-standing ministry tactic to obstruct religious NGOs' activities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is despite Deputy Justice Minister Togrul Musaev's claims that "decisive measures" had been taken to resolve the problem. Musaev has refused to tell Forum 18 when the denial of registration to religion-related NGOs will end and Fazil Mamedov, who heads the registration department at the Justice Ministry, denies that the problem exists. Eldar Zeynalov, who heads the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Forum 18 that "such groups are denied registration because of their criticism of the official religious structures." The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Baku office states that protection of freedom of association is enshrined in OSCE commitments and that religious charities founded as NGOs should not be hindered from registering.

AZERBAIJAN: Police with hostile TV crew raid meeting

Some 25 police and a hostile film crew from Space TV raided a Jehovah's Witness congress in the capital Baku on 12 June, echoing similar earlier raids on both Jehovah's Witnesses and Adventists in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja [Gäncä]. Both police and the public prosecutor have refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service why a legally registered religious community was raided, a policeman stating that they "were fined and then released. We won't give out any other information by phone." Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 that "when the police arrived they gave the journalists orders of what to film," and that journalists tried to film interviews with local Jehovah's Witnesses and people from Georgia and the Netherlands against their will. Space TV falsely claimed that a criminal prosecution had been launched with the raid on "a non-traditional religion," but insists – against the evidence – that it also showed the Jehovah's Witness side of the story.

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

AZERBAIJAN: Human rights commissioner defends religious freedom violations

Azerbaijan's human rights commissioner, or ombudsperson, Elmira Suleymanova, has repeatedly refused to recognise religious freedom violations – such as police raids on religious minorities and compulsory religious censorship - as human rights violations. Talking to Forum 18 News Service, Suleymanova categorically denied that there are frequent raids. Forum 18 has documented such raids. "This view is completely at variance with reality and constitutes untrue information," she claimed. Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointing to cases such as Suleymanova's apparent failure to take action over the six-month imprisonment of imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev and the violent expulsion of the community from their mosque, told Forum 18 "That's why people often speak of her as the 'governmental ombudsperson' ".

AZERBAIJAN: Official refuses to say why Jehovah's Witness meeting "illegal"

Local religious affairs official Firdovsi Kerimov, who joined a 17 April police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting in a private home in Gyanja [Gäncä], has refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service why he believes the meeting was "illegal". Those at the meeting were taken to the police station and threatened with administrative fines if they repeat their "offence", while 200 Jehovah's Witness books were confiscated. Local police chief Sahib Ismailov told Forum 18 the meeting was illegal because the group is unregistered. "When officials claim religious communities can't meet without registration they don't know the law, as the law doesn't say this," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. "Either that or they don't want to uphold the law."

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Beating and 12 day imprisonment for Baptist soldier

Forum 18 News Service has been unable to reach V. Davidov, commanding officer of the unit in Hadrut of the army of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic where Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan was beaten and detained for more than ten days in early April before being transferred to an unknown location. Mirzoyan "is being persecuted for preaching the Gospel and because they found several Christian calendars in his possession," his relatives and friends told Forum 18 after meeting him at the unit just before his transfer. Mirzoyan has been threatened with a two year prison sentence.

AZERBAIJAN: Government bans religious freedom advocate from UN meeting

After being barred from leaving Azerbaijan to attend the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) meeting in Geneva, imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev has been banned from crossing the land border to Georgia, he has told Forum 18 News Service. In an address prepared for the UNCHR, Ibrahimoglu asks "If a person cannot choose to believe what he or she wants, how can that person be called truly free, even if he or she can talk about many other things? Freedom of religious belief - and the ability to manifest those beliefs in public - allows us to be honest and truthful with one another, to be truly human with one another. I am confident that in the end, the Azerbaijan government will embrace religious freedom, though the road may be difficult and we may meet many more struggles. Freedom will triumph because the people of Azerbaijan - like the people of every other nation on earth - are human beings created by God to be free."

AZERBAIJAN: Will the state protect Muslim scholar from Muslim death threats?

Baku-based Muslim scholar Nariman Gasimoglu has called on the Azerbaijani authorities to protect him in the wake of what he has told Forum 18 News Service were two death threats from Muslims over the past month, made because of his Islamic religious views. These threats were followed up by threats on Iranian-based Azeri-language television, which is widely available in southern parts of Azerbaijan. Gasimoglu told Forum 18 that he believes the police are unwilling to uncover the "whole network" of those he thinks may be behind the death threats. Speaking of his views on Islam, Gasimoglu said he believes that "this is not something traditional Muslims would like, but it's my right to propagate my own religious views." In 2003, an imam of a mosque not far from his home told worshippers on several occasions that a jihad should be declared against him. "Jihad in their interpretation unfortunately means fighting enemies by using weapons," Gasimoglu told Forum 18.

COMMENTARY: No religious freedom without democracy: a lesson from "Orange Ukraine"

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's surprise announcement last month of the abolition of the State Committee for Religious Affairs is a powerful signal to the rest of the region that governments should end their meddling in religious life, argues former Soviet political prisoner Professor Myroslav Marynovych, who is now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University http://www.ucu.edu.ua in Lviv, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. He regards the feeling in Ukraine that the communist model of controlling religion is now dead as the greatest gain of the "Orange Revolution" in the sphere of religion. Yet Professor Marynovych warns that other countries will find it hard to learn from the proclaimed end of Ukrainian government interference in religious matters without wider respect for human rights and accountable government. Without democratic change – which should bring in its wake greater freedom for religious communities from state control and meddling - it is unlikely that religious communities will escape from government efforts to control them.

AZERBAIJAN: Frustration at latest unfounded allegations

In the latest of numerous unfounded allegations that Rafik Aliyev, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, has made on local media, he has accused the Adventist and Greater Grace Protestant churches of, amongst other things, conducting "illegal religious propaganda" and of disturbing "citizens residing near places where prayers are held." "We Protestants have been trying to build up a relationship of trust with him and then he comes out with these unfounded accusations," one Protestant told Forum 18 News Service. Aliyev's committee was reported as taking "tough measures up to their closure." Aliyev used a similar approach in 2002 to close down Baku's Azeri-language Baptist church. Pastor Yahya Zavrichko, who heads the Adventist Church in Azerbaijan, told Forum 18 that "Last time Rafik Aliyev complained about us in the media a month ago we spoke to him and he confirmed he had no facts of any violations we had committed."

UZBEKISTAN: Saints and martyrs relics banned

Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"