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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: "Our constitution guarantees us freedom of religion, but in reality we don't have it"

"We rely on God. If we're persecuted for the name of Christ we're blessed," a Pastor told Forum 18 News Service after commenting that "our constitution guarantees us freedom of religion and belief, but in reality we don't have it." Baptists in north-west Azerbaijan face being prevented from working by the authorities, intimidation, and refusal to register their children's births with Christian names, Forum 18 has found. The birth registration ban stops children going to kindergarten or to school, getting treatment in a hospital, or travelling abroad. Despite the detailed accounts of Baptists met by Forum 18, the head of the town administration has strenuously denied their statements. Forum 18 has also been told that people who visit Baptist services are threatened with the loss of their jobs, a powerful threat in a region where unemployment is high, and that the police have banned the holding of a Sunday school for children.

AZERBAIJAN: "We don't need Baptists here," shouts obstructive official

"We don't need any Baptists here," Najiba Mamedova, the notary of Azerbaijan's north-western Zakatala [Zaqatala] region shouted at Forum 18 News Service, asked why she has for more than a year refused to notarise the signatures on the registration application of a local Baptist congregation. "We don't want a second Karabakh," Najiba Mamedova screamed, adding "Who financed you? Go to them," before throwing Forum 18 out of her office and threatening to call the police. The church's pastor, Hamid Shabanov, told Forum 18 that "She always spoke to us like that." The church began applying for registration in 1994, making it the religious community which has been denied registration in Azerbaijan for the longest period. The head of the Aliabad administration, Gasim Orujov, has refused to allow the Baptists to build a church in the village. "There is Islam here and we have our mosque," he told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Police disperse and harass academic religion researchers

Azeri authorities have repeatedly broken up meetings of a local academic research group investigating the state of religious freedom across the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Project leader Hikmet Hajizade told Forum 18 that "we wanted about eight people in each group, but even such a small group was not allowed to meet – the police often drove us out of town." Police told FAR Centre researcher Haji Hajili that "they had received instructions to drive us out and said it would be better if we left peacefully of our own accord." The researchers faced such problems as the cancellation of premises' availability, police breaking up meetings, obtrusive eavesdropping by police informers, widespread fear of the authorities' reaction amongst local participants, police surveillance of participants' homes, some Muslim participants accusing researchers of working with "enemies of Islam" and then calling police to meetings, as well as threatening other participants.

AZERBAIJAN: The boy who (officially) doesn't exist

18-month-old Luka Eyvazov does not officially exist, Forum 18 News Service has found, because local authorities refuse to issue birth certificates for children with Christian names. "We have letters from village residents and 98 per cent are opposed to registering Christian names," local registration official Aybeniz Kalashova told Forum 18. Mehman Soltanov of the Justice Ministry asked Forum 18 "why did they choose a religious name?" and then speculated that it was not Luka's parents who chose his name but "some religious sect". Luka's father, Novruz Eyvazov, insists that children are from God and told Forum 18 that "We went many times to ask what basis they had to interfere in our family life. They indicated there was pressure on them from on high. When they told me to choose the name of a famous Azerbaijani poet or writer instead," he told Forum 18, "I responded that Luke, as one of the Gospel-writers, will still be famous when all the poets and writers are long forgotten." This is the latest of case of official refusal to register Christian names. Without birth certificates, people cannot go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital or travel abroad.

AZERBAIJAN: Police raid Adventist service, fine and threaten leader, connive at hostile TV interviews of children

While a Council of Europe delegation was examining whether Azerbaijan meets human rights commitments, police in the country's second city, Gyanja [Gäncä], raided a worship service being held by a registered Adventist congregation, arrested and interrogated two leaders, fining and threatening one with deportation, and connived at a local TV crew conducting hostile interviews with children against the protests of their parents. Interviewed by Forum 18 News Service, Firdovsi Kerimov, local representative of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, who took part in the interrogations and TV interviews, claimed that he defends the rights of believers, "but only if they act in accordance with the law" and insisted that "everything was done in accordance with the law." The Azeri ban on foreigners conducting "religious propaganda" violates international human rights law, which does not distinguish between anyone legally resident in a country.

AZERBAIJAN: OSCE discusses religious freedom minus a victim

Azerbaijan has for the second time in a month stopped religious freedom activist and imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev from taking part in an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference. Azerbaijan is a member of the OSCE, which aims to promote democracy and human rights. "He would have informed people  about the real situation of religious freedom in Azerbaijan," human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov told Forum 18 News Service, from the conference in Warsaw. "That's why our government didn't want him here." Ibrahimoglu intended to tell the conference about the experience of the Juma mosque congregation, whose imam he is, which was forcibly expelled from its mosque in June. Eldar Zeynalov told Forum 18 that an Azerbaijani government representative at the conference said that Ibrahimoglu "has some freedom of movement but not freedom to leave the country." Zeynalov commented to Forum 18 that this "is a return to Soviet times when there was no freedom of movement and no freedom of speech."

AZERBAIJAN: Jehovah's Witness seeks right to alternative service

Despite a constitutional right to do alternative service and Azerbaijan's commitment to the Council of Europe to introduce a law regulating such alternative service (for which the deadline has long expired), Jehovah's Witness Mahir Bagirov has so far failed to secure this right in two court hearings. "I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and my religious convictions would be violated if I was forced to bear arms," he told Forum 18. He has now lodged an appeal against the denial of his rights to the Supreme Court, but fears he could be seized and sent to a military unit at any time. A man who said he was from the police telephoned Bagirov's mother on 3 October threatening that her son would be imprisoned.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Why can't Baptist Church function?

Masis Mailyan, deputy foreign minister of the unrecognised enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that, despite the latest police raid on a Baptist congregation, the enclave follows the commitments contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, telling Forum 18 that "there are no restrictions on believers and all confessions are equal." However he contradicted himself by stating, contrary to Article 18, that, under the martial law that has operated since 1992, only registered organisations can exist and that Baptists "cannot hold services." Mailyan denied that only the Armenian Apostolic Church is allowed to function, but admitted that it is the only registered religious community. Other local Protestants have told Forum 18 that pressure on their work has eased in recent years and their congregations can function quietly, so it is unclear why the Baptists have been singled out for the authorities' continuing hostility.

AZERBAIJAN: Imam barred from travel to OSCE conference

Forum 18 News Service has been unable to discover from the Azerbaijani authorities why on 12 September border guards at Baku airport prevented religious freedom activist and imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev from travelling to Brussels to take part in an OSCE conference on racism and discrimination. Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 he was not allowed to board his Lufthansa flight despite having checked in and passed through customs. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have any information on this issue," the ministry's chief spokesperson Metin Mirza told Forum 18. "The ban imposed upon me to visit the OSCE conference is the latest arbitrary action against me," Ibrahimoglu complained.

AZERBAIJAN: As arrests continue, Muslims fail to regain their mosque

On 11 August, the same day that the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by Baku's Juma Mosque community to overturn last March's eviction order, a court sentenced community member Azad Narimanoglu Isayev to seven days' detention for "resisting the police". The community's imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev told Forum 18 News Service that 83 mosque members have now been summoned to the police under various pretexts since the community was forcibly evicted from the mosque on 30 June. Human rights activist Saadat Bananyarli condemned the Supreme Court verdict. "The verdict is not legitimate because the judges are not independent," she told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Muslims can't pray at home, says police chief

The policeman responsible for breaking up a Muslim prayer service in a private home, Colonel Chingiz Mamedov, has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that Muslims cannot hold prayer services at home. Asked by Forum 18 why believers of any faith cannot meet in homes for worship, he said that the meeting was in a basement with no running water, and then put the phone down. This is the latest attack on members of the Juma Mosque and its religious freedom activist imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, whose mosque was taken over after an attack by police. Colonel Mamedov threatened the home owner where the prayer meeting happened that if the mosque community met there again, "it would be worse for him".

AZERBAIJAN: Muslim fired for rejecting forcible mosque take-over

Two weeks after police forcibly occupied Baku's historic Juma Mosque and handed it over to a new imposed leadership, one of the mosque community has been fired from his hospital job for refusing to accept the new leadership. Zeynal A. signed a statement that he was voluntarily resigning as "he was threatened that if he did not sign he would face more serious problems and he now fears further persecution," Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the imam removed by the authorities, told Forum 18 News Service. The authorities have long disliked imam Ibrahimoglu for his defence of the religious freedom of both Christians and Muslims. In a related move yesterday (21 July), the Supreme Court upheld the stripping of registration from a charity run by Ibrahimoglu, Islam-Ittihad. The head of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan, Ilya Zenchenko, said that for the past three years the Justice Ministry has refused to register human rights organisations and expressed his support for the Juma Mosque community. "All who sincerely follow God in Azerbaijan are persecuted," he told Forum 18.