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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: Is religious censorship getting worse?

Baptists, Muslims, Adventists, Hare Krishna devotees, Baha'i and human rights activists have all noticed the problems caused by the censorship of religious literature in Azerbaijan, the head of the Baptist Union telling Forum 18 News Service that censorship is "getting worse". "We even have to ask for permission for one book sent to us through the post," Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. "Formally, censorship was abolished in Azerbaijan by presidential decree in August 1998, but it still exists," Eldar Zeynalov, of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointed out, telling Forum 18 that "If Rafik Aliev [chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations] had existed in Mecca at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he wouldn't have allowed him to produce any books as his views would have been regarded as heresy." Zeynalov also noted that prisoners are sometimes banned from seeing religious literature.

AZERBAIJAN: "Half-free" imam to challenge suspended jail sentence

A five year suspended jail sentence has been given to Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev, imam of Baku's historic Juma Mosque and a leading religious freedom advocate, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He was accused of associating with Iranian revolutionaries and al-Qaida, and later accused of supporting Protestants and the West, and preaching radicalism. The verdict has been widely condemned by Azerbaijani human rights activists, the Baptist Church and the rapporteur of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly monitoring group on Azerbaijan. However, the state-approved Caucasian Muslim Board told Forum 18 it welcomed the sentence. Azerbaijan insists that every Muslim community must belong to the Caucasian Muslim Board, which has been accused of being "packed with KGB officers". The Juma Mosque has refused to submit to the board's authority and the 1,000 year old mosque is also fighting an attempt by the authorities to evict worshippers and turn the mosque into a carpet museum.

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist and Adventist support for Imam at trial

At the opening of the trial today (22 March) of jailed religious freedom activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, Azerbaijan's Baptist leader Pastor Ilya Zenchenko and Adventist leader Pastor Yahya Zavrichko have spoken out in support of the Imam, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Baptist Pastor Zenchenko told Forum 18 that "the trial is a spectacle, a show. There is no basis for the charges against him. He is a victim." Adventist Pastor Zavrichko was as forthright. "I believe he is innocent. He only spoke up for people's religious rights." The Imam's brother, Najaf Allahverdiev, is not optimistic about the trial's outcome, speaking of "the usual procedural violations" and fearing that Imam Ibrahimoglu might be sentenced to several years' jail, possibly suspended if there is great international pressure. Meanwhile, members of Imam Ibrahimoglu's 1,000 year old Juma mosque are still fighting the authorities' attempts to evict them and turn the mosque into a carpet museum.

GEORGIA: Will violent Old Calendarist priest now be punished?

Violent Old Calendarist priest Fr Basil Mkalavishvili could soon be in the dock after he and his key associates were seized when police stormed his church in the capital Tbilisi on 12 March. Mkalavishvili and seven associates are now in three-month pre-trial detention. Baptist Alexei Ordjonikidze, who witnessed Mkalavishvili ordering his supporters to beat his fellow Baptists and burn all the Bible Society literature in their lorry in 2002, told Forum 18 News Service that under the law Mkalavishvili should get at least seven years in prison. Human rights activist Levan Ramishvili believes the end of the reign of terror against religious minorities is one step closer. "When he and his colleagues are convicted by a court, a line will be drawn." He believes Mkalavishvili might do a deal with the court to reduce his sentence by naming those in the old government who might have sponsored his violent campaign. No priests of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate alleged by religious minorities to have organised similar attacks have been arrested.

AZERBAIJAN: Senior official "slanders Adventists"

Adventists and Muslims have rejected as "slander" accusations by Azerbaijan's senior religious affairs official that an Adventist pastor, Khalid Babaev, tried to gain converts through bribery, that the Adventist relief organisation ADRA is seeking to attract converts "at all costs" and that religious liberty group IRLA is an "Adventist organisation" funded by the United States "special services". Rafik Aliev made the claims in television interviews, but Forum 18 News Service has been unable to reach him to find out why he made the allegations. Babaev was forced to flee the Nakhichevan exclave after receiving death threats. IRLA's secretary general in Azerbaijan, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of Baku's Juma Mosque, is awaiting trial while a court has ordered the community expelled from the mosque.

AZERBAIJAN: Muslims await police expulsion "with fear and flowers"

Muslims of Baku's historic Juma mosque are continuing to reject the 1 March court order that they must leave "immediately" the place of worship they have been using for the past twelve years. A court executor visited yesterday (4 March) and warned that next time he will come with police to expel them by force. "This has put the believers into a state of fear," mosque spokesman Seymur Rashidov told Forum 18 News Service. The Muslims have not been told when the police will arrive, but pledge they will greet the police with flowers. The planned expulsion has been widely condemned, with the US Helsinki Commission calling it "a page out of Azerbaijan's communist past".

AZERBAIJAN: Court decides to "immediately" expel Muslims from mosque

A court has decided today (1 March) to "immediately" expel the Muslim community of the 1,000 year-old Juma mosque in Baku's Old City, Forum 18 news Service has learnt. This is an apparent punishment for the community's independence from the authorities, and for its stance defending human rights, including religious freedom, for all in Azerbaijan. The Muslims now fear that police could expel them at any moment. Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist community, called the ruling a "blatant injustice". "The government fights not only against dissidents, like Christians and others, but even against Muslims, its own," he told Forum 18. "It is not even a Muslim government. It is against God." He said the government wants everyone to worship and fear it, and not to speak out. "It is trying to take the place of God."

AZERBAIJAN: Adventist pastor flees serious death threats

Adventist pastor Khalid Babaev and his family have fled Nakhichevan (Naxçivan) in fear, being forced to flee by the refusal by police to protect them from serious death threats, Form 18 News Service has learnt. The state official in charge of religious affairs locally has claimed to Forum 18 that he didn't "know that there are people here who hate others for religious reasons" and that he is "too busy to look into the case," even though he has been told by Pastor Babaev of the death threats. It is believed that the threats are related to the commemoration by Shia Muslims of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, grandson of Islam's prophet Muhammad, which is often a tense time.

AZERBAIJAN: Police refuse to protect Adventists facing death threats

Police have refused to protect an Adventist pastor in Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), who has been threatened by local men with death or being driven out of the community. "People phone and come to my house to threaten us but the authorities have refused to help," Pastor Khalid Babaev told Forum 18 News Service. Pastor Babaev fears for the safety of his wife and son, and does not know if it will be safe to hold a service as usual next Saturday. Local Muslims have threatened to sacrifice Babaev as a holy duty and to halt Adventist religious activity in Nakhichevan. If Pastor Babaev holds another service, he has been told that a mob will be collected to attack his house. The police have refused to discuss the threats with Forum 18, or say what they would do to protect church members from the threatened violence.

AZERBAIJAN: Court proceedings to seize mosque next week

Court proceedings to seize the 1,000 year-old Juma mosque in Baku, which the government wants to turn into a carpet museum, are due on Wednesday 25 February, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "You know that judges in Azerbaijan are not independent, so they'll rule to close down the mosque and kick us out," Seymur Rashidov, a mosque spokesman, told Forum 18. "But we'll challenge any such decision through the courts, even to the European Court of Human Rights." The mosque's jailed Imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev, has pleaded for international publicity and help: "All the hope is for the help of dear friends for whom religious freedom and human rights are not just words but their life mission.", he wrote to Forum 18. The mosque and its young imam have been prominent defenders of religious freedom for all, including Baptists and Adventists. Amongst foreign embassies expected to attend the court hearings is the Royal Norwegian Embassy. "We will be following the case very closely – we will be there," Ambassador Steinar Gil told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: "Traitor" for being Christian?

A deputy head of police has threatened a Baptist Pastor, trying "to drive him out of the town, ban him from visiting and insulted him as a 'traitor' for having adopted Christianity," the leader of the Baptist church in Azerbaijan has told Forum 18 News Service. This is one of many problems Baptists have, including other threats from local police officers and congregations being unable to get state registration. An Azeri-language Baptist church has been closed down and its pastor banned from preaching and subjected to a harsh media campaign. Also, 50,000 Azeri-language New Testaments have been denied entry to Azerbaijan. Baptists have told Forum 18 of their opposition to attempts to crush the Muslim community of Baku's Juma mosque led by imprisoned imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev. The Baptists have been prominent in his defence, pointing out that his arrest "testifies to the intentions of the authorities to restrict even further the religious freedom not only of Baptists but of all believers in Azerbaijan".

ARMENIA: Government breaks promises to Council of Europe

Armenia promised the Council of Europe that it would free all imprisoned conscientious objectors by 26 January 2004. But in a clear violation of this promise, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that that day Artak Saiyan, a Jehovah's Witness, was jailed for 2 years for refusing military service. Today (4 February) postponed two more trials until mid-February, with another Jehovah's Witness due in court tomorrow. A total of 16 Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors are now in jail, with ten more awaiting trial. Despite this, Ara Margaryan of the Armenian Foreign Ministry claimed to Forum 18 that "We understand our obligations to the Council of Europe very well and we honour them, but we can't break existing laws which say that all those who refuse to serve in the army must be punished." Armenia is also in breach of another Council of Europe commitment to allow all religious communities to practise their faith "without discrimination", by its repeated failure to give state registration to the Jehovah's Witnesses, even though they have applied for registration many times.