By H. Knox Thames
In the wake of recent events in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, the United States Helsinki Commission held a public briefing on “Religious Freedom in the Caucasus.” The state of religious freedom in the region was called into question.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) opened the briefing on July 21, 2004, by voicing his concern over alarming events carried out by governments in the region. Chairman Smith noted the June 30 seizure of the Juma Mosque in Azerbaijan; the suppression of small religious groups and the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection to military service in Armenia; and continued limits to religious freedom in Georgia, despite progress marked by the March 12 arrest of renegade Orthodox priest and mob leader, Basili Mkalavishvili.
Chairman Smith pointed out that all three countries held elections in 2003 during which OSCE monitors observed various falsifications such as ballot stuffing. While he was critical of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Smith praised the successful protests of the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia. “For the first time in the former USSR, public protest succeeded in overturning the results of a rigged, flawed election and ultimately bringing down a head of state,” Smith said. While encouraged by the willingness of the Georgian people to force change, Chairman Smith stressed that, just as in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Georgian Government has much work to do toward ensuring freedom of religion.
Chairman Smith specifically spoke to the situation for religious freedom in the respective countries. Noting the closure of the Juma Mosque, he urged “Azerbaijan to end this embarrassment and to honor its OSCE commitments on religious freedom, and allow this mosque and its community to operate freely and to use its facility without government intervention.” In addition, he raised the question as to whether the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom should add Azerbaijan to its watch list of countries with deteriorating conditions for religious freedom.
Concerning Armenia, Smith reported he had raised the concerns over registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their conscientious objectors in a meeting with Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian. In June, he had handed the Foreign Minister a list of jailed conscientious objectors and urged their release. Chairman Smith also noted that Armenia had “seriously disappointed its friends in the United States by recently co-signing ... a Russian-organized declaration that criticized the OSCE and its human rights commitments.” [See July 28, 2004 CSCE Digest article, “Helsinki Commission Leadership Engage Heads of Nine CIS Countries.”]
When addressing Georgia, Chairman Smith called the March arrest of the defrocked Basili Mkalavishvili, “long overdue.” He noted that “Georgian authorities should investigate and prosecute other individuals known to have perpetrated violent criminal acts against religious minorities, as Father Basili did not act alone.” Smith cited persistent legal problems, “as minority communities are unable to obtain legal entity status or to build new worship facilities.” He also pointed out how the concordat between the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church grants special privileges to the detriment of other confessions.
The challenges in each country were addressed successively by a panel of three experts. The first panelist was Eric Rassbach who serves as counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and currently represents the independent Juma Mosque community before the European Court of Human Rights. Rassbach described the June 30 seizure of the mosque by authorities in Azerbaijan, testifying that it involved the beating of congregants and the forceful removal of their imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev. Rassbach also pointed to daily harassment targeting other unregistered religious communities in Azerbaijan, including Muslims, Adventists, and Baptists. “The best way to characterize the state of religious freedom in Azerbaijan today is bad and getting worse quickly,” Rassbach said, adding that the United States should make a clear public condemnation of the suppression of religious liberty in Azerbaijan, and that individual pressure should be brought to bear on Azerbaijan, such as a letter or visit from a Member of Congress.
Panelist Andre Carbonneau, an attorney for the Jehovah’s Witnesses who represents Armenian and Georgian Jehovah’s Witnesses before the European Court of Human Rights, covered two main issues: registration and conscientious objectors. Carbonneau stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia had applied for and been denied state registration 11 times since 1995. According to Carbonneau, the rejections have been largely based on technicalities, including a rejection in June purportedly because “the applicants had forgotten to indicate the number of copies they were filing.” The lack of registration has resulted in the outlawing of religious conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the banning of importation of religious literature. As to the second issue, Carbonneau noted that 14 Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently in prison for conscientious objection to military service. Others who have been released have had their passports and essential identification documents withheld. All of this is in violation of a Council of Europe resolution calling for the immediate release of all conscientious objectors.
Dr. Paul Crego, a senior cataloging specialist with the Library of Congress responsible for materials in Georgian and Armenian, had recently returned from a trip collecting religious periodicals in Georgia. Speaking in his personal capacity about Georgia, Dr. Crego stated that the newly elected government of President Mikheil Saakashvili has shown mixed signals toward religious freedom. On the positive side, Dr. Crego pointed out that on July 19 Saakashvili announced the creation of a human rights council to monitor human rights violations in Georgia. Further, he pointed to the arrest of Basili Mkalavishvili as a “sure sign of progress.” Still, many areas of concern remain, such as the “rehabilitation” of Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhudia, whose “‘Georgia for the Georgians’ ideology included, for the most part, an insistence on Orthodoxy as a part of Georgian identity.” Crego also noted that in terms of introducing more liberal religious laws, the challenge would be particularly difficult because of the deeply religious Georgian people, and will therefore not be something the government can “propose and impose on their own principle of democratic reform.”
An unofficial transcript of the briefing is available through the Helsinki Commission’s website site at http://www.csce.gov.
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.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Daniel Sullivan contributed to this article.