Azerbaijan: "Don't Complain to Foreigners," Religion Chief Tells Believers

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

As believers who claim their rights have been violated by the state authorities debate and argue over the best way to resolve such violations, Keston News Service has discovered that Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, has repeatedly warned believers not to take their complaints to foreigners. "Come to us with your problems and we will sort them out," he has told religious minority leaders, despite the fact that his office is often the cause of the violations or - in cases where other agencies have violated believers' rights - the State Committee has done nothing practical to prevent such violations and failed to respond to letters of complaint.

Aliev summoned some 20 Protestant pastors and leaders to a meeting at the State Committee on 30 January. "Why do you complain to international organisations?" he told them. "We're here to help you." He failed to explain to them why they should not exercise their right to tell whomever they chose about their problems.

However, a number of pastors present at the meeting told Keston of their scepticism about Rafik Aliev's good intentions. "It was just a lecture, not a discussion," Musfig Bayram, a pastor at Baku's Greater Grace Protestant church who was present at the meeting, told Keston. "We asked for concrete help but all he did was criticise us. He didn't help us." Equal scepticism was expressed by Ivan (Yahya) Zavrichko, the head of the Adventist church in Azerbaijan. "He told us we shouldn't write to anyone or complain or get them to exert influence on us as it would be useless."

Similarly, when Pastor Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan, and Pastor Pyotr Konovalchik, the head of the Baptist Union in the CIS who was visiting from Moscow, visited Rafik Aliev on 25 February to discuss their concerns (Aliev refused to receive Yahya Mamedov, pastor of the Azeri-language Love church which Aliev is trying to liquidate), they were subjected to a tirade. "Rafik Aliev criticised us. He wasn't happy about the noise about the Love church around the world," Zenchenko told Keston. "He demanded to know what right some Dutch village pastor had to write to our president about it. 'Who are these people to tell our president what he should do?' he said. 'As if he doesn't know already what to do without their help.'"

Other Christian pastors have expressed their frustration over Rafik Aliev's failure to respond to letters of complaint from local believers. "During the media campaign last year against religious minorities we wrote to Rafik Aliev to ask him to bring them to a halt," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Keston. "We had no reply. We wrote again on 17 December to ask for his help in the wake of an attack on our church the previous day by a drunken man. Again there was no reply. On 31 December we wrote a joint letter with other Protestant pastors asking for a halt to the legal case to liquidate the Azeri-language church in Baku. Although Namik Allahverdiev of the State Committee received the letter that same day there was still no reply." The only reply Zenchenko received was when he wrote to the State Committee to inform it of Konovalchik's visit to Baku from Moscow. "They wrote to say they had nothing against the visit."

More important still, State Committee officials appear to have done nothing to halt illegal closures of places of worship by local authorities. Asked by Keston on 26 February about the police closure of the Gyanja Adventist church two days earlier (see KNS 27 February 2002), Allahverdiev said he had heard something about it. Kozlov said he had had a call from an Adventist pastor giving full details and that he had rung the local authorities and told them not to restrict the Adventists. However, when officials of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe raised the closure of the church with Rafik Aliev in mid- March, he told them he had never heard of the incident. The church remains closed.

Moshe Bekker, leader of the Ashkenazi Jewish community whose community appears to be on the verge of re-registration denial as the State Committee has opted for a rival group, told Keston that he has repeatedly sought to discuss the split within the Ashkenazi community with Rafik Aliev - without success. "I've rung Rafik Aliev many times, but he's running away from me."

While in Baku, Keston witnessed debates among religious minority leaders over how to tackle illegal closures of places of worship, denial of registration to communities, detentions, fines and beatings of believers, as well as media campaigns against religious minorities which many claim were initiated by the State Committee. Some leaders argued that it was better to resolve such issues quietly behind the scenes. Others spoke up strongly for seeking as much publicity as possible, reporting such events to local media, international media such as Keston News Service and the secular agencies and to diplomats. They argued that only international pressure on President Heidar Aliev eased heavy pressure on religious minority communities in late 1999.

While many minority leaders thanked Keston for its coverage of religious liberty developments and incidents in Azerbaijan, it was remarkable how many declined to have incidents of fines, beatings, confiscation of religious literature or closure of places of worship reported, especially when such incidents occurred outside Baku. Such leaders feared that coverage of such incidents would make the situation for their believers on the ground even more difficult.

Some ethnic Azeris who belong to minority faiths felt uncomfortable about taking their cases to diplomats of foreign embassies, such as those of the United States or European Union countries, fearing that they could be tarred as being foreign agents. They argued that it was better to take cases directly to international bodies in which Azerbaijan was a full and equal member, such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe, both of which have representatives in Baku. However, officials of these two organisations say that so far, few such religious representatives have been to see them to present their cases.

Local human rights groups also expressed surprise that local religious communities whose rights had been violated rarely came to see them. "They report these incidents abroad, but none of them ever come to see us," Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Keston at his centre. "We're ready to help them."

An uncompromising line was taken by Pastor Pavel Byakov, leader of an unregistered Baptist church in a suburb of Sumgait, a city near Baku where two Pentecostals were arrested in January and sent to prison for two weeks (see KNS 21 January 2002). "We make a lot of fuss about every incident," he told Keston in his home. "We had trouble a couple of years ago here in Sumgait, but after making a fuss they have been leaving us alone while other Christian groups now face pressure. Look at the Pentecostals here - they didn't shout and see what happened to them. Fifteen days in prison. We're used to fighting."

Copyright (c) 2002 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.