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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: Will imprisoned Baptist face new sentence?

Fellow Baptists fear that Gagik Mirzoyan could face new charges when his current sentence for refusing to perform military duties expires on 5 September. "All kinds of officials have told us he will be sentenced again – and that next time the sentence will be harsher," Baptist pastor Garnik Abreyan told Forum 18 News Service from Stepanakert, capital of the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. A Karabakh native, Mirzoyan was imprisoned after refusing on grounds of religious faith to swear the military oath and handle weapons when conscripted into the army in 2004. Despite being beaten in prison in February and sent to the punishment cells, Mirzoyan told visiting civil society activist Albert Voskanyan that he has "no complaints" about his current treatment. Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan is serving a four-year sentence in the same prison for refusing Karabakh's compulsory military service.

AZERBAIJAN: Mosque unable to invite back freed imam

Although freed from jail three and a half years after his arrest on trumped-up charges, Imam Kazim Aliyev is unable to return to his Sunni Muslim mosque in Azerbaijan's second city, Gyanja [Gäncä]. "The whole mosque community wants him to return, but he is not being allowed – we don't know why," current prayer leader Ilham Ibrahimov told Forum 18 News Service. Human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov, who has been helping Aliyev refute charges of organising an armed uprising, told Forum 18 that the Gyanja police have warned Aliyev "unofficially" not to return to the city if he wants to avoid arrest. Imam Aliyev categorically denied to Forum 18 the claims of the Military Counter-intelligence Service. "How can three people organise an uprising? All our group did was to discuss Islam." He noted sadly to Forum 18 that he has given up trying to return to his old mosque as he knows "one hundred percent" that if he returned he would be sent back to prison.

ARMENIA: Will new alternative service law end defiance of Council of Europe?

As Armenia prepares the fourth version of its Alternative Service Law, first adopted in 2004, Justice Minister David Harutyunyan has told Forum 18 News Service that the draft now being prepared will "very soon" be sent to parliament. He rejected Council of Europe assessments that the country has violated its commitments to end the imprisonment of conscientious objectors (48 are currently in prison with four more awaiting trial) and to introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service, despite admitting to Forum 18 that alternative service remains under military control. Bojana Urumova, the Council of Europe representative to Armenia, told Forum 18 that "alternative service cannot be said to exist in Armenia". "The government doesn't want to introduce a genuine alternative service," local journalist Vahan Ishkhanian complained to Forum 18. "Only if the Council of Europe is persistent and does not allow itself to be fooled by the deception will the Armenian government be forced to introduce a genuinely civilian service."

ARMENIA: Nearly 50 Jehovah's Witness and Molokan prisoners of conscience

Numbers of religious prisoners of conscience in Armenian jails continue to increase, despite a January 2004 promise to the Council of Europe to free all conscientious objectors and introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service. There are now 48 Jehovah's Witness and Molokan prisoners, Forum 18 News Service has found. Molokans are a Russian Christian group with pacifist leanings. Four more Jehovah's Witnesses await trial after abandoning 'civilian' service run by the Armenian Army's General Staff, with military regulations imposed on participants. A defence lawyer has complained to Forum 18 that these trials are being deliberately dragging out by the authorities. Armenia's Deputy Prosecutor-General, Kevork Danielyan, has claimed to Forum 18 that "the Jehovah's Witnesses are exploiting inadequacies in the law." He failed to explain to Forum 18 why they might be organising their own imprisonment and exploiting the law to achieve this. Officials have claimed to Forum 18 that more legal amendments are in preparation.

KYRGYZSTAN: Intolerance against Christians highlighted by murder

The recent murder of an ethnic Kyrgyz convert to Christianity, Saktinbai Usmanov, was the culmination of a long series of intolerant incidents, Forum 18 News Service has found. Usmanov was the only Christian in his village. The intolerance was encouraged by the village Mullah, Nurlan Asangojaev, although most of the attackers were themselves drunk, which is forbidden in Islam. Asangojaev arranged for Usmanov to be banned from community events after his conversion, which is very painful for the traditionally community-centred Kyrgyz. He has also barred Usmanov from being buried in the village cemetery. Mullah Asangojaev has since Usmanov's murder told Forum 18 and others that "I can't offer any convincing proof, but I am sure that Saktinbai was killed by Protestants because he wanted to return to Islam." This is strongly denied by Saktinbai Usmanov's son, Protestant Pastor Ruslan Usmanov, who told Forum 18 that this is a "monstrous slander." There are numerous incidents of intolerance, including official hostility, towards Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds throughout Central Asia, Forum 18 has found.

CENTRAL ASIA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan close doors to UN Special Rapporteur

Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.

COMMENTARY: What are the roots of Turkey's attitude to religious freedom?

The complexity of Turkish attitudes to religious freedom is rarely understood and addressed, even by observers who live in the country, argues Canon Ian Sherwood, an Irish priest who has been Anglican Chaplain in Istanbul http://web.archive.org/web/20080229064600/http://www.anglicanistanbul.com/ since 1989. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org he notes that "one has to keep reiterating that minorities are Turkish by modern citizenship but often are made to feel foreign, even if their customs and deeper ethnic identities predate the majority culture by many centuries." The deep-rooted problems of non-Islamic religious minorities are "principally an innate social attitude that rests very much deeper than anything that could be usefully addressed by European regulation." He comments that observers find it difficult to understand "the injustices experienced by minority religious groups." These "seem to be particular to Turkey, as Turkey struggles to face west with an Islamic and eastern inheritance."

TURKMENISTAN: Government severely restricts Haj numbers

Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.

GEORGIA: Religious minorities still second-class faiths?

Only two in-country non-Orthodox religious communities in Georgia – the Mormons and the Muslims - have received state registration, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Jehovah's Witnesses were only registered as a branch of their US headquarters. Registration – which grants rights to own property communally, run bank accounts, and have a legal personality – is only possible as a non-commercial organisation, not a religious community. In addition to their unhappiness with the exclusive privileges the state has given the Georgian Orthodox Church, some religious communities – among them the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church and the Muslims – want registration to be possible as religious communities. Hostility towards any non-Georgian Orthodox Church community is widespread, preventing the building of places of worship and even, according to Ombudsperson Sozar Subari, leading to compulsory baptisms of children without their parents' permission.

AZERBAIJAN: Baha'is and Baptists want confiscated property back

Baha'is and Baptists in Azerbaijan have both told Forum 18 News Service of their concerns about buildings, confiscated from them in the Soviet period, which they want returned. Both communities have had evasive replies from the state. The Baha'is think that a house central to their community's history may be demolished, and the Baptists want a historic church in central Baku, the capital, back. Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that "it's not just a property we want to get back to sell - our church wants to worship there once again." The Baptists visited the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, but were told that "there is no law on restitution so it can't be returned." Other places of worship also remain in state hands, but not all the religious communities involved are unhappy with this. Lutherans in Baku, for example, have told Forum 18 that they are happy they can use their church – now a concert hall – for Sunday worship.

AZERBAIJAN: Disturbing numbers of police raids on religious communities

Police raids on religious communities have continued to take place at a disturbing rate, Forum 18 News Service has found, especially on summer camps and open air preaching outside the confines of state-registered religious buildings. Baptists, independent Muslims outside the state-controlled Caucasian Muslim Board, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna communities, and Baha'is are amongst those who have been attacked by the authorities. Nakhichevan, an exclave wedged between Turkey, Armenia and Iran, is the "worst region in the country" for religious freedom, a Hare Krishna devotee told Forum 18. This is an observation that people of several faiths have frequently made to Forum 18. One of the most serious attacks was a raid on a Baptist children's summer camp, in which ordinary police and NSM secret police officers arrived "in many cars, shouting and swearing, even at the women," a church member who was handcuffed and beaten up in front of children told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: We are breaking our Council of Europe commitments, official admits

Four Jehovah's Witnesses who abandoned their alternative service at a psychiatric hospital in May after it turned out to be under military control were sentenced to three years' imprisonment each on 3 November in Sevan, Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia told Forum 18 News Service. One of the four, Boris Melkumyan, testified in court that the hospital director ordered them to shovel snow with their bare hands until their arms froze, to remove a dead body from the women's section during the night, and despite having no training, to perform nursing duties on aggressive patients. Valery Mkrtumian of the Armenian foreign ministry admitted to Forum 18 that alternative service is under military control, thus violating Armenia's commitment to the Council of Europe to have introduced a genuinely civilian alternative service by January 2004. Twenty Jehovah's Witnesses are currently serving prison terms in Armenia, with a further fourteen soon due to go on trial.