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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

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."

AZERBAIJAN: What is the "Plan to Prevent the Spread of Religious Extremism"?

Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry has issued – but apparently not published - a "Plan to Prevent the Spread of Religious Extremism by Radical Sects", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Senior Ministry officials have refused to say what is in the Plan, however police in Gyanja have claimed that a raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting marking their most important festival is part of the Plan. Police insisted that the meeting was "illegal" as the community does not have state registration in the city. Asked why this makes their meeting "illegal", officers – who did not give their names – only repeated the "illegal" claim. It is unclear whether a raid on a Baptist meeting, publishing full names, addresses and birthdates of victims of such raids, and refusal to allow a mosque in the capital Baku to reopen are also linked to the Plan. Human rights defenders and religious communities are especially concerned about officials publicising the personal details of their victims, one defender stating it could be regarded as "a kind of hate speech". No official has been able to explain to Forum 18 how these official actions "prevent the spread of religious extremism".

ABKHAZIA: "We'll kick out anyone"

The internationally unrecognised entity of Abkhazia has defended its expulsion in early April of three Georgian Orthodox monks and four nuns. Defence Minister Merab Kishmaria told Forum 18 News Service that "I took the decision to expel them. We'll kick out anyone who prevents the population of Abkhazia from living calmly." Asked how the monks and nuns in the remote Upper Kodori Gorge had disturbed the population, he responded: "They don't recognise our independent state or our Orthodox leader Fr Vissarion." The monastery has functioned in the Upper Kodori Gorge from the early 1990s, when the area was under the control of Georgian authorities. After fighting in August 2008, the area came under the control of the Abkhaz authorities. The monks and nuns were expelled after they resisted pressure from Fr Vissarion Aplia - who heads the canonically unrecognised Abkhaz Orthodox Church - to leave the Georgian Orthodox Church and join the group he controls. Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Gvinjia defended the expulsions, insisting to Forum 18 that the Abkhaz Orthodox Church can prevent any religious community it does not like from functioning. The local Georgian Orthodox community has thus been denied access to any clergy just before the major Orthodox feast of Easter.

AZERBAIJAN: "We have long been after you and now we've caught you!"

Police, the NSM secret police and the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in Azerbaijan have all refused to explain why they raided a peaceful religious meeting. "We never engage in such acts," the NSM secret police told Forum 18 News Service. Officials raided the home of a 78-year old Baptist, church members told Forum 18. Hostile local press and TV coverage – using police material - identified the eight male officials as being from the police, NSM secret police and the State Committee. Also with the eight were two cameramen. One of the police stated: "We have long been after you and now we've caught you!" 12 children were present, listening to Bible stories with their parents' specific permission. Police questioned the children, who cried under the stress of this, but police refused to allow parents to be present or to take their children home. Three Baptists were detained and fined for "illegally spreading Christianity and other faiths". Raids also continue on Jehovah's Witnesses, and the NSM secret police also denied to Forum 18 any involvement in the continued closure of Baku's Abu Bekr mosque. Constitutional changes last month, the State Committee states, will make it easier to crack down on "harmful" religious groups.

UZBEKISTAN: Cleric takes part in police raid on religious community

Police in Uzbekistan "decided to invite" a Russian Orthodox priest to take part in a raid on a group of Baptists, a police officer has told Forum 18 News Service. Father Igor Skorik of Almalyk's Assumption of the Mother of God Church pressured Baptists not to attend unregistered worship and to come to his church instead, church members told Forum 18. The use of a cleric of one religious community to pressure members of another in cooperation with the authorities is a disturbing new development. The raid on a private home was led by Major Urazali Kholbekov, from the Tashkent Regional Criminal Investigation and Counter-Terrorism Department, who apparently arranged for Fr Skorik to take part in the raid. Fr Igor claimed he did not violate the law by taking part. "I was not there to check up on the Baptists but to just advise them," he insisted. Local Baptists point out that the raid and Fr Skorik's participation violates both Uzbek law and international human rights law. Church members were arrested, and police claimed Baptists were "at risk of danger in the case of a terrorist act which could be carried out by people in their home".

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"

AZERBAIJAN: Literature censorship for export also?

Azerbaijan's wide-ranging religious literature censorship system has started to affect the export of such literature, Forum 18 News Service has found. Customs authorities recently confiscated Christian religious literature from Azerbaijani citizens leaving Azerbaijan. No mention is made in Azerbaijan's laws of censorship of religious literature taken out of the country. Similarly, Forum 18 was told by a customs official that customs regulations are also silent on this point. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, speaking after the confiscation of Muslim literature, told Forum 18 that "our society doesn't need books that don't suit our laws and our beliefs." He claimed that unspecified religious literature could cause unspecified "social harm and possibly inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence." Jehovah's Witnesses have filed three lawsuits specifically against the censorship system, which, they point out, is a violation of the right to religious freedom as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party.

AZERBAIJAN: Pastor convicted not jailed, insists charges fabricated

Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov has been convicted of possessing an illegal weapon, but insists that he is innocent. "I will continue to fight against this sentence and to clear my name," he told Forum 18 News Service. Unless Shabanov's conviction is quashed, he will have a criminal record. The head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 though that "the main thing is that Hamid won't have to go to prison." Both the prosecutor and police have refused to talk to Forum 18 about the case and conviction. Concern is being expressed about the arrest of one of Shabanov's relatives, Teyyub Eyvazov, who police claim possessed drugs. Some Baptists think that this is the latest attempt by the authorities to pressure them, although Eyvazov is not a Christian. Meanwhile, yet another raid has been made on a Jehovah's Witness meeting. "It is ironic that at the previous police raid in Gyanja the police said we did not have registration and therefore our meeting was unlawful," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. "But why, then, do they also raid meetings in Baku, where we do have registration?"

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.

AZERBAIJAN: Government still keeps Mosque, Baptist church, and Georgian Orthodox churches closed

Five months after the authorities closed the Abu-Bekr Mosque in Azerbaijan's capital Baku, the mosque community is still banned form worshipping in it, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Another appeal is due to be heard on 19 February. No official has been able to explain to Forum 18 why the Mosque should remain closed, or why a Baptist church is also kept closed. A court has told the Mosque's lawyer that giving reasons is "not appropriate." The authorities have also refused to explain to Forum 18 why an unpublished nationwide ban on praying outside mosques, when mosques are full, remains in force. Also banned from meeting in their own place of worship are Georgian Orthodox villagers in north-west Azerbaijan. The Georgian Orthodox Church would like to fully reopen four churches in the region, and establish a monastery. At present the authorities allow worship lasting no more than 30 minutes in only three of the churches only. "But our services need at least an hour and a half," Bishop Sergi Chekurishvili told Forum 18. He fears that many Georgian Orthodox are deprived of the sacraments, and can die without access to communion.

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.

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.