HELSINKI COMMISSION BRIEFING REVIEWS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN THE CAUCASUS
Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia examined by expert panel
(Washington) – The United States Helsinki Commission will hold a briefing on the current state of religious freedom in the Caucasus due to recent events in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
Religious Freedom in the Caucasus
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
340 Cannon House Office Building
Eric Rassbach, Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, represents Azerbaijani Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu and the Juma Mosque Community before the European Court of Human Rights
Andre Carbonneau, Attorney, Jehovah’s Witnesses, represents Armenian and Georgian Jehovah’s Witnesses before the European Court of Human Rights
Dr. Paul Crego, Senior Cataloging Specialist, Library of Congress, is responsible for materials in Georgian and Armenian and recently traveled to Georgia
On June 30, Azerbaijani authorities forcibly seized the independent Juma Mosque, with police reportedly expelling worshipers before taking control of the place of worship.The authorities imposed a new imam appointed by the Muslim Board of the Caucasus, a Soviet-era Muftiate backed by the government, to replace the community’s leader, Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu.Other unregistered religious communities, such as Adventists and Baptists, have also experienced repeated harassment from authorities.
Armenian policy toward religious freedom also conflicts with the government’s commitments to respect human rights.Government registration restrictions make it more difficult for religious groups to rent property, publish newspapers or magazines, or officially sponsor visas of visitors.The approval system has proven extremely problematic, as on June 17 when the government again refused to recognize the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an official religion because of their proselytizing activities.Other small religious groups, including Hare Krishnas and many Baptist communities, are frequently unable to attain the minimum number of members required by the government and are barred from applying for registration. Armenia has currently imprisoned 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses for their conscientious refusal of military service – a principle of their religious beliefs.
The situation for religious freedom in Georgia improved substantially with the long overdue arrest on March 12 of renegade Orthodox priest and mob leader, Basili Mkalavishvili, who instigated violent assaults against religious minorities. But, Georgian authorities need to investigate and prosecute others known to have perpetrated similar criminal acts.Legal problems also persist, as some minority religious communities are unable to obtain legal entity status or to build new worship facilities.In addition, a concordat with the state granted the Georgian Orthodox Church special privileges to the detriment of other confessions.
An un-official transcript will be available on the Helsinki Commission’s Internet web site at http://www.csce.gov within 24 hours of the briefing.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.