Azerbaijan: Believers Unhappy over State Committee's "Illegal" Demands

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

In addition to their unhappiness over the very need for re-registration of religious organisations and the way the compulsory re-registration process has been run, believers of a variety of religious denominations have complained to Keston News Service over the demands made of them by the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations, which is handling the process. On a visit to Azerbaijan between 24 February and 4 March, Keston heard repeated complaints about the State Committee's constant demands over how religious organisations should submit their documentation, the level of state interference permitted under the new system of state control and the subjective way the re-registration process is being conducted. Believers claim many of these demands go well beyond what is specified in the country's religion law or the new registration instructions issued by the State Committee in the wake of its establishment last June.

Tamara Gumbatova, leader of an independent Lutheran congregation in Baku, told Keston that her congregation had submitted its re-registration application in December 2001 in Russian. "The State Committee phoned me on 14 January and said we must translate our application and statutes into Azeri. I refused - the constitution allows us to deal with state bodies in Russian." She said her congregation had heard nothing more from the State Committee about progress on their application. She told Keston that if the State Committee refuses to process their application because it is in Russian they will challenge this in court. All other religious groups Keston spoke to said they had submitted their documentation in Azeri. Keston can find nothing in the published regulations that specify that documentation must be presented in Azeri. Yet State Committee chairman Rafik Aliev told ANS television on 11 March: "We refused to register that Lutheran Church because their papers were not in Azeri."

Some politicians and human rights activists rejected the requirement in Article 9 of the religion law that all Muslim organisations must be subject to the Caucasian Muslim Board, regarding this as unwarranted interference into how religious organisations structure themselves. "I'm for independent mosques being allowed to gain state registration independent of the Muslim Board," Professor Rovshan Mustafayev, director of the Institute of Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences, told Keston. "That article of the religion law has not been correctly phrased." Nariman Qasimoglu, deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front and the party's spokesman on religious affairs, likewise had no objection to independent Muslim registration. "Provided an individual community does not violate the law and that there is no evidence that behind it stand the secret services of another country, such as Iran, why not?" he told Keston at the party headquarters in central Baku.

Such views were not shared by Professor Vasim Mammadaliyev, head of the department of Arabic studies at Baku State University and a prominent Muslim. "All mosques must obey our leader Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade," he told Keston in his office at the university. "It is in our religion law and it is a good thing." Not surprisingly, his views were echoed by Haji Akif Agaev, deputy head of the Caucasian Muslim Board. "In Russia the religious headquarters is the Moscow Patriarchate, in Armenia it is Echmiadzin. Here, for historical reasons, it is the Muslim Board," he told Keston at the board's headquarters next to Baku's Taza Pir mosque. "If one mosque submits to us and another doesn't, there would be chaos. We have already lived through this in the early years of independence." Haji Akif indeed criticised the State Committee for re- registering mosques without consulting the Muslim Board. "They re- registered several without our permission. They shouldn't do this." He did not know how many such independent mosques had gained re- registration.

A variety of religious leaders complained to Keston that the State Committee insists that religious organisations declare in their statute that a religious community functions only within a named town or district of the country. "Before re-registration we could work in the whole of Azerbaijan," Babek Allahverdiev, chairman of the Hare Krishna community, told Keston at the Hare Krishna temple in a suburb of Baku. "Now we can only work in Baku itself - the State Committee told us to put that in our statute and said they would not re-register us if we didn't. Re-registration was so difficult - they looked through every article of our statute minutely - that we had to agree with it out of fear that we would be closed down." He said his community did not agree with the restriction and that it intended to take this up with the State Committee as soon as the re-registration process is over.

All other religious groups Keston spoke to - including the Baptists, Catholics, Adventists, Lutherans and various Pentecostal Christians - confirmed that the State Committee had told them they could not write "Republic of Azerbaijan" as the area of a religious group's operation and that officials had insisted that a specific town or district was named.

In his written response to Keston's questions on 26 February, State Committee chairman Rafik Aliev claimed that religious groups "themselves ask for the territory of activity to be limited" as they do not want to "take responsibility" for other regions of the country. Believers of a variety of faiths Keston showed this to snorted in derision. "He is lying! They claim we are demanding this ourselves while they insist on it," was one response that echoed many more. "I think he's just inventing this," said another. "There's nothing about this in the law on religion or the re- registration instructions."

Although religious activity without registration is not banned in Azerbaijan - and Rafik Aliev confirmed this to Keston in his written response to questions (in contrast to remarks made to Keston by his deputy in February - see KNS 8 February 2002) - it remains unclear whether the State Committee and local authorities will move to ban religious activity in a local region by groups registered elsewhere. "How can we register in each town or village where we have adherents?" Allahverdiev asked in exasperation. "What will we be able to do if they arrest our people in a village?"

State Committee officials often gave religious minority communities "advice" about which communities they should apply for registration for and which they should not, in a clear sign of government meddling. The Baptists were told they should register only the Baku Russian-language community and run all the rest of their communities as branches of it without individual registration, while the Adventists received "friendly advice" not to try to register two separate communities in Baku (see KNS 28 February 2002). Other groups reported similar pressure.

Asked about the Molokans in Azerbaijan, long-standing communities of an old Russian Protestant group persecuted under the Tsars, Aleksandr Kozlov of the State Committee told Keston that his committee had "recommended" to the Baku Molokan community that they should register. "We warned them that the community is very large and that they should therefore seek registration. The other communities are only very small." Molokan leaders in the traditionally Molokan village of Ivanovka in central Azerbaijan told Keston in spring 2000 that the church there had never had registration and that they did not understand the registration system. It is not clear why State Committee officials have this time decided to pressure the Baku Molokan community to complete the paperwork to apply for re-registration.

Another obstruction many groups faced was that the State Committee demanded that "newer" religious groups (apparently every group except the Muslims) should provide the statute of a religious headquarters outside the country, duly approved by that country's authorities, regardless of whether a local community was subordinated to one or not. Article 5 of the new registration instructions specifies this requirement, but makes no mention of what religious communities should do if they are not subject to a higher body.

"They demanded the statute of the Holy See," Father Daniel Pravda, head of the Catholic Church in Azerbaijan, told Keston. "I had to explain that the Church functions in all countries but that it has no statute. They understood this." Father Pravda then had to produce a letter from the Vatican detailing why it was opening a parish in Baku (although the parish was already functioning and regards itself as the successor to the pre-revolution Baku parish) and confirming him as its leader. Many other local leaders had to gain documents from corresponding bodies in Russia, the United States or other countries.

Among groups rejecting the validity of this demand is the Lutheran congregation led by Gumbatova, which does not recognise the authority of any Lutheran body outside the country. She argues that it is unlawful for the state to require such certification by an outside body. Others argue that the state authorities have devised this requirement to try to pretend that all non-Muslim believers are merely agents of outside powers.

Religious groups that tried to include points in their statute about the publishing activity of their communities found that this too faced opposition from the State Committee. Although censorship has formally been "abolished" in Azerbaijan, the country's religion law specifically requires all religious literature to undergo prior censorship before it can be printed or imported (although this violates Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments). "We wrote in our statute that our community had publishing rights," Father Daniel Pravda, head of the Catholic Church in Azerbaijan, told Keston at his church office. "They said we had to remove this, although the law says we have the right to do this. We did remove it as a compromise."

Religious groups also found the State Committee taking a very close interest in their statute's provisions over how leaders are chosen. Pastor Ilya Zenchenko, the Baptist leader in Azerbaijan, told Keston that his Baku congregation had declared simply that the church chooses the pastor, who has full powers and has responsibility for the religious activities of the church. "They made us specify how many people choose the pastor - and that it should be by a majority of two-thirds - and demanded more precise details on how long he served for," Zenchenko explained. "They demanded we set up an audit committee to check the work of the pastor and that the pastor report to the church on his activity at least once a year. They have an interest in showing that they know all about our internal workings." He said that regardless of the statute he would report regularly to his congregation as pastor. "We are Protestants - we are democratic. The pastor is not a monarch. But we don't need them to tell us how to run our internal affairs."

The State Committee also has much wider powers of financial control over religious organisations than its predecessor. "They are now demanding to know where our money comes from and how it is spent," Pastor Zenchenko added. Haji Akif told Keston that the Muslims had no intention of handing over financial reports of individual mosques to the State Committee. "Rafik Aliev doesn't have the right to demand them," he declared bluntly.

Yahya (Ivan) Zavrichko, head of the Adventists in Azerbaijan, told Keston that the State Committee is demanding that religious groups submit to it not only the minutes (protocol) of the founding meeting of the group's members (as required by the re-registration instructions), but that it is also demanding that religious groups submit minutes of every members' meeting. "We had to sign to say we oblige ourselves to send them these minutes," Zavrichko declared, clearly unhappy by this requirement. "We have such meetings up to ten times a year." Keston has been unable to establish where this is prescribed in law or whether this obligation has been imposed on other religious groups. Haji Akif would have none of it. "They can't demand such minutes, it's not legal. We know that religion is separate from the state here." Professor Mustafayev told Keston he had not heard of such a requirement, but that if it existed he would be opposed to it "except in exceptional circumstances if it was proven that people wanted by Interpol had been taking part in such meetings".

Many believers might in retrospect have sympathy with the position of the congregations of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, a group that rejects registration with the authorities in any of the post-Soviet republics on principle. Told of the state meddling in the affairs of different faiths during the re-registration process, Pastor Pavel Byakov felt his Church's stance was vindicated. "That's why we won't register!" he told Keston at his home in a village near Sumgait. "They're manipulators from start to finish. At first there was freedom after independence, but soon they started to throttle us. They're returning to the old Soviet system."

Copyright (c) 2002 Keston Institute. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.