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15 February 2005

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!"

10 February 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Supreme court claims constitutional right doesn't exist

Azerbaijan's Supreme Court has decided that a Jehovah's Witness can be forced to do military service – even though the constitution claims that "alternative service instead of regular army service is permitted." The court argued that, as no law on civilian alternative service exists, the appeal of Mahir Bagirov must be rejected. Azerbaijan has broken a promise to the Council of Europe to introduce a law by January 2003. Sayad Kirimov, deputy head of parliament's administrative and military law department, told Forum 18 News Service that "the Supreme Court can't use the absence of a law to deprive someone of their constitutional rights." Bagirov's lawyer told Forum 18 that the ruling will be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights. After this Supreme Court decision, Bagirov "expects to be arrested by the military police and disappear into a military barracks where he anticipates being subjected to brutal treatment as an alleged deserter."

10 January 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Will Christian children now get birth certificates?

Having repeatedly refused to register 18-month old Luka Eyvazov's birth, because his parents gave him a Christian name, the authorities have at last given him a birth certificate, after Forum 18 News Service reported his case. Unusually, the authorities also apologised to Luka's parents "for making us wait and suffer for so long," Luka's mother Gurayat Eyvazov told Forum 18. Without a birth certificate, Luka was not able to go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital, or travel abroad. Luka's case was the last known case of a series of Baptist parents in the mainly-Muslim town who were refused birth certificates for their children because they had chosen Christian, not Muslim first names. However, Gurayat Eyvazov said it was unclear if the next time Baptist parents try to register a child's birth with a Christian name they will face similar refusals. "Officials said nothing on this."

5 January 2005

COMMENTARY: Azerbaijan's democracy "is being sold for oil"

In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org , an Azerbaijani Protestant, anonymous to avoid state persecution, pleads for the international community to promote religious freedom for all, as "it seems to us that our democracy is being sold for oil. Foreigners are afraid to call things by their real name. They are afraid to tell our government bluntly that human rights violations must end." He argues that "religious freedom cannot exist without other freedoms, such as freedom of expression and association, as well as press and literature freedom. Because of this, religious freedom is a litmus test for freedom and democracy in any society, including Azerbaijan." He concludes by proposing practical steps for effective dialogue with Azerbaijan's leaders, leading to real religious freedom, and how religious minorities can be involved in this process.

17 December 2004

AZERBAIJAN: "We want freedom – freedom in society, freedom of faith and freedom to worship"

A Protestant Pastor has described what Christians want to Forum 18 News Service as "we want freedom – freedom in society, freedom of faith and freedom to worship, freedom from the state so that it no longer interferes." One example of many incidents was a police raid in which the police halted a worship service, questioned all those present, and later tried to recruit the church leader as an informer. That congregation has been unable to meet for worship since. Police raids and harassment take place throughout Azerbaijan, with many believers involved being too frightened to speak out. As one pastor put it, "sometimes their own relatives don't even know they've become Christians." A pastor told Forum 18 that Baha'is and Jehovah's Witnesses face the same pressure from the authorities as Christians, as do independent Muslim and Hare Krishna communities. The authorities have denied to Forum 18 that religious persecution happens in Azerbaijan.

13 December 2004

AZERBAIJAN: Jailed for sharing faith, "non-constructive teaching" and "creating tensions between family members".

One Baha'i, Tavachur Aliyev, has been jailed for ten days, allegedly for not obeying the police, but really for sharing his faith, Baha'i sources have told Forum 18 News Service. Forum 18 has also been told that 18 Muslims were also jailed for two weeks, on charges of giving "non-constructive teaching" and "creating tensions between family members". The imprisonments took place during a fresh crackdown on religious activity in the exclave of Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), between Armenia, Turkey and Iran. Other religious communities such as the Seventh-day Adventists have also suffered at the hands of the authorities, who deny that religious persecution takes place in the exclave, and also decline to talk to Forum 18.

10 December 2004

AZERBAIJAN: Why are religious communities in Nakhichevan "crushed"?

Adventist leaders have told Forum 18 News Service that their community in Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), an exclave between Armenia, Turkey and Iran, has been "crushed," and the police have banned them from meeting. Baha'is have told Forum 18 that "we can't do anything in Nakhichevan," and the imprisonment of one Baha'i and 18 Muslim imams has been reported. Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 that "in Nakhichevan officials are more open about persecution than elsewhere." This opinion was backed by Professor Ali Abasov, president of the Azerbaijani branch of the International Religious Liberty Association, who said that "there is no democracy, no free media and no human rights in Nakhichevan." Asked by Forum 18 why, he responded with a grim laugh: "The authorities don't want it," insisting that the Nakhichevan authorities are doing what the authorities in the rest of Azerbaijan would like to do. The authorities have repeatedly denied any religious persecution and have declined to talk to Forum 18.

9 December 2004

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.

8 December 2004

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.

2 December 2004

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.

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