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2 July 2009

ARMENIA: Will critical review halt restrictive Religion Law?

The Council of Europe and OSCE have given a highly critical review of proposed amendments which have already been approved by Parliament in their first reading. The amended Religion Law would ban the sharing of faith, require 500 adult citizen members before a religious community could gain legal status, ban non-Trinitarian Christian communities from gaining legal status, give broad reasons for banning religious communities, and recognise the "exclusive mission" of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The new Criminal Code Article 162 would punish the sharing of beliefs. "The authorities have to take the points of this review into account, though I don't know if they will," Russian Orthodox priest Fr David Abrahamyan told Forum 18 News Service. "If they adhered to European standards they wouldn't have adopted these amendments in the first reading." The government's senior religious affairs official, Vardan Astsatryan, told Forum 18 he had "no knowledge" of the results of the review. But the Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 Astsatryan had told them in mid-June that the proposed amendments have been suspended but not abandoned.

4 May 2009

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."

24 March 2009

ARMENIA: A "serious setback to the development of a modern, progressive and liberal Armenia"

Armenian human rights defenders and religious communities remain deeply concerned by many parts of the draft Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. Serious concern has also been expressed about the proposed new Article 162 in the Criminal Code, which would punish the sharing of beliefs. Both drafts were approved by Parliament in their first readings. A joint review of the new laws are expected to be conducted by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the OSCE. Armen Ashotyan, a parliamentary deputy of the Republican Party in the government coalition, who is leading the adoption of the laws, told Forum 18 that deputies will wait for the review before proceeding further. However, he declined to pledge that all the review's recommendations will be accepted. Alarm has been caused by, among other provisions, a high legal status threshold of 500 people, bans on sharing beliefs, and unclear wording of provisions allowing religious organisations to be banned. They have been condemned as a "serious setback to the development of a modern, progressive and liberal Armenia"

9 February 2009

ARMENIA: Two years' imprisonment for organising sharing of faith?

If two draft Laws which began passage through Armenia's Parliament on 5 February are adopted, spreading one's faith would be banned, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Those who organise campaigns to spread their faith would face up to two years' imprisonment, while those who engage in spreading their faith would face up to one year's imprisonment or a fine of more than eight years' minimum wages. Gaining legal status would require 1,000 adult members, while Christian communities which do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity would be barred from registering. "These proposed Laws contain violations of all human rights." Russian Orthodox priest Fr David Abrahamyan told Forum 18. Religious affairs official Vardan Astsatryan told Forum 18 the government backs the draft Laws "in general". He declined to explain why the government has not involved the OSCE in preparation of the draft Laws.

28 January 2009

AZERBAIJAN: Unregistered worship "illegal" - but under what law?

Police in Azerbaijan have raided another Jehovah's Witness meeting, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the latest raid, nine Jehovah's Witnesses were detained and threatened. "We consider the police raid unlawful since the Constitution of Azerbaijan gives us the right to gather for worship and Azerbaijani law does not require registration to come together to study the Holy Scriptures," a Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18. The community will continue to meet, he insisted. Officials repeatedly insist that unregistered worship is banned by the Administrative Code. Article 299 of this Code lists three "offences": avoiding state registration, violating regulations over organising religious events and attracting children to religious events. Violations can be punished with fines of between 10 and 15 times the minimum monthly wage. However, state registration is not legally required for religious activity to be conducted. Meanwhile Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov's trial is once again due to resume, after repeated delays, on 4 February.

5 January 2009

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Repressive new Religion Law signed

The President of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, Bako Sahakyan, has signed a repressive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It comes into force ten days after its official publication, which is expected to be after the current Christmas holidays. No officials were available to discuss the new Law, because of public holidays for Christmas which the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates on 6 January 2009. The main restrictions in the new Law are: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; highly restrictive requirements to gain legal recognition; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith while restricting other faiths to similarly undefined "rallying their own faithful". Many articles of the Law are formulated in a way that lacks clarity, making the intended implementation of the Law uncertain. The Law also does not resolve the issue of conscientious objection to military service.

11 December 2008

ARMENIA: Imprisonment of some 80 conscientious objectors "not a human rights issue"

Armenia's Foreign and Justice Ministries have denied to Forum 18 News Service that the country's alternative to military service is also under military control. Karine Soudjian, who heads the Human Rights Department in the Foreign Ministry, insisted to Forum 18 that the current Alternative Service Law has "no contradiction" with Armenia's international human rights obligations, including to the Council of Europe. But the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg says the Law "does not provide for a genuine civilian service as the service is still managed and supervised by the Ministry of Defence". Soudjian says the imprisonment of some 80 Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors – a figure she disputes – "is not a human rights issue". Parliamentary deputy David Harutyunyan told Forum 18 the Law has "room for improvement" and is being discussed in two parliamentary committees, but declined to spell out what changes are being discussed. Jehovah's Witnesses fear that if the system does not change, at least a further 15 young men will face trial from January.

4 December 2008

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "The Law is like rubber"

President Bako Sahakyan of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh is considering a restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. The new Law imposes vaguely formulated restrictions, including: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith, while banning "soul-hunting" and restricting others to undefined "rallying their own faithful". Garik Grigoryan, head of the parliamentary Commission on State Legal Issues, claimed to Forum 18 that "it will be a more liberal, democratic Law." Members of religious communities have expressed serious concerns to Forum 18. One member of the Armenian Apostolic Church rhetorically asked Forum 18: "Where's the freedom?" Another described the Law as "like rubber," noting that "you can't see exactly how it's going to be put into practice." The Law also does not resolve the issue of a civilian alternative to compulsory military service.

24 September 2008

AZERBAIJAN: Religious freedom survey, September 2008

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service has found continuing violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. The state attempts to control or limit the majority Muslim and minority religious communities, including imposing strict censorship, violating its international human rights commitments. The situation in the Nakhichevan exclave is worse than the rest of the country. Officials often claim that Azerbaijan is a state of religious tolerance – a view promoted by government-favoured groups – but the state promotes intolerance of some minorities and has not introduced the genuine religious freedom necessary for genuine religious tolerance to flourish. Many officials are convinced that ethnic Azeris should not be non-Muslims, and act on this conviction. In practice, many violations of the human rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims – such as the detention of Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov and a ban on Muslims praying outside mosques - are based on unwritten understandings and even violations of the written law.

12 June 2008

AZERBAIJAN: "Wasn't one prison term enough?"

Baptist former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev has been summoned and threatened with a new prison term, he has told Forum 18 News Service. "Haven't you learnt from your imprisonment?" Balaev quoted police officers as telling him. "Wasn't one prison term enough for you?" One officer added: "You may not be afraid, but you've forgotten you've got a wife, daughter and a son." Police banned Balaev's church from meeting, a ban the congregation has defied. Kamandar Hasanov, the deputy police chief in Azerbaijan's north-western Zakatala region, denied to Forum 18 that he had threatened Balaev. Hasanov also refused to discuss with Forum 18 the harassment of Balaev's Baptist congregation, why Muslim men with beards were forcibly shaved and banned from Zakatala's mosque in recent years, and why religious books were confiscated in a raid on a Jehovah's Witness home. A local resident told Forum 18 that the pressure to shave off beards has at present halted.

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