Azeri Officials Deprive Christian Baby of Name

Friday, September 29, 2006

Baptist community in Zaqatala region struggles against nationalist prejudice.
by Peter Lamprecht

ALIABAD, Azerbaijan (Compass Direct News) – Born on June 18 to a Christian family in northern Azerbaijan, three-month-old Ilya Eyvazov still has no official name.

Local authorities in the town of Aliabad at first refused to issue a birth certificate when the baby’s father, Novruz Eyvazov, tried to register his son’s birth on June 21.

“Impossible,” city administration officials told Novruz Eyvazov when they saw his son’s name was the Russian form of Elijah.

“They said it was because it was a Christian name,” said the Baptist church member.

The father of five told Compass that he was not surprised by the difficulties because he had faced the same problem with his last two children. “God knows what he wants and we trust him for everything.”

Novruz Eyvazov said he returned to the city administration offices on a weekly basis for the next month, but he succeeded only in eventually securing a birth certificate that left his son’s name blank.

Hassan Hassanov, who took office as Aliabad’s administrative head in August, told Compass by telephone that he had never heard of the matter.

But an official in the regional registration office in Zaqatala said that Baptists in Aliabad were facing difficulties because their attempt to take non-Azeri names was part of a plot to cede Zaqatala to neighboring Georgia.

“I have a letter here with the signatures of 3,000 residents of Aliabad, sent to the president and the European Council, complaining that they [Baptists] want to make [Aliabad’s residents] Georgians,” Aybeniz Kalashova told Compass.

“The letter says, ‘They [Baptists] want to change our names, make us Georgian and then claim that this area is part of southern Georgia.’ Why have they become Christians and started serving a foreign country?”

In Azerbaijan, where 96 percent of the population is Muslim, Christianity is perceived by many as a foreign religion, and conversion out of Islam is often viewed as betrayal of the nation.

The majority of Aliabad’s residents belong to the ethnically Georgian Ingilo minority who converted to Islam several centuries ago.

Kalashova claimed that the local government would never refuse parents the right to give their child a particular name, although they might “suggest” a different name due to the Georgian threat.

When asked whether she knew anything about Ilya Eyvazov’s situation, Kalashova said, “It is likely that I was given a [formal] statement concerning it, but the registration papers for the new child were likely given to the administration in Aliabad.”

She promised to contact Aliabad administrator Hassanov to rectify the problem.

“There is no problem like that here,” city leader Hassanov said when Compass informed him of Kalashova’s comments that Baptists were attempting to cede Aliabad to Georgia.

Family Tradition

Baptists in Aliabad have reported ongoing difficulties in giving their children Christian names.

Though little Ilya Eyvazov is not yet aware of the struggle surrounding his identity, he is following in the steps of two older brothers, Moisei [Moses] and Luka, who were also denied birth certificates by the municipality.

Moisei Eyvazov, now eight, was born soon after his parents became Christians in 1997. Novruz Eyvazov told Compass that it took him three months to get Moisei a birth certificate because the child’s name was not Azeri.

The Baptist family faced an even greater struggle in obtaining a birth certificate for Luka Eyvazov, now three years old. For 18 months the Eyvazovs took their case before local, regional and national officials. They were only successful after religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 News Service reported their problem.

Without a birth certificate it is impossible for an Azeri to receive medical care, go to school or travel abroad. It is not yet clear what practical problems Ilya Eyvazov will face if his official I.D. carries no name.

“We will solve this problem,” Mehman Soltanov of the Justice Ministry promised when Compass contacted him about Ilya Eyvazov’s lack of a name.

Soltanov, who had been instrumental in securing a birth certificate for Luka Eyvazov, was skeptical of the Eyvazovs’ motives for giving their children foreign names.

“Why is it that Novruz wants to give his sons foreign names?” Soltanov asked Compass, continuing speculations, initially made to Forum 18, that the Christian family was being forced to choose the foreign names by “some religious sect.”

Zaur Balayev, pastor of Aliabad’s first Baptist church formed in 1993, told Compass that he knows at least five families from his congregation that have faced opposition from local officials in giving their children Christian names.

Another Baptist pastor, Hameed Shabanov, said that his son and daughter-in-law had named their first son Davud because authorities rejected the name Samson. The couple was eventually able to name their second son Samson while traveling abroad in Moldova.

But Shabanov acknowledged to Compass that efforts to restrict foreign names were often haphazard and irrational. He recounted how officials had refused to allow one family from his congregation to name their daughter Rebekah, but then approved the name Irina despite the fact that it was also non-Azeri.

‘No One Recognizes Baptists’

The three Baptist congregations in Aliabad, a town of 10,000, have reported other forms of ongoing harassment.

Pastor Shabanov told Compass that members of his congregation are constantly being called in to the police station to answer questions about their worship activities.

“They can’t actually keep us from worshipping, but they do everything they can to scare away people who are interested in attending our services,” Shabanov said. He told Compass that new converts to Christianity were often told to return to Islam or their relatives would lose their jobs.

Pastor Balayev said that local officials had tried to thwart socio-economic projects he has started. His attempt to build an Internet café, which would have created jobs and improved education in the poor town, was halted this year by a government complaint that he had not followed his original building plans.

“I believe it is because I am a Christian,” Balayev said as he showed Compass the half- finished building. Deprived of the income he had expected from the Internet club, Balayev remains unsure how he will support his wife and daughter while trying to pay back the loan he used to finance the project.

Both Balayev and Shabanov have attempted to register their congregations with the government several times over the past 13 years, most recently in 2004, but have been denied each time. The town’s third Baptist congregation refuses to register out of principle.

“Each time we apply they tell us that we have documents missing,” Shabanov commented. “But then they call ahead to the offices involved and tell them not to grant us the documents that we need to collect.”

“No one in the whole world recognizes the Baptists,” Kalashova of Zaqatala’s registration office commented to Compass. “They are Muslims who converted to Christianity and received help from foreigners. They don’t intermarry or have relations with [people outside their group].”

Azeri churches outside of the capital city of Baku have found it difficult to register with the government, a move that would in theory allow them to worship with minimal government interference.

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct News