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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: Why and how will Religion Law be amended?

A parliamentarian preparing changes to Azerbaijan's restrictive Religion Law, Rabiyyat Aslanova, has declined to discuss them or why they are being made, Forum 18 News Service has found. She expressed hostility to "Christian missionaries", who she accused of "working underground and calling for an uprising," but declined to give Forum 18 any proof of her allegations. Aslanova also denied that religious literature censorship exists – until Forum 18 reminded her of its existence – and then defended it, as well as denying both that police have raided religious communities and that religious communities are arbitrarily denied legal status. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations could not explain why the state practices religious discrimination. Human rights activists have expressed frustration to Forum 18 at the secretiveness surrounding the new Law, and pessimism that it will bring any improvement to the religious freedom situation.

AZERBAIJAN: Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector sentenced

Mushfiq Mammedov, a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector has been given a six month suspended jail sentence and intends to appeal against this, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He was sentenced for refusing compulsory military service – even though the country's Constitution guarantees the right to alternative service, and not allowing this breaches its Council of Europe commitments. "My son has done nothing wrong – he's not guilty," his mother Sevil Najafova told Forum 18 "He told the Military Commissariat he's prepared to do alternative unarmed service in line with his religious beliefs." A spokesperson for the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, defended the sentence. "Our law says every young man must join the army, so this sentence is correct," he told Forum 18. The OSCE has noted that "a constitutional right would be meaningless if the government recognised a right to alternative service only after it had initiated the promulgation of a law."

AZERBAIJAN: Criminal trial resumes for Jehovah's Witness

Mushfiq Mammedov, a 23-year-old Jehovah's Witness who wants to be allowed to do alternative service in line with Azerbaijan's constitution and international obligations rather than compulsory military service, faces up to two years in prison if convicted. His trial at Baku's Sabail District Court, which began on 30 June, resumes on 12 July. "We don't know how the hearing will go – nor how long the case will last," his mother Sevil Najafova told Forum 18 News Service. "Azerbaijan undertook the obligation to the Council of Europe to adopt a law on alternative service, and not granting alternative service is a clear violation of this commitment," Krzysztof Zyman of the Council of Europe told Forum 18. But Adil Gadjiev of the Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office in Baku insists Azerbaijan is doing nothing wrong. "Signing such commitments doesn't mean we have to accept these rights without a corresponding law."

AZERBAIJAN: Religious conscientious objector in jail

A Jehovah's Witness, Mushfiq Mammedov, is to be tried for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is despite guarantees in Azerbaijan's Constitution of the right to perform alternative service. Mammedov has been in detention since 28 April, and the authorities are refusing to allow his family to visit him. "We're not allowed any meetings until the investigation is over," she told Forum 18. "We don't know how long that will go on." Azerbaijan promised the Council of Europe that it would establish alternative civilian service by January 2004. "No progress has been registered on adopting a law on alternative service," Krzysztof Zyman, of the Council of Europe's Directorate General of Human Rights told Forum 18. "The fact that the law has not been adopted is in clear violation of the commitments Azerbaijan undertook when it joined the Council of Europe." Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in 2001.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Will imprisoned Baptist face new sentence?

Fellow Baptists fear that Gagik Mirzoyan could face new charges when his current sentence for refusing to perform military duties expires on 5 September. "All kinds of officials have told us he will be sentenced again – and that next time the sentence will be harsher," Baptist pastor Garnik Abreyan told Forum 18 News Service from Stepanakert, capital of the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. A Karabakh native, Mirzoyan was imprisoned after refusing on grounds of religious faith to swear the military oath and handle weapons when conscripted into the army in 2004. Despite being beaten in prison in February and sent to the punishment cells, Mirzoyan told visiting civil society activist Albert Voskanyan that he has "no complaints" about his current treatment. Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan is serving a four-year sentence in the same prison for refusing Karabakh's compulsory military service.

AZERBAIJAN: Mosque unable to invite back freed imam

Although freed from jail three and a half years after his arrest on trumped-up charges, Imam Kazim Aliyev is unable to return to his Sunni Muslim mosque in Azerbaijan's second city, Gyanja [Gäncä]. "The whole mosque community wants him to return, but he is not being allowed – we don't know why," current prayer leader Ilham Ibrahimov told Forum 18 News Service. Human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov, who has been helping Aliyev refute charges of organising an armed uprising, told Forum 18 that the Gyanja police have warned Aliyev "unofficially" not to return to the city if he wants to avoid arrest. Imam Aliyev categorically denied to Forum 18 the claims of the Military Counter-intelligence Service. "How can three people organise an uprising? All our group did was to discuss Islam." He noted sadly to Forum 18 that he has given up trying to return to his old mosque as he knows "one hundred percent" that if he returned he would be sent back to prison.

KYRGYZSTAN: Intolerance against Christians highlighted by murder

The recent murder of an ethnic Kyrgyz convert to Christianity, Saktinbai Usmanov, was the culmination of a long series of intolerant incidents, Forum 18 News Service has found. Usmanov was the only Christian in his village. The intolerance was encouraged by the village Mullah, Nurlan Asangojaev, although most of the attackers were themselves drunk, which is forbidden in Islam. Asangojaev arranged for Usmanov to be banned from community events after his conversion, which is very painful for the traditionally community-centred Kyrgyz. He has also barred Usmanov from being buried in the village cemetery. Mullah Asangojaev has since Usmanov's murder told Forum 18 and others that "I can't offer any convincing proof, but I am sure that Saktinbai was killed by Protestants because he wanted to return to Islam." This is strongly denied by Saktinbai Usmanov's son, Protestant Pastor Ruslan Usmanov, who told Forum 18 that this is a "monstrous slander." There are numerous incidents of intolerance, including official hostility, towards Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds throughout Central Asia, Forum 18 has found.

CENTRAL ASIA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan close doors to UN Special Rapporteur

Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.

TURKMENISTAN: Government severely restricts Haj numbers

Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.

AZERBAIJAN: Baha'is and Baptists want confiscated property back

Baha'is and Baptists in Azerbaijan have both told Forum 18 News Service of their concerns about buildings, confiscated from them in the Soviet period, which they want returned. Both communities have had evasive replies from the state. The Baha'is think that a house central to their community's history may be demolished, and the Baptists want a historic church in central Baku, the capital, back. Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that "it's not just a property we want to get back to sell - our church wants to worship there once again." The Baptists visited the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, but were told that "there is no law on restitution so it can't be returned." Other places of worship also remain in state hands, but not all the religious communities involved are unhappy with this. Lutherans in Baku, for example, have told Forum 18 that they are happy they can use their church – now a concert hall – for Sunday worship.

AZERBAIJAN: Disturbing numbers of police raids on religious communities

Police raids on religious communities have continued to take place at a disturbing rate, Forum 18 News Service has found, especially on summer camps and open air preaching outside the confines of state-registered religious buildings. Baptists, independent Muslims outside the state-controlled Caucasian Muslim Board, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna communities, and Baha'is are amongst those who have been attacked by the authorities. Nakhichevan, an exclave wedged between Turkey, Armenia and Iran, is the "worst region in the country" for religious freedom, a Hare Krishna devotee told Forum 18. This is an observation that people of several faiths have frequently made to Forum 18. One of the most serious attacks was a raid on a Baptist children's summer camp, in which ordinary police and NSM secret police officers arrived "in many cars, shouting and swearing, even at the women," a church member who was handcuffed and beaten up in front of children told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: "If communities don't complain they will be suppressed even more"

Azerbaijan's system of state registration is used by the authorities to discriminate against religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Disfavoured communities, such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Baha'is, are denied legal status and face repeated obstructions. But those who the authorities favour, such as ethnic Udi Christians (who have not yet formed a church) and the Molokans are given extensive registration help by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. The State Committee is not the only source of problems; local authorities who have taken a dislike to a religious community deploy numerous tactics to prevent registration applications from even reaching the State Committee. Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Forum 18 that "If communities don't complain they will be suppressed even more. We have a proverb: no-one gives milk to a child that doesn't cry."