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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

RUSSIA: Southern Muslims complain of fall-out from anti-terrorist moves

Since the start of the second Chechen conflict, Islamic representatives maintain to Forum 18 News Service that a "negative policy towards all Muslims" in parts of the northern Caucasus has intensified. Imam Magomed Erkenov, who oversees 15 mosques in the southern Karachai-Cherkessia republic, told Forum 18 that since 1999 it has become "much harder" to register new Muslim communities. Officials visit mosques about twice a month to conduct interrogations of worshippers, Erkenov stated, on one occasion accusing a worshipper of being a Wahhabi and arresting him. An imam in a neighbouring mosque, speaking of visits by officials, told Forum 18 that "people are afraid to be seen to be Muslim now." Regional religious affairs official Yevgeni Kratov insisted to Forum 18 that mosque check-ups take place "entirely within the framework of the law" and entail neither searches nor abuses of any kind. "A police officer might drop by and take an interest, especially following a terrorist attack," he explained.

ARMENIA: Promises broken by continuing jailing of prisoners of conscience

This month (October), five Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to jail terms for their conscientious objection, on religious grounds, to military service. A sixth prisoner of conscience has been given a lesser sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The number of imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses has been brought to thirteen by these sentences, with a further two awaiting trial on the same charges. The continued sentencing and detention of religious prisoners of conscience clearly violates Armenia's previous promises to free its religious prisoners, and to introduce alternative civilian service. The Armenian Foreign Ministry declined to explain to Forum 18 how these latest sentences matched Armenia's previous promises, claiming that the issue is "outside the competence of the Foreign Ministry".

ARMENIA: Will Armenia now fulfil all its human rights commitments?

After repeated refusals over a nine-year period, the Jehovah's Witness community has finally received state registration. Hratch Keshishian, a Jehovah's Witness leader, told Forum 18 News Service that "when they phoned us from the state registry to tell us that registration had been issued I didn't believe them." But it is not known what impact this will have on the Jehovah's Witnesses serving prison terms for refusing military service, thus breaking Armenia's commitments to the Council of Europe. Keshishian told Forum 18 that freedom to practise their faith as a religious community is now the Jehovah's Witnesses' aim, as "registration in itself doesn't resolve all our problems." For example, under Armenia's religion law, but against international human rights obligations, only the Armenian Apostolic Church is legally permitted to conduct missionary activity.

AZERBAIJAN: OSCE discusses religious freedom minus a victim

Azerbaijan has for the second time in a month stopped religious freedom activist and imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev from taking part in an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference. Azerbaijan is a member of the OSCE, which aims to promote democracy and human rights. "He would have informed people  about the real situation of religious freedom in Azerbaijan," human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov told Forum 18 News Service, from the conference in Warsaw. "That's why our government didn't want him here." Ibrahimoglu intended to tell the conference about the experience of the Juma mosque congregation, whose imam he is, which was forcibly expelled from its mosque in June. Eldar Zeynalov told Forum 18 that an Azerbaijani government representative at the conference said that Ibrahimoglu "has some freedom of movement but not freedom to leave the country." Zeynalov commented to Forum 18 that this "is a return to Soviet times when there was no freedom of movement and no freedom of speech."

AZERBAIJAN: Jehovah's Witness seeks right to alternative service

Despite a constitutional right to do alternative service and Azerbaijan's commitment to the Council of Europe to introduce a law regulating such alternative service (for which the deadline has long expired), Jehovah's Witness Mahir Bagirov has so far failed to secure this right in two court hearings. "I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and my religious convictions would be violated if I was forced to bear arms," he told Forum 18. He has now lodged an appeal against the denial of his rights to the Supreme Court, but fears he could be seized and sent to a military unit at any time. A man who said he was from the police telephoned Bagirov's mother on 3 October threatening that her son would be imprisoned.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Why can't Baptist Church function?

Masis Mailyan, deputy foreign minister of the unrecognised enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that, despite the latest police raid on a Baptist congregation, the enclave follows the commitments contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, telling Forum 18 that "there are no restrictions on believers and all confessions are equal." However he contradicted himself by stating, contrary to Article 18, that, under the martial law that has operated since 1992, only registered organisations can exist and that Baptists "cannot hold services." Mailyan denied that only the Armenian Apostolic Church is allowed to function, but admitted that it is the only registered religious community. Other local Protestants have told Forum 18 that pressure on their work has eased in recent years and their congregations can function quietly, so it is unclear why the Baptists have been singled out for the authorities' continuing hostility.

AZERBAIJAN: Imam barred from travel to OSCE conference

Forum 18 News Service has been unable to discover from the Azerbaijani authorities why on 12 September border guards at Baku airport prevented religious freedom activist and imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev from travelling to Brussels to take part in an OSCE conference on racism and discrimination. Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 he was not allowed to board his Lufthansa flight despite having checked in and passed through customs. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have any information on this issue," the ministry's chief spokesperson Metin Mirza told Forum 18. "The ban imposed upon me to visit the OSCE conference is the latest arbitrary action against me," Ibrahimoglu complained.


Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.

GEORGIA: Religious freedom survey, August 2004

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Georgia since President Saakashvili came to power, Forum 18 News Service notes fundamental obstructions to the activity of religious minorities, such as the impossibility of building non-Orthodox places of worship. Intolerance of religious freedom continues in society, examples including President Saakashvili's statement that the state "should protect Georgia from harmful alien influence and extremism", vandalism of Catholic graves, demands to remove non-Patriarchal Orthodox literature from bookshops, and the Orthodox Patriarchate's call for a church to be closed to "cleanse" it, after a visit by Anglicans had "desecrated" the church. Religious minority leaders have identified the need to gain legal status, but government ministers contradict each other about whether or not a draft religion law will be produced, Prime Minister Zurab Jvania stating that the public law code should be amended to allow religious organisations to register.

GEORGIA: Will violent attackers of religious minorities be punished?

Old Calendarist priest Fr Basil Mkalavishvili, responsible with his followers for many violent attacks on, amongst others, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, True Orthodox and Catholics, has had an appeal to be released pending his September trial rejected by a Tbilisi court, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, other trials concerning violent attacks on religious minorities have not been as firm with the attackers, with many not being prosecuted at all, and other attackers having charges and sentences very significantly reduced. Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, along with other religious leaders and human rights activists, expressed pessimism to Forum 18 about whether Mkalavishvili will ever be punished for his many attacks, saying that "it depends on the political will. There is no evidence that the political will is there at the moment." However, along with other religious minority representatives, Bishop Songulashvili noted that, since President Mikheil Saakashvili took over the government, "there have been no serious assaults by extremists."

AZERBAIJAN: As arrests continue, Muslims fail to regain their mosque

On 11 August, the same day that the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by Baku's Juma Mosque community to overturn last March's eviction order, a court sentenced community member Azad Narimanoglu Isayev to seven days' detention for "resisting the police". The community's imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev told Forum 18 News Service that 83 mosque members have now been summoned to the police under various pretexts since the community was forcibly evicted from the mosque on 30 June. Human rights activist Saadat Bananyarli condemned the Supreme Court verdict. "The verdict is not legitimate because the judges are not independent," she told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: Imprisonment, no registration, and no identity documents for JWs

Armenia continues to jail Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors, in clear breach of its Council of Europe and OSCE commitments, although human rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdyan has denied to Forum 18 News Service that the commitments have been broken. The head of the state religious affairs department, Hranush Kharatyan, has rejected the right upheld in international human rights agreements of religious believers to spread their beliefs by peaceful means. An alternative service law is theoretically in force, but in practice cannot yet be applied. Jehovah's Witnesses see the alternative service terms as excessive punishment for their refusal to do military service, and are also being denied identity documents – necessary eg. for employment or marriage - on completing jail terms. Also, for the twelfth time since 1995, Jehovah's Witneses have been denied state registration. Stefan Buchmayer, the OSCE's Yerevan human rights officer, told Forum 18 that "one cannot find real legal justification for the refusal."