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GEORGIA: "Orchestrated reaction" against religious minorities' buildings

Georgian politicians and the Georgian Orthodox Church continue to deny the continued impossibility for religious minorities to openly build places of worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. "The difficulties we face are linked not to laws, but to a climate that has been artificially created and which forces us – in order not to stir up aggression – not to undertake construction," Catholic Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto told Forum 18. Amongst religious minorities facing this intolerance are Baptist churches, Pentecostals, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the True Orthodox Church. Elene Tevdoradze, Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights and Civic Integration Committee, denied to Forum 18 that problems exist, as did the Deputy Chair of the Committee, Lali Papiashvili. She told Forum 18 "No, no, that's not true. It's obviously not true." Zurab Tskhovrebadze of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate also denied that religious minorities face obstruction in building.

GEORGIA: Will mob halt Assyrian Catholic centre?

Assyrian Catholics in Georgia's capital Tbilisi fear more mob attacks, after a religious and cultural centre was attacked by a mob, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "The Orthodox Church and fundamentalists don't want a Catholic presence," Fr Benny Yadgar told Forum 18. "If we start to use the centre for worship these fanatics could attack our people with knives and wooden posts. Our people have a right to be protected." Fr Yadgar insists that the problems do not come from the authorities, but a current signature campaign could lead to pressure on the authorities. Police have refused to comment to Forum 18 on the attacks. The Georgian Orthodox Church and the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee – unlike human rights activists, religious minorities and the Human Rights Ombudsperson - have refused to defend the Assyrian Catholics. "I called on Patriarch Ilya to defend our church, but he says it is not his business," Fr Yadgar stated.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Uncertainty faces Baptist conscientious objector

It is unclear whether the authorities will take further action against a young Baptist conscript who refuses to swear the military oath and bear arms on grounds of conscience, Forum 18 News Service has found. Gagik Mirzoyan was freed from prison at the end of a jail sentence, held by the Military Police and, after eight days, transferred to a military unit. "They are still pressuring him to swear the military oath and take up weapons," Baptist pastor Garnik Abreyan told Forum 18. "He still has three months to serve of his military service and we just don't know what they will do with him." Albert Voskanyan, of the Centre for Civilian Initiatives – who has regularly visited both Gagik Mirzoyan and jailed Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Areg Hovhanesyan – told Forum 18 that "the danger is real that Mirzoyan could be imprisoned again." Deputy Foreign Minister Masis Mailyan told Forum 18 that he does not know what the military will now do.

CHINA: Xinjiang - Strict control of China's Uighur Muslims continues

In China's north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, control over Islam continues to be much stricter than over other religions, Forum 18 News Service has found. However, the authorities' control over mosques used by Dungans – a Chinese Muslim people - is less strict than over mosques used by Uighurs. Many Uighurs are Muslims, and their religiosity is often closely connected with separatism. Pressure – for example on the texts of Friday sermons, and attempts to force schoolchildren and state employees such as teachers to abjure Islam – is applied more strictly in the north of the region. There is also a ban in Xinjiang on the private Islamic religious education of children. In response, Forum 18 has noted that Uighur parents often take their children to other parts of China, where they can study freely at a medresseh. Islamic movements such as Sufism and Wahhabism are repressed, and the authorities are attempting to assimilate Uighurs through economic inducements. This policy, Forum 18 has found, has made some impact amongst Uighur Muslims.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious minorities want religious freedom

As Azerbaijan prepares amendments to its Religion Law, religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service of their widely differing views on this. The state-approved Caucasian Muslim Board wants more restrictions, as the current Law "gives great possibilities to all kinds of destructive and totalitarian sects and pseudo-religions" – although its spokesman repeatedly could not name any such Azeri group. In sharp contrast, religious minorities Forum 18 has spoken to want religious freedom. The major changes they want are: the end of compulsory censorship of religious literature; the removal of practical and legal barriers, such as a requirement that non-Muslim communities have a centre abroad to which they are subject; and an end to the ban on foreigners conducting "missionary activity". They have also told Forum 18 that they want an end to officials' arbitrary powers to interpret the law to restrict religious freedom, or to invent restrictions without any foundation in law.

AZERBAIJAN: Why and how will Religion Law be amended?

A parliamentarian preparing changes to Azerbaijan's restrictive Religion Law, Rabiyyat Aslanova, has declined to discuss them or why they are being made, Forum 18 News Service has found. She expressed hostility to "Christian missionaries", who she accused of "working underground and calling for an uprising," but declined to give Forum 18 any proof of her allegations. Aslanova also denied that religious literature censorship exists – until Forum 18 reminded her of its existence – and then defended it, as well as denying both that police have raided religious communities and that religious communities are arbitrarily denied legal status. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations could not explain why the state practices religious discrimination. Human rights activists have expressed frustration to Forum 18 at the secretiveness surrounding the new Law, and pessimism that it will bring any improvement to the religious freedom situation.

AZERBAIJAN: Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector sentenced

Mushfiq Mammedov, a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector has been given a six month suspended jail sentence and intends to appeal against this, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He was sentenced for refusing compulsory military service – even though the country's Constitution guarantees the right to alternative service, and not allowing this breaches its Council of Europe commitments. "My son has done nothing wrong – he's not guilty," his mother Sevil Najafova told Forum 18 "He told the Military Commissariat he's prepared to do alternative unarmed service in line with his religious beliefs." A spokesperson for the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, defended the sentence. "Our law says every young man must join the army, so this sentence is correct," he told Forum 18. The OSCE has noted that "a constitutional right would be meaningless if the government recognised a right to alternative service only after it had initiated the promulgation of a law."

AZERBAIJAN: Criminal trial resumes for Jehovah's Witness

Mushfiq Mammedov, a 23-year-old Jehovah's Witness who wants to be allowed to do alternative service in line with Azerbaijan's constitution and international obligations rather than compulsory military service, faces up to two years in prison if convicted. His trial at Baku's Sabail District Court, which began on 30 June, resumes on 12 July. "We don't know how the hearing will go – nor how long the case will last," his mother Sevil Najafova told Forum 18 News Service. "Azerbaijan undertook the obligation to the Council of Europe to adopt a law on alternative service, and not granting alternative service is a clear violation of this commitment," Krzysztof Zyman of the Council of Europe told Forum 18. But Adil Gadjiev of the Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office in Baku insists Azerbaijan is doing nothing wrong. "Signing such commitments doesn't mean we have to accept these rights without a corresponding law."

TURKMENISTAN: Demolition of places of worship continues

In large-scale demolition projects in Turkmenistan, those expelled from their home get no compensation and often nowhere to live. Amongst the buildings demolished are religious communities' places of worship. The last surviving pre-revolutionary Armenian Apostolic church and a family-owned Sunni mosque in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi have been destroyed, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Exiled human rights activist Vyacheslav Mamedov told Forum 18 that the mosque "was used on Muslim festivals and for family events like weddings, funerals and sadakas [commemorations of the dead]." The former Armenian church "was a very beautiful building," Mamedov recalled. He told Forum 18 that there is widespread anger and fear over the destruction of the town's historic centre. Amongst places of worship in Turkmenistan, known to Forum 18 to have been demolished in the past, are mosques, an Adventist church, and a Hare Krishna temple.

RUSSIA: Will southern Catholics win full rights to their churches?

Two southern Catholic parishes are unable to obtain official permission to use their new church buildings, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Priests in both parishes stressed, however, that worship has so far been unaffected, and that they do not believe Catholic ownership of the churches to be at stake. Religious organisations very often find it difficult to obtain official confirmation that their de facto complete houses of worship are fit for use, Natalya Gavrishova, a lawyer at the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice told Forum 18. Another problem for both Catholic parishes - in Rostov-on-Don and Sochi - is that changes to the Land Code have resulted in huge financial demands, which are a considerable burden for the parishes. Vitali Brezhnev, state Chief Specialist for Relations with Religious Organisations in Rostov-on-Don region, emphasised to Forum 18 that the authorities "bear no evil intent" towards Catholics and that bureaucracy has become more complicated: "Building my own house was an eight-month nightmare – and I'm a bureaucrat myself!"

RUSSIA: Sochi Muslims without Mosque, Catholics hope for Chapel

In the Black Sea town of Sochi, close to the Georgian border, the authorities have persistently denied the Yasin Muslim community permission to construct a mosque, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The community has been trying to find a suitable site for 10 years but, "whenever I find somewhere, the [city] architectural department says that it's already sold, obstructed by pipes, or something else," Ravza Ramazanova, the organisation's chair, told Forum 18. The community's roughly 70 worshippers currently use three cramped cellar rooms – which Forum 18 has seen – to pray and study. Similarly, local Catholic priest Fr Dariusz Jagodzinski hopes that Sochi's bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 will assist plans for the construction of a Catholic chapel in the nearby town of Adler. This, he explained to Forum 18, was how the Catholic church in Sochi was built from 1995-97: "They were hoping to hold the Winter Olympics here in 2002." Forum 18 noted that the Russian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews and the New Apostolic Church all have prominent houses of worship in the Sochi area.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious conscientious objector in jail

A Jehovah's Witness, Mushfiq Mammedov, is to be tried for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is despite guarantees in Azerbaijan's Constitution of the right to perform alternative service. Mammedov has been in detention since 28 April, and the authorities are refusing to allow his family to visit him. "We're not allowed any meetings until the investigation is over," she told Forum 18. "We don't know how long that will go on." Azerbaijan promised the Council of Europe that it would establish alternative civilian service by January 2004. "No progress has been registered on adopting a law on alternative service," Krzysztof Zyman, of the Council of Europe's Directorate General of Human Rights told Forum 18. "The fact that the law has not been adopted is in clear violation of the commitments Azerbaijan undertook when it joined the Council of Europe." Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in 2001.