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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

AZERBAIJAN: Frustration at latest unfounded allegations

In the latest of numerous unfounded allegations that Rafik Aliyev, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, has made on local media, he has accused the Adventist and Greater Grace Protestant churches of, amongst other things, conducting "illegal religious propaganda" and of disturbing "citizens residing near places where prayers are held." "We Protestants have been trying to build up a relationship of trust with him and then he comes out with these unfounded accusations," one Protestant told Forum 18 News Service. Aliyev's committee was reported as taking "tough measures up to their closure." Aliyev used a similar approach in 2002 to close down Baku's Azeri-language Baptist church. Pastor Yahya Zavrichko, who heads the Adventist Church in Azerbaijan, told Forum 18 that "Last time Rafik Aliyev complained about us in the media a month ago we spoke to him and he confirmed he had no facts of any violations we had committed."

UZBEKISTAN: Saints and martyrs relics banned

Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"

RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, February 2005

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Russia, Forum 18 News Service notes that fluctuation remains the distinguishing feature of state policy. Symbolic appearances of solidarity between President Putin and Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarch Aleksi II - sometimes with representatives of the other "traditional" confessions (Islam, Judaism and Buddhism) - often translate into regional state officials taking decisions in the interests of only these faiths, to the detriment of other confessions. This even takes place in areas, such as eastern Siberia, where Protestants have a longer tradition than some "traditional" confessions. It is unclear how deeply the symbiotic relationship between the state and "traditional" confessions will develop. Should a state policy against "non-traditional" confessions be pursued, Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals are likely targets. Some confessions have seen significant improvements in relations with the state, notably Catholic, Buddhist and Jewish religious organisations, but recent developments in state policy appear to be having an increasingly adverse affect upon Muslims.

AZERBAIJAN: Supreme court claims constitutional right doesn't exist

Azerbaijan's Supreme Court has decided that a Jehovah's Witness can be forced to do military service – even though the constitution claims that "alternative service instead of regular army service is permitted." The court argued that, as no law on civilian alternative service exists, the appeal of Mahir Bagirov must be rejected. Azerbaijan has broken a promise to the Council of Europe to introduce a law by January 2003. Sayad Kirimov, deputy head of parliament's administrative and military law department, told Forum 18 News Service that "the Supreme Court can't use the absence of a law to deprive someone of their constitutional rights." Bagirov's lawyer told Forum 18 that the ruling will be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights. After this Supreme Court decision, Bagirov "expects to be arrested by the military police and disappear into a military barracks where he anticipates being subjected to brutal treatment as an alleged deserter."

GEORGIA: Two leaders of religious violence finally sentenced – but what about the others?

Two prominent leaders of large-scale violence against religious minorities, Fr Basil Mkalavishvili and Petre Ivanidze, have been given jail sentences, but Forum 18 News Service has been told that many other attackers remain free and unpunished, as individual attacks and sectarian hostility continue. "Of course I'm pleased by the prison sentences, but I know no-one else will ever face trial for any of these many attacks," Orthodox priest Fr Basil Kobakhidze told Forum 18 gloomily. "Dozens of people if not more – including priests of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate – should be on trial, but they never will be." Interior Ministry press secretary Guram Donadze declined any official comment, but stated "as a private individual", that others should be tried for their involvement in religious violence. Mkalavishvili and Ivanidze's lawyers are going to appeal against the sentences. Forum 18 knows of no other trials pending for violent attacks against members of religious minorities.

GEORGIA: How should religious violence legacy be overcome?

Individual attacks on people exercising freedom of religion and belief still continue after five years of unchecked large-scale violent attacks. Religious leaders, human rights defenders and Georgia's Ombudsperson have all told Forum 18 that the instigators of the violence must be uncovered. Baptist Bishop Songulashvili told Forum 18 that "if it is not done now, it will still be festering five years on. How this violence started, how it developed, and who organised it has to be known. This is the only way the situation can be changed and the terrible legacy overcome." Human rights defender Giorgi Khutsishvili told Forum 18 that "reconciliation comes after the most painful moment. Only when all those responsible – including the organisers – are brought to trial and they plead guilty can reconciliation start." Among the ideas put forward is a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the Georgian Orthodox Church's Patriarchate and a senior government official have both claimed to Forum 18 that it is not necessary to investigate the root causes of the violence.

GEORGIA: Attacks on religious minorities unpunished

Despite their having been hundreds of documented physical attacks on members of religious minorities, including people being hospitalised, and places of worship and religious literature being destroyed, Forum 18 News Service has been unable to discover any prison terms being given to the attackers. In the most recent of the three completed trials for a small minority of the attacks, one attacker was given a two-year suspended sentence. The trial of one of the most notorious ringleaders of some of the violence, Old Calendarist priest Fr Basil Mkalavishvili, who proudly distributed video tapes of his attacks, and six associates is now underway in Tbilisi, but Forum 18 is unaware of any other trials. Hundreds of other participants in mob attacks on religious minorities such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, True Orthodox and Catholics have escaped prosecution and many fear they will never be brought to justice.

GEORGIA: Only "very small percentage" of attacks in trial charges

The trial of Fr Basil Mkalavishvili, who proudly distributed video footage of his and his associates' physical attacks on religious minorities, and six associates is apparently nearing completion in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. But religious minority leaders and local human rights activists have expressed fears to Forum 18 News Service about the small number of attacks being considered. "The trial covers only three of the more than one hundred attacks against our communities alone," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Manuchar Tsimintia told Forum 18, a view echoed by Giorgi Khutsishvili of the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation. "Of all Georgia's religious violence over this period, this trial covers less than one percent." Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, who as head of the Georgian Baptist Church testified in court about Mkalavishvili's attacks, expressed concern to Forum 18 that "there are no charges relating to physical injuries suffered by members of religious minorities."

GEORGIA: Who incites anti-Baptist village mobs?

The governor of Gurjaani district, Akaki Tsikharulidze, has denied to Forum 18 News Service that he was, according to local Baptists, among officials who "agitated" against an independent Baptist congregation, "stirring up hostility" and encouraging a mob of up to 600 villagers to halt the building of a home for Baptist deacon Zurab Khutsishvili in the village of Velitsikhe. Attacks on a Baptist congregation in another part of Georgia have continued, and no religious minority – such as Pentecostals, True Orthodox, Evangelical-Baptists and Catholics – believes that they can openly build places of worship. Pentecostal Pastor Nikolai Kalutsky told Forum 18 that "Until religious minorities gain legal status this will not change." Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili commented on the prospects for building non-Orthodox places of worship that "without a law on religion, local authorities could easily say no - but by the same token they could also say yes. It depends on local circumstances."

AZERBAIJAN: Will Christian children now get birth certificates?

Having repeatedly refused to register 18-month old Luka Eyvazov's birth, because his parents gave him a Christian name, the authorities have at last given him a birth certificate, after Forum 18 News Service reported his case. Unusually, the authorities also apologised to Luka's parents "for making us wait and suffer for so long," Luka's mother Gurayat Eyvazov told Forum 18. Without a birth certificate, Luka was not able to go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital, or travel abroad. Luka's case was the last known case of a series of Baptist parents in the mainly-Muslim town who were refused birth certificates for their children because they had chosen Christian, not Muslim first names. However, Gurayat Eyvazov said it was unclear if the next time Baptist parents try to register a child's birth with a Christian name they will face similar refusals. "Officials said nothing on this."

ARMENIA: Religious conscientious objector forcibly taken to Nagorno-Karabakh

Armen Grigoryan, a religious conscientious objector who is seriously contemplating becoming a Jehovah's Witness, has been forcibly taken by the Armenian authorities from Armenia to a military unit in Nagorno-Karabakh, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. After he was beaten up, Grigoryan was forced to stand in his underwear in front of about 1,800 soldiers to tell them why he refused to do military service. "He told everyone present that his rejection was based on his religious beliefs and his study of the Bible," his father told Forum 18. This is the first instance known to Forum 18 of an Armenian religious conscientious objector being forcibly taken to a military unit in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has repeatedly broken its promises to the Council of Europe on the treatment of conscientious objectors. Grigoryan has now escaped from the military and has written to the Armenian authorities from his hiding place, to say that he is prepared to do alternative civilian service.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Did Armenian priest beat Baptist conscientious objector?

An Armenian Apostolic Church military chaplain, Fr Petros Yezegyan, has vehemently denied to Forum 18 News Service that he beat up a Baptist, Gagik Mirzoyan, who refused on religious grounds to do military service in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic's army. Fr Yezegyan admitted talking to Mirzoyan for some hours, and Baptist sources have told Forum 18 that "for the final hour and a half the priest beat the brother so badly that blood flowed from his nose and mouth". Baptists have also stated that this was the second beating Mirzoyan received, the first being by a unit commander who assaulted him after he refused to abandon his faith and to serve in the army. Relatives have been refused information on where Mirzoyan currently is, and the Defence Ministry would only tell Forum 18 that he "is still alive."