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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

COMMENTARY: Azerbaijan's democracy "is being sold for oil"

In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org , an Azerbaijani Protestant, anonymous to avoid state persecution, pleads for the international community to promote religious freedom for all, as "it seems to us that our democracy is being sold for oil. Foreigners are afraid to call things by their real name. They are afraid to tell our government bluntly that human rights violations must end." He argues that "religious freedom cannot exist without other freedoms, such as freedom of expression and association, as well as press and literature freedom. Because of this, religious freedom is a litmus test for freedom and democracy in any society, including Azerbaijan." He concludes by proposing practical steps for effective dialogue with Azerbaijan's leaders, leading to real religious freedom, and how religious minorities can be involved in this process.

AZERBAIJAN: "We want freedom – freedom in society, freedom of faith and freedom to worship"

A Protestant Pastor has described what Christians want to Forum 18 News Service as "we want freedom – freedom in society, freedom of faith and freedom to worship, freedom from the state so that it no longer interferes." One example of many incidents was a police raid in which the police halted a worship service, questioned all those present, and later tried to recruit the church leader as an informer. That congregation has been unable to meet for worship since. Police raids and harassment take place throughout Azerbaijan, with many believers involved being too frightened to speak out. As one pastor put it, "sometimes their own relatives don't even know they've become Christians." A pastor told Forum 18 that Baha'is and Jehovah's Witnesses face the same pressure from the authorities as Christians, as do independent Muslim and Hare Krishna communities. The authorities have denied to Forum 18 that religious persecution happens in Azerbaijan.

AZERBAIJAN: Jailed for sharing faith, "non-constructive teaching" and "creating tensions between family members".

One Baha'i, Tavachur Aliyev, has been jailed for ten days, allegedly for not obeying the police, but really for sharing his faith, Baha'i sources have told Forum 18 News Service. Forum 18 has also been told that 18 Muslims were also jailed for two weeks, on charges of giving "non-constructive teaching" and "creating tensions between family members". The imprisonments took place during a fresh crackdown on religious activity in the exclave of Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), between Armenia, Turkey and Iran. Other religious communities such as the Seventh-day Adventists have also suffered at the hands of the authorities, who deny that religious persecution takes place in the exclave, and also decline to talk to Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Why are religious communities in Nakhichevan "crushed"?

Adventist leaders have told Forum 18 News Service that their community in Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), an exclave between Armenia, Turkey and Iran, has been "crushed," and the police have banned them from meeting. Baha'is have told Forum 18 that "we can't do anything in Nakhichevan," and the imprisonment of one Baha'i and 18 Muslim imams has been reported. Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 that "in Nakhichevan officials are more open about persecution than elsewhere." This opinion was backed by Professor Ali Abasov, president of the Azerbaijani branch of the International Religious Liberty Association, who said that "there is no democracy, no free media and no human rights in Nakhichevan." Asked by Forum 18 why, he responded with a grim laugh: "The authorities don't want it," insisting that the Nakhichevan authorities are doing what the authorities in the rest of Azerbaijan would like to do. The authorities have repeatedly denied any religious persecution and have declined to talk to Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: "Our constitution guarantees us freedom of religion, but in reality we don't have it"

"We rely on God. If we're persecuted for the name of Christ we're blessed," a Pastor told Forum 18 News Service after commenting that "our constitution guarantees us freedom of religion and belief, but in reality we don't have it." Baptists in north-west Azerbaijan face being prevented from working by the authorities, intimidation, and refusal to register their children's births with Christian names, Forum 18 has found. The birth registration ban stops children going to kindergarten or to school, getting treatment in a hospital, or travelling abroad. Despite the detailed accounts of Baptists met by Forum 18, the head of the town administration has strenuously denied their statements. Forum 18 has also been told that people who visit Baptist services are threatened with the loss of their jobs, a powerful threat in a region where unemployment is high, and that the police have banned the holding of a Sunday school for children.

AZERBAIJAN: "We don't need Baptists here," shouts obstructive official

"We don't need any Baptists here," Najiba Mamedova, the notary of Azerbaijan's north-western Zakatala [Zaqatala] region shouted at Forum 18 News Service, asked why she has for more than a year refused to notarise the signatures on the registration application of a local Baptist congregation. "We don't want a second Karabakh," Najiba Mamedova screamed, adding "Who financed you? Go to them," before throwing Forum 18 out of her office and threatening to call the police. The church's pastor, Hamid Shabanov, told Forum 18 that "She always spoke to us like that." The church began applying for registration in 1994, making it the religious community which has been denied registration in Azerbaijan for the longest period. The head of the Aliabad administration, Gasim Orujov, has refused to allow the Baptists to build a church in the village. "There is Islam here and we have our mosque," he told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Police disperse and harass academic religion researchers

Azeri authorities have repeatedly broken up meetings of a local academic research group investigating the state of religious freedom across the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Project leader Hikmet Hajizade told Forum 18 that "we wanted about eight people in each group, but even such a small group was not allowed to meet – the police often drove us out of town." Police told FAR Centre researcher Haji Hajili that "they had received instructions to drive us out and said it would be better if we left peacefully of our own accord." The researchers faced such problems as the cancellation of premises' availability, police breaking up meetings, obtrusive eavesdropping by police informers, widespread fear of the authorities' reaction amongst local participants, police surveillance of participants' homes, some Muslim participants accusing researchers of working with "enemies of Islam" and then calling police to meetings, as well as threatening other participants.

AZERBAIJAN: The boy who (officially) doesn't exist

18-month-old Luka Eyvazov does not officially exist, Forum 18 News Service has found, because local authorities refuse to issue birth certificates for children with Christian names. "We have letters from village residents and 98 per cent are opposed to registering Christian names," local registration official Aybeniz Kalashova told Forum 18. Mehman Soltanov of the Justice Ministry asked Forum 18 "why did they choose a religious name?" and then speculated that it was not Luka's parents who chose his name but "some religious sect". Luka's father, Novruz Eyvazov, insists that children are from God and told Forum 18 that "We went many times to ask what basis they had to interfere in our family life. They indicated there was pressure on them from on high. When they told me to choose the name of a famous Azerbaijani poet or writer instead," he told Forum 18, "I responded that Luke, as one of the Gospel-writers, will still be famous when all the poets and writers are long forgotten." This is the latest of case of official refusal to register Christian names. Without birth certificates, people cannot go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital or travel abroad.

AZERBAIJAN: Police raid Adventist service, fine and threaten leader, connive at hostile TV interviews of children

While a Council of Europe delegation was examining whether Azerbaijan meets human rights commitments, police in the country's second city, Gyanja [Gäncä], raided a worship service being held by a registered Adventist congregation, arrested and interrogated two leaders, fining and threatening one with deportation, and connived at a local TV crew conducting hostile interviews with children against the protests of their parents. Interviewed by Forum 18 News Service, Firdovsi Kerimov, local representative of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, who took part in the interrogations and TV interviews, claimed that he defends the rights of believers, "but only if they act in accordance with the law" and insisted that "everything was done in accordance with the law." The Azeri ban on foreigners conducting "religious propaganda" violates international human rights law, which does not distinguish between anyone legally resident in a country.

RUSSIA: State restrictions on Mosques in south's minority Muslim areas

Only eight out of 47 Muslim communities in the southern Stavropol region have obtained state registration so far. The head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Karachai-Cherkessia and Stavropol Region, Mufti Ismail Berdiyev, told Forum 18 News Service that "the authorities don't want to register them because they think that if they don't, a problem will disappear." But he argued that "if you register communities then you can monitor them, but the authorities haven't grasped this yet." Mufti Berdiyev's assistant, Abubekir Kurdzhiyev, suggested to Forum 18 that the 39 unregistered Muslim communities in the region could not obtain registration because some of their members had fought with Chechen separatists: "When their corpses returned, the mosques came under suspicion." But he estimated that no one from about 60 per cent of these communities had fought in Chechnya, and rejected the idea that a whole mosque could be held responsible for one person's decision.

GEORGIA: Violence against religious minorities continues

Violence and the threat of violence against Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic and Pentecostal religious minorities continues, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. For example, a Baptist deacon, Zurab Khutsishvili, has been banned by police from building a house and threatened with been driven out of his village. Villagers have also beaten-up two fellow-Baptists. Other religious communities face similar opposition. Questioned by Forum 18, local Orthodox bishop Ekvtime declined to say whether the Orthodox Church would allow religious minorities to build places of worship. The deacon's village is close to the village of Akhalsopeli, where a Baptist church affiliated with the separate and larger Baptist Church of Georgia was burnt out by a mob incited by the local Orthodox priest. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Church, told Forum 18 that "the local priest is stirring up the villagers so we can't start the rebuilding."

RUSSIA: Is State's treatment of southern Muslims unjust?

Mufti Ismail Berdiyev, who belongs to the presidential Council for Co-operation with Religious Organisations, has told Forum 18 News Service that he supports "the general idea of attacking Wahhabism and terrorism," but cannot fully endorse every anti-terrorist measure. "Some state officials don't know the first thing about religion and go too far," he remarked, "we don't accept their mistakes." In the area he comes from, the authorities compile lists of suspected "Wahhabis". "I'm opposed to that," he told Forum 18, "if people are conducting terrorist activity then they should be prosecuted." Local imams state that there is an Islamic militant problem, but imam Magomed Erkenov told Forum 18 that the problem's scale did not warrant negative treatment of the entire Muslim community. Commenting on those fighting in Chechnya, he told Forum 18 that "They may have said that they were fighting against Russia, but if paid they would have fought against Muslims, or their own relatives. There is nothing holy about that war."