Briefing :: Briefing: Religious Freedom in the Caucasus

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UNITED STATES COMMISSION ON SECURITY AND COOPERATION IN EUROPE

(HELSINKI COMMISSION) HOLDS BRIEFING

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN THE CAUCASU



JULY 21, 200


               COMMISSIONERS


               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH (R-NJ

                         CHAIRMA

               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE FRANK R. WOLF (R-VA

               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JOSEPH R. PITTS (R-PA

               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT B. ADERHOLT (R-AL

               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE ANNE M. NORTHUP (R-KY

               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE BENJAMIN L. CARDIN (D-MD

               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE LOUISE MCINTOSH SLAUGHTER (D-NY

               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE ALCEE L. HASTINGS (D-FL

               U.S. REPRESENTATIVE MIKE MCINTYRE (D-NC


               U.S. SENATOR BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (R-CO

                         CO-CHAIRMA

               U.S. SENATOR SAM BROWNBACK (R-KS

               U.S. SENATOR GORDON H. SMITH (R-OR

               U.S. SENATOR KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R-TX

               U.S. SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R-GA

               U.S. SENATOR CHRISTOPHER J. DODD (D-CT

               U.S. SENATOR BOB GRAHAM (D-FL

               U.S. SENATOR RUSSELL D. FEINGOLD (D-WI

               U.S. SENATOR HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY


ELIZABETH PRYOR, SENIOR STAF


KNOX THAMES, SENIOR STAF


WITNESSES/PANELISTS


ERIC RASSBAC

COUNSE

THE BECKET FUND FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY


ANDRE CARBONNEA

ATTORNE

JEHOVAH'S WITNESSE


PAUL CREG

SENIOR CATALOGING SPECIALIS

LIBRARY OF CONGRES


The briefing was held at 11:00 a.m. in Room 334 Cannon House Office

Building, Washington, D.C., U.S. Representative Christopher Smith moderating


[*

SMITH:  The hearing will come to order. 


Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  I am pleased to convene this Helsinki

Commission briefing on religious freedom in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.  
Today,

our expert witnesses, our panel will discuss each country and after the 
conclusion

of their statements, questions will be taken from the floor.  Before I 
introduce our

panelists, I would like to make a few observations


In 2003, all three Caucasus countries held important elections.  These

elections and their outcome say a great deal about the level of democratic

development in each country.  According to the OSCE monitoring missions, each of

these elections featured falsification, but the reactions of society in these

countries differed significantly. 


In Armenia, protesters rallied against the official results of the February

March presidential election, but shrank from confrontation with the state.  In

Azerbaijan, clashes broke out in October between police and protesters who 
claimed

the presidential election was rigged, but the authorities easily crushed the

demonstration and then extended their crackdown on the opposition country-wide. 
 In

Georgia, however, key opposition figures remained united and rallied public 
support

against an unpopular government.  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


Against this background, in Azerbaijan, government actions against the Juma

Mosque Community in Baku are of great concern and the disturbing events over the

past several weeks have greatly alarmed me and other members of the Helsinki

Commission.  Fundamental OSCE commitments have been violated by the Azerbaijani

government, using the police, through the forceful expulsion of this community 
of

peaceful believers and with the imposition of a new imam.  This is 
unconscionable. 

This is just plain wrong


That is why I am asking of President Aliyev and his government, and what we

asking as a Commission in a bipartisan way, is very simple.  We urge 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 interference.  Those commitments are violated when the 
government

forces the community to accept a new leader or burdensome oversight from the 
Muslim

Board of the Caucasus, the government-backed religious association. 


In addition, the government should end its campaign of harassment of the

community's leaders, especially Imam Ilgar.  Any criminal charges would be 
deemed

very alarming.  I also hope the community's appeal to the supreme court 
contesting

the closure will be successful


While the mosque situation has received some attention, other communities

such as Baptists and Adventists are also experiencing problems.  The Helsinki

Commission will continue to monitor these developments and consider further 
actions

should authorities in Baku fail to address these matters.  In this vein, I would

like to hear from the panel if the U.S. Commission on International Religious

Freedom should add Azerbaijan to their watch list of countries with 
deteriorating

religious freedom conditions.  In addition, there are a number of tools 
available to

the State Department for dealing with countries that routinely violate religious

freedom, especially under the International Religious Freedom Act


Turning to Armenia, government policy on religious freedom also conflicts

with OSCE commitments.  Government registration is necessary to carry out basic

functions like renting property, publishing newspapers or magazines, or 
officially

sponsoring the visas of visitors.  The approval system has proven extremely

problematic.  On June 17 the government again refused to register the Jehovah's

Witnesses as an official religion because of their proselytizing activities.  
Small

groups, including Hare Krishnas and many Baptist communities, are frequently 
unable

to attain the minimum number of members required by the government to register. 
 In

addition, 20 Jehovah's Witnesses are in prison for refusing military service on

religious grounds


Last month, I met with Foreign Minister Oskanian and raised my concerns

about the inability of Jehovah's Witnesses to register.  I also handed over a 
list

of jailed conscientious objectors and urged their release.  I note that Armenia,

when joining the Council of Europe, committed to free all imprisoned 
conscientious

objectors, a promise that thus far has gone unfulfilled.  I would also note that

Armenia seriously disappointed its friends in the Unite States by recently

cosigning, as did human rights stalwarts Belarus and the Central Asian 
countries, a

Russian-organized declaration that criticized the OSCE and its human rights

commitments, including those to hold free and fair elections.  Of course, the 
OSCE

commitments were freely accepted by Armenia when it joined the OSCE in 1992


Let me finally say that much has happened in Georgia since President Mikheil

Saakashvili came to power.  His government has successfully and peacefully 
regained

control of Ajaria, and I hope the situation in South Ossetia will be peacefully

resolved.  As for religious freedom, I was very pleased in March by the long 
overdue

arrest of renegade Orthodox priest and mob leader, Father Basili.  This 
Commission

has not only raised this issue repeatedly, we actually saw videotape at one of 
our

meetings of this particular priest, Basili, if you want to call him that, rabble

rousing and raising his very, very anti-Jehovah?s Witness views.  It was

discouraging and disgusting


But Georgian authorities should investigate and prosecute other individuals

known to have perpetrated violent criminal acts against religious minorities, as

Father Basili did, as we all know, did not act alone. 


Legal problems also persist, as minority 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. That, too, is unacceptable.


I would like to now, and again welcome our very distinguished panel. 

Regrettably, I have a markup that I have to be at, and Elizabeth Pryor will take

over the remainder of the briefing.  Again, I want to assure you, your 
statements

and the information you impart to this Commission not only will be widely

disseminated to the commissioners, but to a very broad range of people 
interested in

these issues.  So I deeply thank you for being here


PRYOR:  Thank you very much.  I am Elizabeth Pryor.  I am the senior adviser

with the Helsinki Commission.  Let me just add my words of welcome to those of

Chairman Smith.  Thank you very much for being here today, taking your time to 
be

with us.  We are extremely interested in what you have to say


We have three experts to make presentations about Azerbaijan, Armenia and

Georgia respectively.  Our first panelist is Eric Rassbach, serving as counsel 
at

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.  Mr. Rassbach represents the Juma Mosque

community and its imam before the European Court of Human Rights.  Before 
joining

The Becket Fund, he was at the firm Baker, Botts LLP, and worked on the 
Baku-Tbilisi

pipeline project. 


Our next panelist will be Andre Carbonneau, who is an attorney for the

Jehovah's Witnesses, as he represents Armenian and Georgian Jehovah's Witnesses

before the European Court of Human Rights.  Mr. Carbonneau will speak about the

current situation in those two countries


Last is Dr. Paul Crego, who is the senior cataloging specialist with the

Library of Congress.  He is responsible for materials in Georgian and Armenian, 
and

recently traveled to Georgia to collect religious periodicals.  Holding a Ph.D. 
in

theology from Boston College, he has lectured on Georgia in the Foreign Service

Institute on several occasions. 


Welcome to all of you.  I think we will start first with Mr. Rassbach


RASSBACH:  Thank you. 


 Good morning.  My name is Eric Rassbach.  I am an attorney with The Becket

Fund for Religious Liberty here in Washington, D.C.  The Becket Fund is an

international, interfaith, public interest law firm that is dedicated to 
protecting

the free expression of all religious traditions, both here in the United States 
and

abroad


I would really like to thank the Commission and especially Chairman Smith

for inviting me to appear before you today.  I would also like to thank the

commission for drawing attention to the very timely subject of religious 
freedom in

the Caucasus. This topic is, as I hope will become apparent from this meeting, 
one

of singular importance to the peoples of the Caucasus and to the United States


I have been asked to describe to you the state of religious freedom in

Azerbaijan today.  Perhaps the best way to do this is by telling you a little

story.  A congregation of moderate Shia Muslims is meeting one morning for 
worship

in downtown Baku.  They have been told that for them to meet together is illegal

under the laws of the state because they have not agreed to become part of the 
state

religious hierarchy.  They want to remain independent.  The state has ordered 
them

to leave the ancient mosque they rescued from its Soviet fate as a carpet 
museum,

and has threatened violence in removing them.  The mosque's leader, a 
charismatic

young imam who is a well-known speaker at human rights conferences across 
Europe,

has publicly committed the congregation to nonviolent resistance.  If the police

come, he says, "We will meet them with flowers.


As it happens, there is not enough time to hand any flowers to the police. 

They burst in during the morning prayer and immediately begin to beat the mosque

goers.  The young imam remains in prayer position on the floor, not returning 
the

blows, while exhorting the congregation not to fight back.  Eventually all of 
the

mosque goers are dragged out of the mosque


In the subsequent crackdown, religious believers are arrested when they

attempt to visit the mosque or in their own homes.  The state first attempts to

impose a new imam not chosen by the mosque congregation.  When the state 
authorities

realize that only the deposed imam's bodyguards will pray with him at the 
mosque,

they give up.  The mosque is now closed "for repairs.


This is the story of the Juma Mosque congregation and its imam, Ilgar

Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev, whom The Becket Fund is privileged to represent in 
their

lawsuit against Azerbaijan in the European Court of Human Rights.  
Unfortunately,

his story and their story is an all too common one in Azerbaijan today, and 
that is

why this story and the other stories of religious oppression in Azerbaijan must 
be

heard


What that means is that the best way to characterize the state of religious

freedom in Azerbaijan today is bad and getting worse quickly.  On an almost 
daily

basis, there are new violations of the most basic elements of religious 
freedom. 

Mosques and churches and shut down, believers are beaten, those who resist state

imposed religious conformity are jailed.  If it remains on its current path, the

government of Azerbaijan will have eliminated religious freedom entirely within 
a

few years


But this does not have to happen.  With some pressure from the international

community, and specifically from the United States government, I think it is 
very

likely that many of the most egregious intrusions into the realm of religious

freedom could be avoided.  Azerbaijan is very sensitive to how it is perceived 
by

the outside world, both because it is dependent on countries like the United 
States

for defense and for diplomatic leverage against larger neighbors like Russia and

Iran, and because it values its role in international institutions like the 
Council

of Europe, which many Azeris see as a stepping stone to eventual membership in 
the

European Union. 


However, the leaders of Azerbaijan will not change course and begin treating

religious freedom as a fundamental human right unless other countries and

international organizations make clear that they support religious freedom as a

matter of the utmost importance.  This is because the experience, ideology and

political interests of these leaders all tell them that the only way to deal 
with

religious people and religious beliefs is to suppress them. 


As in many post-communist countries, Azerbaijan's leaders are not quite sure

what to do with religion.  As secularists who shared in power under the old,

officially atheistic regime, these leaders understand religion as the opiate of 
the

masses, a dangerous and destabilizing ideology of ultimately irrational thought 
that

must be controlled by the state.  In keeping with this idea of 
faith-as-narcotic,

they attempt to suppress believes, religious addicts, if you will, the only way 
they

know how:  through top-down command and control


What is happening in Azerbaijan today should thus be viewed as the

resurrection of the worst methods of the Soviet Union's suppression of religious

belief.  The Soviets used three primary methods in Azerbaijan.  First, most 
houses

of worship and other religious institutions were either demolished or closed. 


Second, those religious institutions that were allowed to survive were

forced to become what I would call zombie mosques or churches, alive but 
deadened by

the close supervision of a state-controlled religious umbrella organization. 


Third, the Soviets suppressed all public manifestations of religious belief

and other forms of religious expression, including the printing of religious 
texts,

and especially proselytization.  Any nonofficial religious activity resulted in 
jail

time or worse.  The Azerbaijan government is now resorting to all three of these

Soviet methods:  closure of houses of worship, a state-controlled religious

hierarchy, and suppression of all what they call unofficial religious 
expression,

mainly because it thinks that countries like the United States will not notice 
of

what is worse, will not care. 


The most notorious example of the neo-Stalinist approach to religion in

Azerbaijan is what I was just telling you about, the government's campaign 
against

the Juma Mosque.  The police raid that I described was the culmination of the 
pretty

long process.  Our client rescued the mosque from being a carpet museum back in 
the

early 1990s and then for 12 years they were worshipping freely as an independent

congregation in Baku, with no disturbance from the state.  That peace was broken

last year.  In October, presidential elections that Chairman Smith referred to 
were

held and there were riots.  The state authority seized upon that opportunity to

round up everyone they thought might be a problem to them.  Among their targets 
was

Imam Allahverdiev, who was able to take refuge at the Norwegian embassy at that

time, but he was eventually arrested by the police in December and held without

charges in Baku's Bayil prison, which by the way is where Stalin was 
imprisoned. 


The imam languished in prison for about five months and then a trial

convened with almost no notice, wherein he was convicted of inciting a riot on 
the

basis of obviously conflicting and probably coerced testimony.  The sentence was

suspended due to international pressure, which I think points out the fact that

international pressure can have an effect in Azerbaijan.  This was in part 
through

the activities of the American and especially Norwegian embassies who sent 
observers

to the trial.  The sentence is now on appeal in the Azerbaijani courts, and if 
as I

think is likely, the domestic courts do not overturn the conviction, we will 
almost

certainly bring an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights


While the campaign against Imam Allahverdiev was going on, the state

authorities mounted a parallel attack on the Juma Mosque congregation itself.  
The

Baku city government obtained an order to evict the Juma Mosque congregation 
because

the congregation was not registered with the state controlled religious 
hierarchy,

the Muslim Board of the Caucasus, as Chairman Smith was referring to earlier. 
The

authorities waited for a couple of months, and then on June 30 they conducted 
the

police raid that I was telling you about earlier.  So I think you can see that 
the

authorities are using all three of the Soviet methods to suppress the Juma 
Mosque

congregation.  The mosque has been closed.  The congregation has been relegated 
to

an illegal and now homeless status because it refuses to become part of the 
state

religious hierarchy.  The mosque's believers have been jailed for expressing 
their

support for the imam that they chose


Other religious groups have also been victims of these Soviet methods.  In

May of this year, two Seventh-Day Adventist pastors were fined for illegal 
preaching

in the cities of Gyanja and Sumgayit.  In addition, Adventist congregations have

been systematically denied state registration, making all of their religious

activities, according to the authorities, illegal


Perhaps the religious group that has been hit the hardest by the state

authorities is the Baptists.  Baptist churches are routinely threatened by local

police, including "visits" during worship services.  Pastors who travel from 
church

to church preaching are often detained by police.  In April 2002, the Eternal 
Love

Church, Baku's Azeri-language Baptist congregation, was shut down by the State

Committee for Affairs of Religious Organizations.  In addition, the state 
committee

has prohibited Baptist churches from importing 50,000 Azeri-language New 
Testaments

into Azerbaijan, leaving rural congregations without access to the Bible.  Thus 
the

Baptists, like the Adventists and the Juma Mosque congregation, are victims of

Azerbaijan's neo-Stalinist disregard for religious liberty.


So what can we, sitting here in Washington, do?  I think quite a lot. 

First, the United States government should unequivocally and publicly condemn 
the

Azerbaijan government's activities directed at suppressing and controlling 
Muslims,

Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists.  Thus far, the United States government 
has

been sending a mixed message to Azerbaijan.  They are concerned about the

government's campaign against the Juma Mosque, but they are not condemning it. 

Unfortunately, such subtleties will be lost on the government and the press in

Azerbaijan.  Only a clear public condemnation of the suppression of religious

liberty will result in action by the government of Azerbaijan


The second thing some of us here in Washington can do is bring individual

pressure to bear on the Azerbaijan government.  I can assure you that every 
member

of Congress who brings their concerns about religious liberty in Azerbaijan to 
the

attention of the Azerbaijan government will be taken very, very seriously. 

Azerbaijan has sought the help of many in Congress, both in dealing with its

conflicts in the region and in obtaining financing for development projects in

Azerbaijan.  A single letter or visit from a member could by itself have an

immediate impact on the state of religious liberty in Azerbaijan


The third thing we can do is make the Azerbaijan government aware of the

potential effect of the International Religious Freedom Act, commonly known as 
IRFA,

that Chairman Smith was referring to earlier.  The government's activities 
clearly

bring it within the cope of what is called the "country of particular concern"

designation under IRFA.  That could result in sanctions imposed by the United

States.  At the very least, they should be put on the watch list, as Chairman 
Smith

has just suggested.  I certainly hope that they will be put on that watch list


Some might argue that to speak out on religious freedom in Azerbaijan would

harm the United States' other geopolitical interests in the region, but I think 
that

is safe to say that our geopolitical interests will be advanced, not harmed, if

there is greater religious liberty in Azerbaijan.  It is fundamentally in the

geopolitical interests of the United States that a moderate Muslim country like

Azerbaijan remain moderate.  If religious belief and expression is forced

underground by the government, it is highly likely that Iran's influence on Shia

Muslim believers in Azerbaijan would increase exponentially.  If Azerbaijan is

destabilized or even worse, taken over by Iranian-style Islamic militants, 
American

interests will surely suffer. 


Even more importantly, it is fundamentally in the interests of the United

States as a nation that loves liberty to see the first freedom that our nation 
was

founded upon, religious liberty, protected in other countries.  If it becomes 
the

rule in the rest of the world that religious activity is something to be 
managed by

the state, rather than something the state must respect, we will feel the

repercussions here in the United States


To conclude, I think it is fair to say that the situation of religious

freedom in Azerbaijan is dire, but not hopeless.  If the international 
community,

and especially the United States, makes it clear to Azerbaijan that respecting

religious liberty is the price it must pay to enter the ranks of the developed

nations, the Azerbaijan government will respond.  On the other hand, if we do

nothing, the two most likely outcomes are neo-Stalinist repression or a 
takeover by

Islamic militants. 


The Becket Fund intends to continue pressing the government of Azerbaijan to

honor the right to religious freedom that it has guaranteed under various

international obligations like the ICCPR and the European Convention on Human

Rights.  We are going to continue our lawsuit at the European Court of Human 
Rights

and in other legal fora.  Ultimately, however, the protection of religious 
liberty

will be a matter of political will here, in other countries, and in Azerbaijan


Thank you


PRYOR:  Thank you very much, Mr. Rassbach


I think what we are going to do is hear all three of the statements before

we open it for questions.  So I will now turn the floor over to Mr. Carbonneau. 
 


CARBONNEAU:  My name is Andre Carbonneau.  I would like to thank the members

of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe for allowing me to

testify on behalf of 8,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia.  I will address two

issues.  The first one is the issue of registration.  The second one is the 
issue of

conscientious objectors. 


The Christian religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in the republic

of Armenia has been denied registration 11 times since 1995 to the present.  The

11th denial was issued by the ministry of justice of the republic of Armenia a

little more than a month ago.  The Council of Europe in its resolution dated 
January

27, 2004 noted, and I quote, "despite commitments made and the assembly's 
repeated

appeals, Jehovah's Witnesses are still not registered as a religious 
organization." 

It asks that  "this registration be done without delay after their status has 
been

brought into conformity with the legislation in force," end of quote


However, the denials by the republic of Armenia are based on various

administrative objections.  In essence, the government of Armenia has by its

perpetual denials shown a clear pattern of finding fault on technical grounds 
that

is designed to prevent Jehovah's Witnesses from registering.  For example, in 
the

denial a month ago, the main item for the denial was that the applicants had

forgotten to indicate the number of copies they were filing.  These are just 
plain

technicalities and totally meaningless


But when placed in the context of 11 denials over the past nine years, the

actions of the Armenian government give evidence of a clear prejudice against

Jehovah's Witnesses, not to mention Armenia's blatant rejection of their 
commitment

to the Council of Europe to register nontraditional religions.  If the 
government of

Armenia is truly committed to honor its human rights commitments, as well as

international agreements, then we submit to this committee that Armenia should

discontinue any further delay tactics and register Jehovah's Witnesses promptly


The result of the refusal to register Jehovah's Witnesses' is that

importation of religious literature is outlawed.  Religious conventions of 
Jehovah's

Witnesses must be held in utmost secrecy.  Police have broken these up in the 
past. 

So only registration will cure these serious defects. 


The second issue is the issue of conscientious objectors.  As of yesterday

July 20, there were 14 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison in Armenia for their

conscientious objection to military service.  At the beginning of this year, 
three

new arrests were made for conscious objectors.  It is true that in the past, 
some

prisoners have been released on probation, but some of these have had their

passports confiscated, while others are being denied essential identification

documents.  They are being punished even out of prison


On January 25, 2001, Armenia's accession to the Council of Europe was

granted on the condition, among other conditions, but on the condition that 
within

three years Armenia would adopt a law on alternative service and in the meantime

pardon all in prison conscientious objectors.  In December 2003, the Armenian

parliament did adopt a law allowing three-years military service not involving 
the

use of arms, or alternative service of three-and-a-half years.  However, in its

resolution 1361, the Council of Europe stated that the three-and-a-half years of

alternative service was, quote, "unacceptable and excessive."  It was really

punitive, and should be reduced to three years. 


Additionally, the resolution demanded that imprisoned conscientious

objectors be, quote, "released immediately by presidential pardon pending the 
entry

into force on July 1, 2004 of the law on alternative civilian service," end of

quote.  Armenia has ignored these demands.  The prisoners remain in prison. 


Furthermore, the alternative service arrangement provided for by new

legislation, it is not known at this time how and under whose supervision this

service would be carried out.  Is it truly alternative civilian service?  It is

impossible to answer that question at the present.  Regardless, no prisoners 
have

been released under the new legislation


In referring to the recent arrests and imprisonment, a spokesman for

Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia stated, and I quote him, "What makes it 
especially

unsettling is that these are honest, hard-working young men who are willing to

perform alternative civilian service, and thereby be productive members of 
society,

without going against their conscience.  These young Witness men do not evade 
the

responsibility.  In fact, they themselves, they turned themselves in knowing 
the law

as it stands now.  But as long as the process continues, they are 
criminalized," end

of quote


So we are saddened and dismayed by the fact that the Armenian government

continues to imprison Jehovah's Witnesses who are conscientious objectors.  
This is

in direct contradiction to our Armenia's human rights commitments to the 
Council of

Europe that requires them to release all those in prison as conscientious

objectors. 


We remain hopeful that the Armenian government will abide by its human

rights commitments to establish genuine alternative civilian service for

conscientious objectors such as Jehovah's Witnesses.  At this time we would 
also add

that three applications have been filed with the European Court of Human Rights

regarding the issue of conscientious objectors


So in conclusion, on behalf of Jehovah's Witnesses, we wish to thank the

U.S. Helsinki Commission for its continued interest in the plight of Jehovah's

Witnesses in the Caucasus and in particular in Armenia.  Jehovah's Witnesses in

Armenia are peaceful, law-abiding citizens whose only desire is to worship God

without persecution or restriction they endured for decades under the former 
Soviet

regime.  We continue to express our confidence that the government of Armenia 
will

not deny its own citizens the fundamental human rights that belong to all 
citizens


Thank you


PRYOR:  Thank you very much


I would now like to turn the floor over to Dr. Crego.  You have the floor,

sir


CREGO:  I am Paul Crego.  I work at the Library of Congress, but we always

have to say when we speak in such venues that I do not represent the Library of

Congress with my opinions, particularly in this field


I have recently returned from a two-week stay in the republic of Georgia,

where my primary task this time was to obtain as much religious periodical

literature as I could, in part to compare with what I was able to obtain in 
October

2002, and also in comparison to what the situation was when I was there in the

summer of 1990


This time, I was able to collect more than 40 different titles.  Most of

these were Orthodox and most of them were publications that had the blessing of 
the

Georgian Orthodox Church under the patriarchate of Ilia II.  The only place you

could find any Jewish literature was at the synagogue.  The only place you could

find any Roman Catholic literature was at the Roman Catholic Church. 


On the streets, you could find Orthodox material that did not have the

blessing of the official church, some of it of some sort of independent nature 
and

some of it belonging more directly to two schismatic Orthodox groups within 
Georgia,

one of which includes the notorious Father Basil. 


In the several years of its independence, the new republic of Georgia has

experienced a whole series of conflicts, political battles including the 
removal of

two sitting presidents, ethnic strife, particularly in the breakaway regions of

South Ossetia and Abkhazia, severe economic hardships and interference by 
imperial

powers.  All of these have beset the Georgian nation.  Despite these conflicts, 
many

have worked for the establishment of a civil society and a democratic state in 
which

basic human rights, including the freedom of religion, are recognized and 
encouraged


During this time, however, religious freedom has been a concept that has

sometimes been more a matter of lip service than reality.  The dominant Georgian

Orthodox Church is still working to fix its place in the new definition of this

nation, a striving that has been complicated by its own internal dissensions,

schisms, the presence of a variety of other religions and Christian 
denominations,

some historically present in Georgia and some not. 


At the present time, one must also ask what the new government, born of the

Rose Revolution in November 2003 and headed by President Saakashvili, Prime 
Minister

Zhvania, and Parliament Speaker Burjanadze, means for the development of human

rights and specifically for the principles and practice of religious freedom. 


The new government has given some mixed signals.  Certainly, the arrest and

detention of Father Basil Mkalavishvili in March, a defrocked priest relating to

schismatic Greek Old Calendarists, was sure sign of progress.  His campaign of

physical violence and intimidation against non-Orthodox, especially against

Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Baptists and his impunity during

Shevardnadze's presidency, was sure evidence that Georgian society had some way 
to

go to match its self-claims of tolerance


If it were only the schismatic followers of Father Basil who promoted

violence with their actions and rhetoric, we would be looking now more 
hopefully for

a time of peaceful religious coexistence.  Priests of the Georgian Orthodox 
Church

itself, that is the one under Patriarch Ilia, have sometimes participated in 
violent

activity, and such an incident occurred while I was in Georgia, after some 
Orthodox

Christians had pulled on the patriarch and the church to move out of its 
isolation

into a broader participation in the ecumenical movement. 


Deacon, I will get the name later if you want to ask more details about

that, but some of these individuals had gone on Rustavi 2, which is one of the 
most

watched TV stations in Georgia, and they had made a public request for the 
church to

be more open.  In fact right after this appearance on television on Friday the

fourth of June, they were followed by what is described in the article as a 
deep red

Opel car that followed them around and hit them several times after this

appearance.  They have also had direct confrontations with some of the priests 
of

the Orthodox Church


On the other hand, there are some individuals who assured me not take these

fanatics as representative of the Georgian church.  One of them in particular 
was

Mother Theodora, who is abbess of the convent at the Cathedral of Bodbe, which 
is in

eastern Georgia.  Her own example of praying with a group of us, including what 
some

would call infidels from their perspective, was something that a lot of Orthodox

just would not have done in Georgia


Returning to the new government, Saakashvili, in his inaugural speech and

elsewhere, has promoted the idea that Georgia's primary identity as a Christian

nation makes it a part of Europe and European civilization.  I quote from his

inaugural address:  "At the same time let the return to our rightful place, lost

several centuries ago, to the European family, to European civilization, not be

forgotten.  As a country of a very old Christian civilization, we will most

certainly return to this place." 


Two flags fly now in the republic of Georgia:  the new explicitly Christian

five-cross flag and the multi-starred flag of the European Union.  Saakashvili 
makes

reference to the European flag in his inaugural address.  This new Georgian flag

already leaves out Jews and Muslims.  Significantly, Saakashvili does not refer

specifically to Orthodox Christianity when he speaks of the ancient Christian

civilization to which Georgia belongs, in a sense finessing the issue as to how

European Orthodox Christian nations have been or are now


Among the hopeful signs under the new government is the creation of a human

rights council announced by Saakashvili on July 19 to monitor human rights

violations in Georgia and to report to him directly in a monthly meting.  The 
jury

is really still out on whether the practice of the Saakashvili government can 
meet

its talk in the area of human rights, including religious freedom.  Perhaps we 
will

learn more if the Georgian parliament works soon on legislation concerning 
religion,

which has been in the works for several years


One of the troubling signs from the new government is its rehabilitation of

Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in which President Saakashvili 
has

participated.  This has implications for the practice of religious tolerance in 
the

republic of Georgia.  In a statement in one of the newspapers I picked up while 
I

was there, Saakashvili was reaching beyond the Shevardnadze government to claim 
some

legitimate succession from Gamsakhurdia, referring to the takeover by 
Shevardnadze

and his associates as a reestablishment of the old Soviet nomenclature. 


Gamsakhurdia himself, although his self-proclaimed Orthodoxy was overlaid

with the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, promoted a distinct program of 
Orthodox

church-Georgian state cooperation in such spheres as education.  It is 
interesting

now that anthroposophy and Steinerism have come under attack in Madli, which

means "Grace," the monthly newspaper of the Georgian Patriarchate.  In any 
event,

Gamsakhurdia's "Georgia for the Georgians" ideology included, for the most 
part, an

insistence on Orthodoxy as a part of Georgian identity. 


Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songhulashvili, with whom I talked while in Georgia,

expressed his concern over Gamsakhurdia's rehabilitation.  He is quite convinced

that the current government's profession of democratic principles and upholding 
of

human rights are contradicted by this activity. 


The most intolerant strains of Orthodoxy claim Zviad Gamsakhurdia as their

own.  One small religious magazine in particular, called Metexi, which is named 
for

a church in Tbilisi, has articles by and about Gamsakhurdia, and also articles 
on

the Jewish-Masonic conspiracy that runs the United States.  It is likely that 
this

magazine represents a small number of people.  One can also make the same claim 
that

Father Basil and his thugs are also a small group of people, but they have had

influence far outside of their numbers, and seem to have been representing some 
very

powerful people. 


Gamsakhurdia himself was a lesson in how we should have paid closer

attention to some of the more offbeat religious ideas of a would-be national

leader.  It should also be noted that such "conspiracies" against Orthodoxy and 
true

religion are not just in the unsanctioned publications.  While I was there I 
picked

up a small book by Eldar Nadiradze called Who Are the Jehovah's Witnesses and 
How Do

The Do Battle Against Orthodoxy?  His book starts out by promoting a context of 
a

Masonic conspiracy for the rise of the Jehovah's Witnesses.  This book has the

imprimatur of Metropolitan Anania Japaridze, the house historian among the 
hierarchs

of the official Georgian Church


Attention to the internal debates within the Georgian Orthodox Church itself

are very important as we consider the future of religious tolerance in the 
republic

of Georgia.  The current Patriarch, Ilia II, has continually lobbied for the

preeminence of the Georgian Orthodox Church within his country.  The concordat 
of

October 2002, which has been mentioned, is testimony to this. 


Ilia has been pressured, and has sometimes given in to the pressures of

conservatives within the church.  The exit of the church from various ecumenical

bodies in 1997 is an example of his giving into the pressure.  Some give him the

benefit of the doubt on this and related matters, but a reading of Ilia's own

writings would indicate that he is sometimes more on the side of the 
conservatives

and not completely comfortable with the norms of Western democratic freedoms 
and a

pluralistic society.  He is fearful of the moral and ethical implications of 
what he

considers to be pseudo freedoms.  The Patriarchate openly urges suppression of 
those

sects and movements that are not historical to Georgia.  The historical list in

Georgia is:  Orthodoxy, the Armenian Church, Islam, Judaism, Baptists, 
Lutherans and

Roman Catholics. 


This is done, to some extent, on theological grounds, but also on the

premise that non-Orthodox, whether historically a part of the Georgian nation or

not, put the identity of the Georgian nation at risk.  This is especially true 
when

the Jehovah's Witnesses are under consideration.  This criticism is also to be 
kept

in mind when the difficult relations between the Georgian Orthodox Church and 
Roman

Catholicism are under consideration. The Patriarch has also been quite 
outspoken in

support of the idea that Abkhazia is historically an inseparable part of Georgia


That the church is a repository of nationalism is something that is quite

noticeable these days.  Nowhere was it more visible on my recent trip than in 
the

newly constructed Church of St. Tamar.  Tamar was one of the rulers of Georgia 
at

its height in the middle ages.  It is under construction on Dolidze Street in

Tbilisi.  While the fresco program has not been executed, there are several 
icons

with collections of national saints.  Most notable were the icon of Georgian 
ruler

saints, and an icon that went with that of Georgian queen-saints.  Copies of 
these

icons are found in other churches as well


It is interesting that the government is using the consecration of the new

cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Tbilisi as a symbol of national unity.  While 
I was

there, Saakashvili and Zhvania went to see the patriarch, and I think they were 
very

concerned about the date of the cathedral's consecration being moved too far 
into

the future.  They wanted this as a symbol for part of their own agenda


I made two other observations in the context of religion and nationality

while in Tbilisi.  The Polish inscription is no longer on the cornerstone on the

Roman Catholic Church in Tbilisi, and the sign on the Baptist Church that used 
to be

in four languages, Georgian, Armenian, Ossetian and Russian, is no longer 
there.  My

assumption is that these churches do not want to advertise their foreign 
connections


The struggle for the soul of the Georgian church between those who desire a

more open church and those who want to continue and strengthen its isolation 
will

likely become more intense in the near future.  The patriarch's age means that

people will be handicapping the election for his successor.  While the contest 
for

the Bishopric of Rome cautions us not to make too many assumptions about the

longevity of the incumbent, the jockeying for position can still be 
instructive. 

Those who have been described as fundamentalists, a term used by Baptist Bishop

Malkhaz, would promote less tolerance and would take it upon themselves in the

future, as they have in the past, to suppress, sometimes violently, other

religions.  Others such as Archpriest Basil Kobakhidze, and that is the name I 
was

looking for before, are outspoken in their calls for more discussion and 
promotion

from within the church of such issues as religious freedom and a democratic and

pluralistic society


Conclusions.  Saakashvili wants Georgia to appear tolerant to the West.  He

knows that this is necessary for both political and financial reasons.  Father

Basil's detention is certainly in support of this.  Does he believe other 
matters

are off the radar screen?  Perhaps.  I think it is important to note that at 
this

point in time that the Georgian leaders know English very well, and that they 
can

make their case in English and do not have to rely on translations.  I think it

behooves our government to find out also what people are writing and saying in

Georgian, to which people in this country have very, very little access.  I 
make the

claim that I am the only person in the United States who has both theology 
degrees

and a reading knowledge of Georgian.  I have not been challenged on that yet. 


It is too early to give a firm answer about the new government.  But more

important, I believe, is the struggle within the Georgian Orthodox Church 
itself and

among its future leaders and this in the context of how the church continues to

insist that it is a primary denominator of national identity


Thank you


PRYOR:  Thank you very much. 


I want to thank all three of our speakers for really very interesting and

provocative statements that they have given us today


We are going to open the floor now for questions.  You should come up to the

microphone here if you want to ask a question.  If we could ask you to please

identify yourself and your affiliation so that we know who is asking questions


I am going to take the prerogative of the chair and ask the first question

here.  I am going to direct it to Mr. Rassbach.  In your discussion of many of 
the

problems at the Juma Mosque community, the Adventists and so on have had, it 
would

appear that the government of Azerbaijan was contravening many of the OSCE

commitments that it has undertaken.  You noted a number of things that you 
thought

the United States government and other governments could do to encourage them 
along

a different path.  Are there specific steps that you think either the United 
States

embassy in Baku or the State Department or the U.S. government in general can 
take,

or possibly the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom could make 
that

would further the process


RASSBACH:  I think that, as I mentioned, just an unequivocal statement that

kicking people out of their house of worship and jailing them for attempting to

worship there is wrong.  I think that would be a good start.  Actually, I 
should say

that Ambassador Harnish, who is the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan did show up 
at the

mosque at one of the time periods after the police invasion, but before they 
closed

it down completely, and that was very helpful. 


So I think there is willingness as far as I can tell to be involved, but not

to be necessarily unequivocal about it.  I think that if we can just be very 
clear

from the top on down that religious freedom is something that we really value in

Azerbaijan, and we are not just giving lip service to it, that that would be

something very helpful.  


I believe you also mentioned what the USCIRF could do.  I think that there

is definitely just the idea of asking the State Department to put them, they 
have

the watch list and if you could put Azerbaijan on the watch list.  Frankly, I 
think

that they probably have enough under the way the law is written to be 
designated as

CPC now, but there is the watch list step before that.  As Chairman Smith 
suggested,

I think that that would definitely be a good first step


I think it would also be a wake-up call to the government of Azerbaijan that

this is not just something that someone is doing to placate a constituency here 
in

the United States, but it is something that actually is U.S. government policy. 


PRYOR:  Thank you very much


We are going to open it to the floor now.  Who would like to ask the first

question?  I see a hand here. 


SALAEV:  I am Elman Salaev, Azerbaijan Democratic Party.  My question is to

Mr. Rassbach.  The closure of Juma Mosque is a tragedy.  The way people of that

congregation were dealt with is a tragedy.  But I want you to comment more on 
the

general political situation in Azerbaijan, because while speaking about Ilgar

Ibrahimoglu, who is the imam, you fail to mention the fact that he was 
sentenced for

five years conditional in Azerbaijan for allegedly organizing the violence 
after the

elections.  It is very important because after the elections, the old political

freedoms in Azerbaijan have been suppressed.  Hundreds of people were jailed.  
The

members of election committees were jailed.  Ilgar Ibrahimoglu is one of them.  
The

reason why Juma Mosque was closed, the first reason is that Ilgar Ibrahimoglu is

perceived as an opponent of the government. 


The second thing is that any not subordination is considered in Azerbaijan,

especially now, as a bad thing.  This particular mosque is not subordinated to 
the

organization of Caucasus Muslims or whatever the name is.  I want to hear your

comments on that


There is a second question, which I want to ask.  It has to do generally

with religious freedoms in Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan has always been perceived as

religious a very tolerant society.  There has never been any problems with 
regard

to, let's say, the Jewish community or preaching, nothing with regard to 
religious

freedom has ever been done.  Azerbaijan now in September, two resolutions of the

Council of Europe on Azerbaijan will be discussed.  One on political prisoners, 
and

another on democratic institutions in Azerbaijan. 


There are several recommendations, around 12 on the second resolution.  It

has to do with investigation of the flawed presidential elections.  It has to do

with political prisoners, the creation of the public to admit many things.  
There is

not a single one mentioning the religious tolerance of Azerbaijan because 
whatever

is happening is a part of the bigger, broader problem which is the political

freedoms in Azerbaijan.  It is not just the religious manifestations which are 
not

allowed any protestations, which are now not allowed


Three days ago, the editor-in-chief of one of the most influential

newspapers was kidnapped, beaten.  They asked him whoever did that, and they

certainly believe that it is connected to the government.  They asked him to 
stop

all his journalism activity. 


So when you said that maybe it is a very good idea, and I agree with you, to

ask as many as possible members of Congress to write to the government that the

religious freedom should be respected, I wonder if you could put it in the 
context

of the whole thing.  The political freedoms in Azerbaijan should be respected.  
The

problem with the religious freedoms is that they are just a part of that broader

problem


Thank you very much


RASSBACH:  Thanks for the questions


First off, I would encourage everyone to pick up some of the materials out

there.  I have some extended remarks in which I talk about the five-year 
suspended

sentence and our activities on behalf of Imam Ilgar in that regard.  I just 
tried to

shave it down a little bit for the speaking part of this presentation.  I hope 
I met

my limit


In any case, I do not mean to ignore the political aspect of the oppression

of religious groups in Azerbaijan.  I think that the two are clearly 
intertwined. 

However, what I specialize in as a lawyer is religious freedom.  What we are

representing the mosque on is their ability to worship.  There are other wrongs 
that

are being done against them and they are being targeted for their alleged 
political

associations.  But I do not think that you can reduce it to a political 
problem.  I

think that religious freedom is the reason this country exists, because people 
came

over here to escape these kinds of problems in Europe in the 17th century


I think that the ability to express a world view, to live one's life out

according to the values that one feels that God or some other divine aspects 
that

influences them to do that, I think is at the core of what it means to be 
human.  So

I do not want to reduce this to a political conflict and Ilgar is just one side 
or

the other.  He is actually very much religiously motivated in this.  I want to

emphasize that


That said, everything that is happening in Azerbaijan, it is clear that

religious freedom is just one of many different freedoms that are currently 
being

violated, and that there are a lot of problems with due process, democratic

institutions and other things.  I think it is probably outside the scope of this

briefing, but I certainly do not want to downplay that or say that The Becket 
Fund

or Eric Rassbach says that there are no political problems in Azerbaijan.  
There are

very deep political problems, and this is one manifestation of that


I do think that what you said about no insubordination.  They are not

joining the religious hierarchy.  That is probably the main reason that they are

being targeted by the Azerbaijan government is that they refuse to join the 
Caucasus

Muslims, which basically says we are going to run all of Muslim worship within

Azerbaijan.  That just does not comport with basic human rights.  You do not 
force a

church on someone.  Actually, we have a letter that we wrote to the Azerbaijan

appeals court outside on the table in which we point out that European Court of

Human Rights case law is very clear that you cannot force people to join one

religious organization.  These cases, unfortunately, tend to come up in post

communist societies. 


I hope I answered everything


PRYOR:  Thank you very much for that response.  I might also say that those

people who are interested in the broader range of political issues in the 
Caucasus

might want to look at some of the materials we have both on our Web site, where 
we

have country-by-country sets of information.  Also on the table outside we have

reports on the recent elections in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia that you may 
want

to take a look at.  Those are Helsinki Commission reports


Now, who else has a question?  In the front row here


SEDARIUS (ph):  Hello.  I am Eugenia Sedarius (ph) from the State

Department.  I thank the witnesses for their testimony today. 


I have a question for Mr. Carbonneau.  Sir, the government of Armenia told

our embassy in Yerevan that they at the time of the adoption of the law on

alternative service for conscientious objectors, that they did not have

administrative regulations in place, and had not yet considered how to write

administrative regulations in order to implement the law.  They told us that 
they

were welcome to get legal advice and counsel from outside groups and consult 
with

NGOs on this matter. 


I wonder if you or other members of the Jehovah's Witness organization have

taken advantage of that?  I would be very interested to hear what the responses 
of

the government if you or other such nongovernmental organizations were to go in 
and

offer specific recommendations for these regulations. 


CARBONNEAU:  I have no knowledge of the Jehovah's Witnesses having been

approached on the issue. 


SEDARIUS (ph):  No, sir, the government I do not think is openly soliciting

them.  They are sort of "we welcome," so they are not.  I do not think that is 
going

to happen anytime soon.  But what I am saying is, it would be useful to know if 
your

organization does approach perhaps with the help of the human rights 
ombudsperson to

provide specific recommendations in order to implement the law in an effective 
way


We understand what the complaints are of the Council of Europe.  We hope

that the government of Armenia takes that under advisement and reduces the 
length of

alternative service for conscientious objectors.  But until that time, they are 
kind

of looking around for a way to construct these administrative regulations.  The

input of this organization would undoubtedly be helpful


CARBONNEAU:  I understand they have had input from the Council of Europe

that has worked on this issue in Greece extensively, where they have implemented

alternative service and adequate laws.  The basic ingredient is simply real 
civilian

alternative service separated from the military, from the point of view of 
Jehovah's

Witnesses.  I believe from our conversation, the government has that 
information. 

Obviously if there is more that we could supply them with, we would be happy to 
do

so


PRYOR:  I see a hand over here. 


NIZIBLIAN:  Hi.  My name is Abraham Niziblian.  I am with the Armenian

National Committee of America here in Washington, D.C.  I thank all three 
panelists

for the briefings.


My question is, first, Mr. Carbonneau, I unfortunately missed and I am

trying to read your whole presentation, but I would like to know, you work on 
the

Jehovah's Witnesses issue, but is there any other religious freedom issues that 
you

would like to share with us here?  I know that Armenia is usually an open 
society. 

Jehovah's Witnesses have been an exception, unfortunately, but what about other

religious freedoms in Armenia?  If there is any way you can address that, I 
would

greatly appreciate it.  Thank you


CARBONNEAU:  Basically, being denied registration pretty well limits you to

any open manifestation such as rental of premises, holding of conventions.  The

Jehovah's Witnesses do have congregational meetings.  These have not been 
interfered

with by police.  However, they do not own any building.  These are done in 
private

homes and the like.  They do preach openly and are occasionally harassed, but 
by and

large they enjoy more freedom in that area than they did, for example, in 
Georgia

during the time of the violence in Georgia. 


But on the very basic element of being registered, being able to import

their literature and being able to have conventions, rent premises, this is

absolutely denied.  And any attempt to do it has immediate intervention by 
police

forces. 


PRYOR:  Let me just also ask the Helsinki Commission Council Knox Thames to

comment on the broader range of the religious situation in Armenia


THAMES:  I would just highlight for the audience here today that there is a

Congressional Record statement from Chairman Smith from about a year ago where 
he

highlighted some other concerns in the legal sense in Armenia, specifically 
their

religion law and article 14 and the four-prong test that the government created 
in

determining if a group applying for registration is in fact religious.  
Congressman

Smith pointed out that it is problematic in the way that it places the 
government in

the role of determining what is or what is not a religion. 


Three of the prongs I will highlight.  One, it asks if the religion is based

on a historically canonized holy book, and asks if the faith belongs to a 
system of

modern worldwide religious church communities.  Then lastly, it has a numerical

threshold of 200. 


So in addition to the Jehovah's Witnesses experiencing problems meeting this

test, smaller communities that do not have 200 members such as Baptists or Hare

Krishnas, I am told, cannot even begin the registration process because they do 
not

meet the numerical threshold. 


So to your question, sir, that is just one of the legal issues that it would

be nice if the government could address to bring this law into conformity with 
its

OSCE commitments


PRYOR:  Further questions? 


MCNAMARA:  Yes.  Ron McNamara with the Helsinki Commission.  


We have just touched on the question of the legal framework.  I wonder if

the panelists might elaborate a little further with respect to Armenia.  You 
have

touched on the registration requirements.  In fact, I think it was in this very 
room

that the Commission held a briefing several years back on the question of

registration. 


As Americans, I think it is hard for us to appreciate the consequences of

having laws on religion as all of the countries do, and the question of 
registration

and what the limitations are if you do not have that kind of a status.  With 
respect

to Azerbaijan, certainly under the prior President Aliyev I imagine once he 
heard

criticism he picked up the phone and told whoever the bureaucrats were to do

whatever they needed to do to fix it. 


One of the concerns that I always have in that kind of a scenario, and I am

not sure whether the current President Aliyev is following that model or not, 
is the

question of the rule of law.  It is one thing to get a powerful leader to pick 
up

the phone and get the bureaucrats to ease off at least temporarily, but it is a

whole other question in terms of the legal framework within which individuals or

communities of believers are allowed to pursue their faith in conformity with 
the

OSCE commitments that each of the states has undertaken.  I wonder if you might

elaborate a little further. 


And then one question for the expert on Georgia.  You mentioned sort of an

anti-Semitic component of one of the booklets of one of the perhaps fringe 
groups. 

I wonder if there are any elements reflected in the documents with the 
imprimatur of

the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church. 


RASSBACH:  OK.  Thanks for that question. 


I do think, perhaps because I'm a lawyer, that the legal implications are

very important in Azerbaijan.  Traditionally in Azerbaijan, the way things get 
done,

and when I am saying "traditionally," I am probably actually talking about 
during

the Soviet period as well, but certainly since independence generally speaking 
if

the president says to do X, then everyone does X.  If it is a question on which 
the

president has not yet expressed his opinion, everyone tries not to do anything. 


So there is a real problem with establishing the rule of law there because

they definitely have sort of a strongman idea of government there.  I think in

particular when you have this leftover Soviet system where you have, first of 
all

you have a registration requirement, so to have any ability to do anything 
under the

law, you have to be registered as a religious organization.  That is the same

problem that Mr. Carbonneau was talking about in Armenia. 


But then there is also both sort of an official state church, so there would

be an official state Russian Orthodox Church, an official state Muslim Board, in

this case the Muslim Board of the Caucasus.  And then even above that, there is 
a

special ministry that I mentioned in my remarks called the State Committee for 
the

Affairs of Religious Organizations, or SCARO as I like to call it.  Basically, 
that

organization has a vested interest under the law in putting in all kinds of 
permits

and registration requirements and various other things because if you have the

situation that you have in the U.S. with complete religious freedom, they would 
have

no reason to exist


So for them to have any reason to exist or probably to make some money, they

have to go in and restrict religious activity.  Otherwise, there is no point to

them.  That is a real problem and it is a real problem in a lot of different 
places,

communist countries in my experience. 


So I guess I would say that in terms of the legal superstructure, first of

all just a generalized respect for rule of law would be helpful.  Second, 
getting

rid of something like the state committee would be very useful because there is 
not

really under Azerbaijan's international law legal commitments, any point to 
having

such an organization. 


And then third, this attempted requirement, I am not against registration in

the abstract, but as it tends to get applied, especially in post-communist

countries, it does not work.  Here, we only have registration if you want 
tax-exempt

status, and there all you have to do is just prove that you have some good-faith

religious activity going on.  You cannot pretend to be religious and get the

religious charitable exemption under the Internal Revenue Code, but that is

essentially the closest thing we have to registration.  Often, churches or 
mosques,

they will register with the state, too, as a corporation, but it is nothing 
like in

the post-Soviet world which is just arcane and Byzantine, as I am sure Mr.

Carbonneau can probably tell us at length. 


So I would just say getting rid of registration would great, but if you do

have it, do not require membership in the state church as a precondition to 
being

registered.  Registration should be a neutral process that is applied to all

different religious groups equally


PRYOR:  Mr. Carbonneau, do you want to comment


CARBONNEAU:  I will make a very brief comment on both of those questions. 


The existence of law and religion is foreign to our Western concept.  We are

under a constitution and religion exists according to the laws of the country, 
the

constitution, basic religious freedoms.


In these countries, it is my perception that the law on religion is used or

hoped to be used as a control factor.  They will control religious groups that 
are

not the national religion, through these laws on religion.  The Armenia 
experience

is quite clear.  Using the law on religion, it is hoped now for several years 
that

any legality can be denied to groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, in spite of 
the

fact that the constitution guarantees religious freedom. 


So the law on religion becomes a barrier, making it much more difficult in

these post-Soviet countries where the rule of law is very difficult to 
implement. 

Then, officials do what they want ultimately with the law.  So by the 11 
denials of

the registration, if one reads every one of the denial letters, it is simply 
using

something in the law on religion that can be twisted to mean this, you forgot 
to put

your three copies.  I must deny you.  Whereas under a constitution guaranteeing

freedom of religion, you could not do that


  And with regard to the rule of law, well we have had experience in the

courts in Armenia with the issue of conscientious objectors.  We have been 
totally

unsuccessful.  That is why the cases are in front of the European Court.  There 
was

a trial a few years ago of Leova Makrien (ph), I believe.  Attempts were made to

imprison him under an old Soviet law for his activities in the congregation.  
It was

mainly due to the presence of foreign officials such as the OSCE who were in 
court

at every hearing that the judge had the courage to apply the law.  The rule of 
law

worked in that instance


The prosecutor attempted on appeal in the supreme court to reverse the

decision, but failed, but there was lots of publicity given to the case.  So the

rule of law will work if the eyes of the international community are on the

country.  If the international community is not looking, then the rule of law

becomes quite meaningless


PRYOR:  Thank you


Dr. Crego, would you like to comment


CREGO:  The legal situation in Georgia is still in flux.  There are

constitutional guarantees, and certainly the concordat with the Georgian 
Orthodox

Church puts them at a distinct advantage in relation to all of the other 
religion,

sects, denominations and such.  We are still waiting, really, for a law on 
religion

that will define some of these things


I know that if you are not the Georgian Orthodox Church, you would have

trouble getting property and buildings.  Sometimes it has been a case, though, 
where

it is not so much government suppression, but it is suppression by other 
members in

the society. 


The question about whether or not some of the more official literature has

anything to say about Jews.  No.  I have not read everything.  I have not read 
the

stack of things I brought back yet.  That is becoming more and more of a moot 
point

in Georgia.  About 90 percent of the Jews have now immigrated, mainly to Israel,

since Jews could start leaving the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  So the Jewish

population of Georgia, one which is quite ancient going back 2,500 years or so, 
has

changed radically


So when some of these books do talk abut Jewish this and that, it is for

them now more of an abstraction than it ever was.  It is not something they 
meet on

the street.  The synagogue in Tbilisi seemed to be flourishing.  It was all 
fixed

up, all painted and decorated and they were, I supposed you might call him the

beadle, I am not sure what, the sexton or maybe he was just an old man waiting 
for

visitors.  He was quite anxious to have two of us take the tour of the 
synagogue,

upstairs in the synagogue, downstairs.  I am not quite sure why there was one 
on top

of the other.  His Russian and his Georgian were both somewhat dialectical 
compared

to what our Russian and Georgian was.  So I have to answer that question for

myself. 


PRYOR:  Thank you


More questions


COSMAN (ph):  Cathy Cosman, U.S. Commission on International Religious

Freedom


While I personally agree that the situation in Azerbaijan unfortunately is

taking a distinct turn in the wrong direction, I do not believe that under the 
IRFA

criteria Azerbaijan is near reaching CPC status.  Perhaps it would rise, or I 
might

say fall to the status of watch list, and I hope my commission will take that 
under

consideration


I wanted to call to your attention also one legal aspect regarding

Azerbaijan.  That has to do with the fact that in 1993, as I understand it, the

religion law was fairly liberal, but in 1997 there was an amendment passed which

only at that point were the mosques required to come under, so-called 
voluntarily,

put themselves under the supervision and control of the Spiritual Board of the

Caucasus.  The Spiritual Board of the Caucasus, as I understand it, dates back 
to

tsarist times and it is rather significant that that control mechanism, the

government at that point in Azerbaijan deemed it necessary to call it back into 
life


Of course, what is going on with the Juma Mosque is particularly

unfortunate.  I think the potential contributions that Azerbaijan could make 
and is

making in various ways to liberal Islam and how Islam can function and make very

positive contributions in the secular society is something that the U.S. 
government

and the OSCE countries as a whole should take into account


Apropos of Georgia, I wanted to ask what you think the U.S. government could

be doing to encourage the Georgian government to adopt a liberal law on 
religion.  I

have gotten indications from the foreign minister of Georgia that they are very

concerned about the issue of freedom of religion and they are doing their best 
to

see that that is actually brought about in practice and in law


Thanks


RASSBACH:  Thanks.  I appreciate the suggestion that this might be taken up

on the watch list examination.  I agree that the situation became a lot worse.  
The

initial situation immediately post-independence for religious freedom in 
Azerbaijan

was much better than it is today, in part because of the amendment to the state 
law

on religion in the mid-1990s


We actually have some argument about that in our brief that is outside on

the table, if you want to plow through some European Court of Human Rights case

law.  But yes, they actually required everyone to re-register.  In our case, the

mosque attempted to re-register, but they did not want to re-register with the

Muslim Board of the Caucasus.  So what the government has said is that that

essentially meant that the mosque as a separate religious organization, as a 
legal

entity, ceased to exist, even though it had previously registered in 1992 and in

1993 with both the Baku city government and the ministry of justice. 


All that is just to say that they did register and they essentially tried to

yank the registration later to force them to come under this religious umbrella

organization, which the immediate predecessor to it is the Spiritual Board of 
Trans

Caucasia, which Stalin founded in 1944.  So great lineage there. 


I guess the other thing that I really think should be highlighted in what

you just said is the idea of moderate Islam being here.  Ilgar is not a fire

breathing mullah in the stereotypical sense that we often see in newspapers 
about

Islamic imams over here.  I was glad that you pointed out that Azerbaijan could 
make

a real contribution to moderate Islam.  Ilgar is somebody who wears turtlenecks

around and talks to me about his bicycling habit he wants to take up because he 
had

some health problems due to his incarceration in prison. 


If you read anything he has written, of which there is quite a lot on his

Web site, he really is trying to reconcile Western liberal thinking with the 
tenets

of Islam in a very creative way.  That is the reason that so many people support

him.  Every foreign embassy in Baku favors him and it is why he gets involved in

various human rights conferences, why he was under consideration for special

rapporteur at the United Nations on freedom of religion.  It's because he is a 
very

rare bird, of an extremely moderate Islamic cleric.  And I think that to really

support him would be something very much in the U.S. interests on Islam. 


So I'm glad you brought that up.  Thanks. 


PRYOR:  Anybody else like to comment on that


CREGO:  In terms of what the United States government can do in encouraging

liberal religious law in Georgia, I think partly it is education on both sides 
of

the United States and Georgia, paying particular attention to where the Georgian

Orthodox Church is in its own internal discussions, and from our point of view

encouraging those who within the church who are taking a more liberal stance. 


I think sometimes the government in Georgia, I think particularly when there

is a concordat about to be signed with the Vatican, had ignored the Georgian

Orthodox Church altogether.  I still cannot figure out what they were thinking 
on

any side of that issue when they did that.  Of course, the whole thing went up 
in

flames


Were they cognizant of where the church is on this issue, because it claims

a very, very real hold on Georgian society, with all of these new churches being

built and with a very real attitude about it.  I always put it this way, the 
very

soil in Georgia is holy.  I brought some back from a monk's grave.  I did not 
bring

it today with me, but at one monk who will probably be canonized in the near 
future,

there were just busloads of people coming in and getting some resonance off of 
that

grave in the old capital of Ossetia.  And the poor nun who was sitting there 
telling

people not to take too much dirt was fighting a losing battle.  I think she was 
in

charge of replenishing it. 


So we have to be very aware of how deeply religious the Georgian people are

when we talk about liberal law.  I was in Armenia for two weeks before I as in

Georgia for two weeks.  The contrast in religiosity was remarkable, with the

Armenians being less so and the Georgians just being much more.  I went to one

church for a Pentecost liturgy and never got in the church because it was so 
full,

that sort of thing


So it is going to be very difficult for the government to do that.  It is

not something they will be just able to propose and impose on their own 
principle of

democratic reform. 


THAMES:  If I could just make an addition.  As far as Georgian law

concerning religious freedom, I personally think a specific law on religion is 
not

the right way to go, but rather many of the issues or many of the concerns that

exist in Georgia can be handled through amendments to the civil code.  Of 
course, I

am biased with our own system here, but to get nonprofit status under the U.S. 
law,

it is the same law that handles whether you are a religious group, a political 
group

or a nonprofit group. 


Albania is an interesting country to look at that also has taken up this

method or this approach where it is one law that handles many aspects of 
handing out

some type of legal status.  I would pick up on what Eric mentioned about

registration.  It is not per se bad.  The question to ask is, does this 
registration

regime facilitate religious freedom or limit it?  I look at Azerbaijan where 
they

have had four, I believe, re-registration campaigns where the number of 
registered

communities has decreased each time, from the beginning I believe it was over 
2,000

and now it is in the low hundreds. 


It would seem that this places religious communities in a precarious

position where if they fall out of favor or if they raise their head too high, 
the

government can then crack down on them. 


One question I would like to ask to Mr. Carbonneau, I know you spend a lot

of time in Tbilisi.  With the arrest of Father Basili, what is the climate like

there now?  Do Jehovah's Witnesses feel more comfortable participating in 
certain

events?  Are there any lingering legal issues that need to be addressed in the

context of Georgia


CARBONNEAU:  I was in Tbilisi for five weeks, but I came back two weeks

ago.  Definitely, the climate has changed.  The very strong action by the 
government

against Mkalavishvili and eight of his supporters was seen nationwide.  The 
group of

religious fanatics that imitate Mkalavishvili are quite limited in number.  
Maybe

there are 1,000 throughout the country.  That seems to have put a stop on any

further attempt by other religious extremists


While I was there, several conventions of Jehovah's Witnesses were held. 

One was in Zigdidi, a site that had been destroyed by 100 policemen, by 
organized

government activity.  Another convention was held in Marneuli which was attacked

twice, both times by Mkalavishvili, and both times with the assistance of

policemen.  There were over 3,000 people in attendance.  There was absolutely no

problem, absolutely none whatsoever 


I think it comes back to my observation of the Georgian people.  They are a

tolerant people if not roused to religious fanaticism.  In this case, the 
government

seems to have taken the lead in having a measure of law and order being 
respected. 

As a result, I have been going back and forth for four years, and I can say it 
is

the first time I could walk around feeling relatively secure and not in danger. 
 So

there has been quite a major transformation.  Whether or not it will last is 
another

thing


With regard to Jehovah's Witnesses, the violence has definitely stopped

completely, absolutely.  We do have our cases in the European Court, the first 
of

which was declared admissible a couple of weeks ago.  So we hope to embed in 
law the

basic religious freedoms that should have been respected all along.  But 
definitely

the situation has improved. 


There are problems with, as my colleague mentioned, ownership.  There are

problems with owning churches, building churches.  These may be administrative

problems and it has to work its way down the chain.  But by and large, it is 100

percent better


PRYOR:  Thank you. 


Further questions?  I see one in the front row. 


STANDISH:  Good afternoon.  I am James Standish.  I am representing Dr. John

Graz, who is secretary general of the International Religious Liberty 
Association. 

I want to thank the Helsinki Commission for holding this event, particularly 
because

Imam Ilgar is, as I think many of you know, heads our affiliate in Azerbaijan 
and I

have a chance to meet him here in Washington, also in Vienna, and just a little 
over

a month ago in Kiev at a religious liberty conference.  I would like to confirm 
what

was said earlier, and that is that he has impressed me with his understanding of

religious liberty and his dedication to that essential principle


I would like to ask the three experts whether you have dealt with the issue

of the use of either state or private media to slander or spread misinformation

about religious groups in the region. 


PRYOR:  I want to start here at this end


RASSBACH:  I have no personal experience in dealing with that.  However, it

is something that happens and right now, I should say I have no personal 
experience

of challenging it.  I may yet be challenging it in the near future because 
there is

a bit of a media campaign being orchestrated against our client in Azerbaijan. 


It is interesting because there are just these various voices that are

competing and you do not want to trample on someone's free speech.  On the other

hand, if the government is essentially controlling and orchestrating something, 
then

I think you have a real problem with that kind of organized campaign where the

government is essentially trying to drown out any other expression.  But that is

pretty much all I can say about it at this time


CARBONNEAU:  My experience is that where they can do, they will do it.  They

will use the media to slander, to portray the least beneficial light possible. 

Recently in Azerbaijan, some meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses were broken up, 
and the

state media was present and portrayed a very negative, negative image 
throughout the

country.  The same thing was done regularly in Georgia in the past year.  So it 
is a

powerful tool being used to sway public opinion


CREGO:  Yes, I am fairly certain that Father Basil when he and his thugs set

out to do whatever it was they were going to do, would call the television 
stations

ahead of time because there always seemed to be video of book burnings and

disruptions of meetings.  So I am quite sure that that was part of it.  They 
thought

that by showing this, that it would get support.  I am not sure if that was

necessarily the case. 


Also in terms of media, this is actually just the republic of Georgia, the

official state newspaper.  There is an article about monasticism in Japaridze, 
which

is the primarily Armenian part of Georgia in the south.  Though there is nothing

particularly about the Armenians here, the tone of this article was quite 
negative

toward non-Orthodox.  It starts out by saying, in the past few years in 
Georgia, or

on Georgian territory, a multitude of sects have sprouted like mushrooms.  It 
goes

downhill from there.  This was just June 8. 


This does not indicate anybody, I don't think, who is a part of the

government, but it is still in the most official newspaper of the country.  So 
it

goes both ways


PRYOR:  Thank you very much


Who else has a question?  No further questions


If there are no further questions, then we will conclude the briefing.  I

want to thank our speakers today for their insights, for the work they are 
doing on

these issues.  Thank you very much for your time today


To everybody else who has come, we appreciate your coming also. 


Let me just again direct you to our Web site.  If you have a broader in the

issues in these countries, it is www.CSCE.gov.  It has country-by-country

assessments, as well as overviews on the OSCE commitments in general. 


Thank you very much


[Whereupon, the briefing ended at 12:37 p.m.


EN