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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

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Beating and 12 day imprisonment for Baptist soldier

Forum 18 News Service has been unable to reach V. Davidov, commanding officer of the unit in Hadrut of the army of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic where Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan was beaten and detained for more than ten days in early April before being transferred to an unknown location. Mirzoyan "is being persecuted for preaching the Gospel and because they found several Christian calendars in his possession," his relatives and friends told Forum 18 after meeting him at the unit just before his transfer. Mirzoyan has been threatened with a two year prison sentence.

AZERBAIJAN: Government bans religious freedom advocate from UN meeting

After being barred from leaving Azerbaijan to attend the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) meeting in Geneva, imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev has been banned from crossing the land border to Georgia, he has told Forum 18 News Service. In an address prepared for the UNCHR, Ibrahimoglu asks "If a person cannot choose to believe what he or she wants, how can that person be called truly free, even if he or she can talk about many other things? Freedom of religious belief - and the ability to manifest those beliefs in public - allows us to be honest and truthful with one another, to be truly human with one another. I am confident that in the end, the Azerbaijan government will embrace religious freedom, though the road may be difficult and we may meet many more struggles. Freedom will triumph because the people of Azerbaijan - like the people of every other nation on earth - are human beings created by God to be free."

AZERBAIJAN: Will the state protect Muslim scholar from Muslim death threats?

Baku-based Muslim scholar Nariman Gasimoglu has called on the Azerbaijani authorities to protect him in the wake of what he has told Forum 18 News Service were two death threats from Muslims over the past month, made because of his Islamic religious views. These threats were followed up by threats on Iranian-based Azeri-language television, which is widely available in southern parts of Azerbaijan. Gasimoglu told Forum 18 that he believes the police are unwilling to uncover the "whole network" of those he thinks may be behind the death threats. Speaking of his views on Islam, Gasimoglu said he believes that "this is not something traditional Muslims would like, but it's my right to propagate my own religious views." In 2003, an imam of a mosque not far from his home told worshippers on several occasions that a jihad should be declared against him. "Jihad in their interpretation unfortunately means fighting enemies by using weapons," Gasimoglu told Forum 18.

COMMENTARY: No religious freedom without democracy: a lesson from "Orange Ukraine"

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's surprise announcement last month of the abolition of the State Committee for Religious Affairs is a powerful signal to the rest of the region that governments should end their meddling in religious life, argues former Soviet political prisoner Professor Myroslav Marynovych, who is now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University http://www.ucu.edu.ua in Lviv, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. He regards the feeling in Ukraine that the communist model of controlling religion is now dead as the greatest gain of the "Orange Revolution" in the sphere of religion. Yet Professor Marynovych warns that other countries will find it hard to learn from the proclaimed end of Ukrainian government interference in religious matters without wider respect for human rights and accountable government. Without democratic change – which should bring in its wake greater freedom for religious communities from state control and meddling - it is unlikely that religious communities will escape from government efforts to control them.

AZERBAIJAN: Frustration at latest unfounded allegations

In the latest of numerous unfounded allegations that Rafik Aliyev, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, has made on local media, he has accused the Adventist and Greater Grace Protestant churches of, amongst other things, conducting "illegal religious propaganda" and of disturbing "citizens residing near places where prayers are held." "We Protestants have been trying to build up a relationship of trust with him and then he comes out with these unfounded accusations," one Protestant told Forum 18 News Service. Aliyev's committee was reported as taking "tough measures up to their closure." Aliyev used a similar approach in 2002 to close down Baku's Azeri-language Baptist church. Pastor Yahya Zavrichko, who heads the Adventist Church in Azerbaijan, told Forum 18 that "Last time Rafik Aliyev complained about us in the media a month ago we spoke to him and he confirmed he had no facts of any violations we had committed."

UZBEKISTAN: Saints and martyrs relics banned

Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"

AZERBAIJAN: Supreme court claims constitutional right doesn't exist

Azerbaijan's Supreme Court has decided that a Jehovah's Witness can be forced to do military service – even though the constitution claims that "alternative service instead of regular army service is permitted." The court argued that, as no law on civilian alternative service exists, the appeal of Mahir Bagirov must be rejected. Azerbaijan has broken a promise to the Council of Europe to introduce a law by January 2003. Sayad Kirimov, deputy head of parliament's administrative and military law department, told Forum 18 News Service that "the Supreme Court can't use the absence of a law to deprive someone of their constitutional rights." Bagirov's lawyer told Forum 18 that the ruling will be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights. After this Supreme Court decision, Bagirov "expects to be arrested by the military police and disappear into a military barracks where he anticipates being subjected to brutal treatment as an alleged deserter."

AZERBAIJAN: Will Christian children now get birth certificates?

Having repeatedly refused to register 18-month old Luka Eyvazov's birth, because his parents gave him a Christian name, the authorities have at last given him a birth certificate, after Forum 18 News Service reported his case. Unusually, the authorities also apologised to Luka's parents "for making us wait and suffer for so long," Luka's mother Gurayat Eyvazov told Forum 18. Without a birth certificate, Luka was not able to go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital, or travel abroad. Luka's case was the last known case of a series of Baptist parents in the mainly-Muslim town who were refused birth certificates for their children because they had chosen Christian, not Muslim first names. However, Gurayat Eyvazov said it was unclear if the next time Baptist parents try to register a child's birth with a Christian name they will face similar refusals. "Officials said nothing on this."

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.