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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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GEORGIA: Georgian Orthodox priests incite mobs against religious minorities

Georgia's Constitutional Court today (25 May) ruled that mob attacks violated Pentecostal pastor Nikolai Kalutsky's rights to practice his faith freely, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Sozar Subari, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, is one of many who state that the mobs are instigated by local Georgian Orthodox priest Fr David Isakadze. Subari witnessed an attack by Fr Isakadze and told Forum 18 that "a criminal case should be launched against him. However, it will be difficult to prove that he is responsible as he no longer turns up in person." Fr Isakadze and Archpriest Shio Menabde apparently also led a mob to expel another Orthodox priest, Fr Levan Mekoshvili, from his parish accusing him of being a "liberal". Elsewhere, Baptists and Pentecostals both state that Orthodox priests instigate violence against their congregations. "Until those responsible for the violence – especially Fr David Isakadze – are brought to justice, the constitutional court ruling in Kalutsky's case will make no difference," Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili told Forum 18. The Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate failed to respond to questions about its responsibility.

GEORGIA: Legal improvements, but little practical improvement

"Definite improvements for religious minorities have taken place in the legal field, but on the ground little real improvement has taken place," Levan Ramishvili, of the Liberty Institute told Forum 18 News Service. He was commenting on changes to laws covering religious communities' legal and tax status, as well as a new law affecting school religious education. These de jure changes have been broadly welcomed by minority religious communities, but some are unhappy at being treated as NGOs or private legal persons. But de facto the changes have yet to make a significant impact. Fr Gabriel Bragantini of the Catholic Church commented on education that "In Tbilisi it may be better, but elsewhere it's still as it was before." Emil Adelkhanov, of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, stressed that religious minorities must exercise their rights and noted that religious freedom improvements could be reversed. He called for international pressure to be maintained and cited survey results, which found that nearly 47 per cent would support destroying the literature of religious minorities such as Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Baptist faces two years jail or two years forced labour

Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan faces either being jailed or sent to do forced labour for two years for refusing, on religious grounds, to swear the military oath, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Mirzoyan has been beaten up several times in two different military units in Nagorno-Karabakh since being called up last December, when he refused to serve with weapons. He has also been detained for more than 10 days for sharing his faith with other soldiers and possessing several Christian calendars. Mirzoyan's trial has now been set for June and fellow Baptists have told Forum 18 that the "harsh reality" of the maltreatment Baptist conscripts suffered in the Soviet era is returning. Gagik Mirzoyan's congregation has earlier faced harassment from the Karabakh authorities and other Protestants and religious minorities, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, have faced restrictions on their activity.

ARMENIA: Not illegal deportation, merely illegal removal

Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Armen Grigoryan faces a six year jail sentence, after his illegal deportation from his own country, Armenia, and his refusal to do military service in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. But Armenia's Human Rights Ombudsperson, Larisa Alaverdyan, denied to Forum 18 that Grigoryan had been deported. "You can't call it illegal deportation – there's no such term. I'm a specialist on this. Perhaps it might have been illegal removal from the country." She defended what she claimed was the right of the Armenian Defence Ministry to send Armenian citizens to Nagorno-Karabakh, which international law regards as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia continues to break its promises to the Council of Europe to free conscientious objectors and introduce a civilian alternative to military service. Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses continue to be beaten up and jailed for conscientious objection.

AZERBAIJAN: Human rights commissioner defends religious freedom violations

Azerbaijan's human rights commissioner, or ombudsperson, Elmira Suleymanova, has repeatedly refused to recognise religious freedom violations – such as police raids on religious minorities and compulsory religious censorship - as human rights violations. Talking to Forum 18 News Service, Suleymanova categorically denied that there are frequent raids. Forum 18 has documented such raids. "This view is completely at variance with reality and constitutes untrue information," she claimed. Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointing to cases such as Suleymanova's apparent failure to take action over the six-month imprisonment of imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev and the violent expulsion of the community from their mosque, told Forum 18 "That's why people often speak of her as the 'governmental ombudsperson' ".

AZERBAIJAN: Official refuses to say why Jehovah's Witness meeting "illegal"

Local religious affairs official Firdovsi Kerimov, who joined a 17 April police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting in a private home in Gyanja [Gäncä], has refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service why he believes the meeting was "illegal". Those at the meeting were taken to the police station and threatened with administrative fines if they repeat their "offence", while 200 Jehovah's Witness books were confiscated. Local police chief Sahib Ismailov told Forum 18 the meeting was illegal because the group is unregistered. "When officials claim religious communities can't meet without registration they don't know the law, as the law doesn't say this," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. "Either that or they don't want to uphold the law."

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Beating and 12 day imprisonment for Baptist soldier

Forum 18 News Service has been unable to reach V. Davidov, commanding officer of the unit in Hadrut of the army of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic where Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan was beaten and detained for more than ten days in early April before being transferred to an unknown location. Mirzoyan "is being persecuted for preaching the Gospel and because they found several Christian calendars in his possession," his relatives and friends told Forum 18 after meeting him at the unit just before his transfer. Mirzoyan has been threatened with a two year prison sentence.

AZERBAIJAN: Government bans religious freedom advocate from UN meeting

After being barred from leaving Azerbaijan to attend the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) meeting in Geneva, imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev has been banned from crossing the land border to Georgia, he has told Forum 18 News Service. In an address prepared for the UNCHR, Ibrahimoglu asks "If a person cannot choose to believe what he or she wants, how can that person be called truly free, even if he or she can talk about many other things? Freedom of religious belief - and the ability to manifest those beliefs in public - allows us to be honest and truthful with one another, to be truly human with one another. I am confident that in the end, the Azerbaijan government will embrace religious freedom, though the road may be difficult and we may meet many more struggles. Freedom will triumph because the people of Azerbaijan - like the people of every other nation on earth - are human beings created by God to be free."

AZERBAIJAN: Will the state protect Muslim scholar from Muslim death threats?

Baku-based Muslim scholar Nariman Gasimoglu has called on the Azerbaijani authorities to protect him in the wake of what he has told Forum 18 News Service were two death threats from Muslims over the past month, made because of his Islamic religious views. These threats were followed up by threats on Iranian-based Azeri-language television, which is widely available in southern parts of Azerbaijan. Gasimoglu told Forum 18 that he believes the police are unwilling to uncover the "whole network" of those he thinks may be behind the death threats. Speaking of his views on Islam, Gasimoglu said he believes that "this is not something traditional Muslims would like, but it's my right to propagate my own religious views." In 2003, an imam of a mosque not far from his home told worshippers on several occasions that a jihad should be declared against him. "Jihad in their interpretation unfortunately means fighting enemies by using weapons," Gasimoglu told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: New wave of Jehovah's Witness sentences

Five young Jehovah's Witnesses are known to have been imprisoned for refusing military service so far in March, the largest number in a single month since last October and in continuing defiance of Armenia's commitment to the Council of Europe to end imprisonment of conscientious objectors. One, Arman Agazaryan, a 28-year-old dentist, is the only breadwinner in his extended family of six, his lawyer Rustam Khachatryan told Forum 18 News Service. Khachatryan also complains of the treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses who have opted for the alternative military service, saying they remain under military control, have to serve far longer than those in the army and are banned from joining their fellow Jehovah's Witnesses for worship. There is no civilian alternative service.

COMMENTARY: No religious freedom without democracy: a lesson from "Orange Ukraine"

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's surprise announcement last month of the abolition of the State Committee for Religious Affairs is a powerful signal to the rest of the region that governments should end their meddling in religious life, argues former Soviet political prisoner Professor Myroslav Marynovych, who is now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University http://www.ucu.edu.ua in Lviv, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. He regards the feeling in Ukraine that the communist model of controlling religion is now dead as the greatest gain of the "Orange Revolution" in the sphere of religion. Yet Professor Marynovych warns that other countries will find it hard to learn from the proclaimed end of Ukrainian government interference in religious matters without wider respect for human rights and accountable government. Without democratic change – which should bring in its wake greater freedom for religious communities from state control and meddling - it is unlikely that religious communities will escape from government efforts to control them.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "Inhuman" sentence on religious conscientious objector

Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan has been jailed for four years, by a court in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, for refusing to do military service – even though he stated that he would do alternative, non-military, service. Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanyan, the Defence Minister, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that "it doesn't depend on me – according to our law of Nagorno-Karabakh there is no alternative service, so they are sentenced in line with the law." But General Ohanyan noted that, in individual cases, provision has been made for religious conscientious objectors to do military service in non-combat roles. He quoted the case of a Baptist, Gagik Mirzoyan, who refused to fight in the army despite pressure from the Armenian Apostolic Church's military chaplain. "He is now serving (..) without arms and without swearing the military oath. Otherwise he's doing everything the other conscripts do. He's now content." Baptist sources, who preferred not to be identified, confirmed to Forum 18 that Mirzoyan was happy with his terms of service.