27 July 2011
After a police raid in Azerbaijan's port city of Sumgait in mid-June, a judge gave the leader of a Baptist church, Pavel Byakov, a verbal warning not to meet for worship without state permission. The judge also warned that for a second "offence" Byakov will be fined, church members who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 News Service. A large quantity of literature confiscated in the raid has been given to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, to decide whether the material is legal. Prolonged delays in dealing with applications for legal status still continue, over one and half years after the deadline for processing applications. In defiance of Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments unregistered religious activity is illegal. Two religious communities – Cathedral of Praise Protestant Church and Baku's Jehovah's Witness community - have challenged the State Committee's failure to re-register them through the courts, and Cathedral of Praise today (27 July) gained a court ruling that they should be re-registered. But it still remains unclear when or if this will happen.
26 July 2011
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.
7 July 2011
ARMENIA: European Court finds conscientious objector was wrongfully convicted and jailed – but what will government do?
The European Court of Human Rights has today (7 July) published a Grand Chamber judgment finding that Armenia violated Vahan Bayatyan's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness, was imprisoned from September 2002 to July 2003 for refusal on grounds of conscience to perform compulsory military service. Armenia currently has 69 prisoners of conscience – all Jehovah's Witnesses – in jail for refusing conscription. Armenian officials gave only cautious responses to the verdict to Forum 18 News Service, but Jehovah's Witnesses noted to Forum 18 that it should both lead to the prisoners of conscience being freed, and "help our fellow believers who are facing the same issue in Azerbaijan and Turkey". Armenia claims amendments to the Alternative Service Law now in Parliament will take the current alternative service out of the control of the military. But the wording of the amendments is unclear and does not unambiguously state this. Lieutenant Colonel Sasun Simonyan, who was involved in preparing the amendments, told Forum 18 that – as at present - anyone doing alternative service who violated their terms of service would be dealt with by the Military Prosecutor's Office.
13 June 2011
The state religious affairs official who led the police raid yesterday (12 June) on a Baptist congregation in Sumgait during Sunday morning worship explained away the lack of a warrant. "I'm the permission and the warrant," local Baptists quoted him as telling them. Also raided the same day was a Jehovah's Witness meeting in Gyanja, fellow Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. Both were raided because they do not have the compulsory state registration and in both cases fines are expected. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations defended its officials' participation in the raids, claiming they were "in accordance with the law". The raids came two days after Parliament approved yet further restrictive amendments to the Religion Law.
8 June 2011
Many of Azerbaijan's religious communities, whose re-registration applications have not been answered since the end of 2009, fear that the proposed raising of the required number of adult founders from 10 to 50 could see their current applications rejected, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The latest restriction on freedom of religion or belief is contained with other restrictive Religion Law draft amendments to be considered in Parliament on 10 June. Officials have given contradictory views on whether the increase in founders will be applied retroactively. This will be the 13th time that the 1992 Religion Law has been amended. Many communities fear that their intent is to force them to re-apply again, giving more opportunities for officials to impose pressure on communities and stop them gaining legal status. The Council of Europe's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has described restrictions in the Religion Law on spreading one's faith and on religious literature as "incompatible with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights". ECRI was also highly critical of the re-registration system.
6 June 2011
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has sent new amendments to the Religion Law to the country's parliament, the Milli Mejlis, which is due to consider them on 10 June. Among other new restrictions in the draft text seen by Forum 18 News Service, they will require 50 adults to state that they are founders for a religious community to apply for state registration. Also the amendments increase the controls that the state requires religious headquarter bodies or centres to have over all communities under their jurisdiction. "This is the latest devious move to control religious communities through the law," a member of a religious minority told Forum 18. Muslim activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev noted that "these amendments are anti-Constitutional and violate the European Convention on Human Rights and United Nations human rights provisions". Iqbal Agazade, the only Milli Mejlis deputy of the opposition Umid (Hope) Party, told Forum 18 that "the amendments restrict human rights and are not in accordance with Azerbaijani law and international standards".
18 May 2011
Defending the raids in mid-May on three Protestant churches in Sumgait within three days was the press office of Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry. The police "did well", an official there told Forum 18 News Service. After a raid by up to 15 police officers on the Sunday worship service of one of the congregations, held in a local restaurant, two church members were today (18 May) each fined about two weeks' average local wages. On 17 May, some 20 police officers raided a private flat where members of another local church were meeting, seizing about 60 books. "You can't meet for religious purposes in a restaurant – there are mosques and synagogues for that," the Interior Ministry official insisted. He refused to give his name, telling Forum 18: "I don't know who you are. You might be a terrorist or Azerbaijan's enemy No. 1."
13 May 2011
After Turkish imam Ahmet left the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan in February, the Sunni Juma Mosque was taken over by the Shia community, leaving local Sunni Muslims nowhere to pray in the way they wish, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Forum 18 has been unable to establish whether the imam was forced to leave by the Nakhichevan authorities, or whether he left on completion of his term. Turkish diplomats refused to say. "No new appointment [of a Turkish imam] has yet been made, and we don't know when that will be," one told Forum 18. Meanwhile, two Jehovah's Witnesses face possible heavy fines for religious activity after religious literature was seized from their homes. Police and secret police joined the local Religious Affairs official to raid one. A Nursi reader had a Koran seized and faced police questioning in Mingechaur.
12 April 2011
Bookshops selling religious literature in Azerbaijan are facing unspecified measures because they do not have the compulsory state licence to sell religious literature, Forum 18 News Service notes. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allaverdiev, head of the Devamm Muslim religious freedom organisation, told Forum 18 that "only very few can get such licences, while fines for selling religious books without a licence hang over traders like a sword of Damocles." However, he added that traders were reluctant to make official complaints in writing, fearing state reprisals, and preferred to complain verbally. Some local people noted to Forum 18 that traders are vulnerable to officials seeking bribes to turn a blind eye to evasion of the regulations. However, the harsh censorship regime on all religious literature is still being rigorously applied. And a ban is being imposed on local branches of foreign non-governmental organisations if, among other things, they engage in "political or religious propaganda".
8 April 2011
Three religious communities in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have been banned from meeting for worship, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Babek Sadykov of Gyanja Police completely denied this, claiming to Forum 18 that "no one is being prevented from worshipping". Local people, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that one of the communities was warned that "if they met for worship on the following Sunday or at any future date they will all be arrested". Two buses full of ordinary police and riot police later arrived to prevent any religious worship. Protestants told Forum 18 that the church had already reluctantly decided not to hold one big Sunday service that day. "People are now very afraid." Meanwhile, a government-initiated World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue was told by President Ilham Aliyev that "freedom of religion, freedom of conscience have been fully established in Azerbaijan".
7 April 2011
Many of Azerbaijan's religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service that procedures to gain or re-gain legal status are "a torturous process". At least 300 communities are waiting for renewed legal status, and unregistered activity is banned. Typically over 15 separate documents are required, and many complain that State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations officials arbitrarily and repeatedly question information supplied, the grammar of applications, and the completeness of documentation. Yusif Askerov of the State Committee told Forum 18 that "we're trying to help religious communities with the re-registration process". But communities state that complaints about slowness and hostility in processing applications are dismissed with comments such as "If you're not happy you can take us to court". Many communities are afraid to speak out publicly, for fear of official reprisals. But some are prepared to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, noting the precedents set by Moldova losing such cases.
5 April 2011
As yet a further mosque is reported closed, parliamentarian Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev complained to Forum 18 News Service of the continued enforced closure of places of worship. He cited the Turkish mosque near parliament where he regularly prayed, whose 2009 closure he termed "unfounded". Local Muslims told Forum 18 officials in Qobustan closed and sealed their mosque on 4 March with no explanation. They said denials to Forum 18 from Administration and local police officials were lies. Members of the only Sunni mosque in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja are continuing their campaign to have it reopened, though the city's Administration chief told them it was not his business. Baku's Baptists are renewing their campaign for the return of their church ceremonially opened exactly a century ago but confiscated during Soviet rule. Rabiyyat Aslanova of Parliament's Human Rights Committee admitted mosques have been closed, but told Forum 18 that "true believers aren't concerned about this".