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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

ARMENIA: "It would have ended badly, for them and for us"

Armenia's religious minorities face barriers to their exercising freedom of religion or belief from senior officials, politicians, media outlets and priests of the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church, several communities have told Forum 18 News Service. Owners of two separate venues, forced to cancel contracts with Jehovah's Witnesses in June, have told Forum 18 that they did so unwillingly after facing "pressure". One stated 18 that: "It would have ended badly, for them [Jehovah's Witnesses] and for us. If the meeting had gone ahead, state structures would have become involved." Also the criminal trial of a Pentecostal Pastor Vladimir Bagdasaryan, whose colleagues insist he should never have been prosecuted, nears its end in the central town of Sevan. Bagdasaryan told Forum 18 that the Prosecutor stated that he should be fined and then amnestied. "But this means I'll still be regarded as guilty and have a criminal record," he complained. Both the Collaboration For Democracy Centre and the Helsinki Committee of Armenia have documented numerous instances of official and media intolerance, leading to denials of freedom of religion or belief.

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.

COMMENTARY: Advancing Freedom of Religion or Belief: Agendas for Change

"Rather than being a celebration of a thing of worth, the approach currently adopted by the international political community to religious freedom is dominated by the language of special pleading, disadvantage, hostility, and hate. This must change", argued Professor Malcolm Evans in a lecture hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and published in abbreviated form by Forum 18.
Agendas such as "defamation of religions, incitement to religious hatred, combating antisemitism, Islamophobia, Christianophobia, Discrimination against Christians, etc." risk, Professor Evans notes, being "self-defeating by being self-serving". "The predominant interest which faith communities show in the rights of their own" forms a barrier. "Unless and until that barrier is overcome, the ability of the international community to engage effectively with the protection of the freedom of religion or belief as a human right will be diminished".
Calling for work to re-start on a UN Convention, Professor Evans observes of some approaches: "The question which continually gets lost in these twists and turns is simple, but important: 'Why not start with the idea of the freedom of religion or belief for everyone?'" For, states are the source "in reality, [of] most of the restrictions placed on the freedom of religion or belief - and, therefore, much of the hostility and violence which believers face".
Professor Evans identifies the need to "roll back the essentially negative approaches of recent years and champion a more positive vision of what religious freedom has to offer". He ends by noting signs of positive change, and calling on Christians and those of other faiths and none to "champion the freedoms of others as well as of ourselves".

AZERBAIJAN: "I'm the permission and the warrant"

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.

AZERBAIJAN: Communities to be forced to begin re-registration again?

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.

AZERBAIJAN: "The latest devious move to control religious communities"

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".

AZERBAIJAN: Police "did well" in Sumgait raids

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."

AZERBAIJAN: Another Sunni mosque disappears, heavy fines feared

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.

AZERBAIJAN: "Sword of Damocles" hangs over religious booksellers

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".

AZERBAIJAN: Riot police versus worshippers

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".

AZERBAIJAN: Gaining legal status "a torturous process"

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.

AZERBAIJAN: "True believers aren't concerned"

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".