29 September 2003
Fr Daniel Pravda, head of the small Catholic community in Azerbaijan, said he is shocked by the reported warning by the government's senior religious affairs official that he has been conducting "illegal religious propaganda", an offence under Azerbaijani law punishable by deportation. "I don't know what Rafik Aliev means by propaganda, but all I do is serve our Catholics," Fr Pravda told Forum 18 News Service. According to the local media, Aliev issued the warning to visiting Vatican foreign minister Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran on 24 September. Forum 18 was unable to reach Aliev to find out whether he had indeed warned Fr Pravda, if so why he had done so and why Azerbaijani law bans foreigners and people without citizenship from conducting "religious propaganda" in defiance of international human rights conventions.
25 September 2003
The lack of legal status for non-Orthodox religious communities has led to difficulties carrying out their activities, especially over building and opening new places of worship, minority religious leaders have complained to Forum 18 News Service. "Of course this is not right," declared Pentecostal Bishop Oleg Khubashvili. "There is no religion law so there is no legal status. We want legal recognition as a Church." True Orthodox priest Fr Gela Aroshvili believes the Orthodox Patriarchate will never allow other religious communities equal rights. "When the Patriarchate got its concordat it became a monopolist and was able to obstruct everyone else," he told Forum 18. But Metropolitan Daniil (Datuashvili) of the Patriarchate rejected suggestions that his Church opposes legal status for other faiths. "On the contrary, the Orthodox Church wants all of them to get legal status as religious organisations."
25 September 2003
The Catholic Church failed in its bid to become the second religious community to gain legal status when the government abruptly cancelled plans to sign an agreement with the Vatican on 19 September. Catholic officials stressed that the Church needs the agreement. "For the past decade they kept saying a law on religion would be adopted which would grant such recognition, but it never happened," a Catholic official told Forum 18 News Service from Tbilisi. "That's the reason for the agreement." The government's change of mind followed complaints from the Orthodox patriarch and street protests. "These demonstrations were organised by the Orthodox Church, which stirred up the students by telling them the agreement was part of a plot by European and Masonic agents," Orthodox priest Fr Basile Kobakhidze told Forum 18.
4 September 2003
Local police chief Mukhtar Mukhtarov used "Soviet, KGB methods" in breaking up the Sunday school attached to Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church on 31 August, one of the church's pastors complained. "Mukhtarov said we do not have the right to teach kids and convert Azeri children," Pastor Fuad Tariverdi told Forum 18 News Service. But Mukhtarov rejected any criticism and blamed the church. "They're acting illegally," he told Forum 18. "There was nothing bad, but this must be done with the permission of the Committee for Work with Religious Organisations." The director of the club where the Sunday school met has told church leaders that he has been threatened that if he lets them in again he will be imprisoned.
23 July 2003
Police and local officials raided a Baptist Sunday service on 13 July in a private flat in Gyanja, interrupting the sermon and declaring the service "illegal". They confiscated all the religious literature they could find before singling out the two ethnic Azeris – Zaur Ismailov and Magomet Musayev – to be fined. "They're not criminals, so they have told the authorities they will not pay," Pastor Pavel Byakov, who leads a church in Sumgait, told Forum 18 News Service. "They didn't have registration so their service was illegal," Firdovsi Karimov, head of the local department of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, told Forum 18.
14 July 2003
Racist language was again used yesterday (13 July) when self-appointed vigilantes blockaded a home in the capital Tbilisi to prevent a Russian-language Pentecostal church from meeting for the sixth Sunday in a row. "You Russians clear off back to Russia and do whatever you like there!" and "Sectarians, clear off out of Georgia!", Pastor Nikolai Kalutsky – a Georgian citizen - quoted the demonstrators as telling him. But Georgia's ombudsman has failed to support the church. "Services in the house were noisy – they sing loud hymns. This is a residential area. That's why the neighbours are complaining," Nana Devdariani told Forum 18 News Service from Tbilisi on 14 July.
9 July 2003
Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom 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.
8 July 2003
As the Council of Europe's Commission against Racism and Intolerance condemned Armenia for continuing to imprison Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors and deny the group registration, a court in Alaverdi sentenced Araik Bedjanyan on 2 July to one and a half years in labour camp for refusing military service. Now 24 Jehovah's Witnesses are serving sentences, while a further eight – two of them arrested on 3 July – await trial. Hovhannes Asyryan of the presidential human rights commission told Forum 18 News Service he was optimistic that parliament would adopt a new alternative service law this autumn in line with its commitment to the Council of Europe, but Jehovah's Witness lawyer Rustam Khachatryan was sceptical. "The authorities promise a lot but never fulfil their promises."
3 July 2003
Baptist leader Malkhaz Songulashvili has described as "silly" a suggestion to Forum 18 News Service by district governor Timur Berianidze that Baptists in the village of Akhalsopeli burnt down their own church. Berianidze described as "a lie" the widely-held view that the local Orthodox priest Bessarion Zurabashvili was involved. Songulashvili said Fr Bessarion keeps visiting families and "stirs them up against our people". Villagers have threatened the Baptists that they will never be allowed to rebuild their church and if they do so, they warn that it will be burnt down again. Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams and Pope John Paul II are among those who have condemned ongoing religious violence in Georgia.
25 June 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service reports on government hostility to the idea of religious freedom, which appears to derive from officials' fear of social forces they cannot control and dislike of pluralism. The main victims are Muslims, whose faith is regarded as a potential challenge and whose communities face government interference and control, and minority faiths the government tries to restrict, including Evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Hare Krishna community. Many religious communities have been denied registration, while all religious literature is subject to compulsory prior censorship.
23 June 2003
Local police chief Temur Anjaparidze says he will not allow Pentecostal pastor Nikolai Kalutsky to use his home in Tbilisi as a church. "It's not fair on the neighbours," he told Forum 18 News Service on 23 June. "The neighbours won't allow this. What can I do?" His comments came the day after the Pentecostal church was again blockaded by neighbours and self-appointed Orthodox vigilantes, who also made racist remarks to the ethnic Russian pastor. Fr David Isakadze, priest in the nearby village of Dighomi suspected of being behind the repeated mob blockades, denied any involvement. "I have no role in this whatsoever," he told Forum 18, despite appearing to be well-informed about the protests.
16 June 2003
In the wake of threats by the local Orthodox priest to burn down the Baptist church in Akhalsopeli in eastern Georgia, the building was wrecked by fire in the early hours of 15 June. "The walls survived the fire, but the interior has been reduced to ashes," Emil Adelkhanov of the Centre for Peace, Democracy and Development told Forum 18 News Service. "We're certain our priests were not involved," Metropolitan Daniil Datuashvili of the Orthodox Patriarchate told Forum 18. "Such attacks were always carried out in the past by schismatics who broke away from the Patriarchate." Adelkhanov ridiculed such claims. "There have constantly been incidents of violence when Patriarchate priests were involved."