AZERBAIJAN: Baku Lutherans Out on the Street.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 30 April 2001

Ousted from its own historic church (which is still a Ministry of Culture concert hall), the larger Lutheran congregation in the Azerbaijani capital Baku was warned by police who twice interrupted the service on 22 April that it could no longer meet for worship in a rented club. Police demanded written approval from the justice ministry for the Lutherans to hold a service there. Church members had to hold their Sunday service on 29 April on the street outside the church, as they could not meet in the club, nor in their own church. `Yesterday we were not allowed to hold our service even in the church courtyard,' a church member told Keston News Service from Baku on 30 April.

Use of the church in central Baku - previously free - was barred in March after the Lutheran congregation was unable to pay the 2,000,000 manats (more than 275 British pounds or 400 US dollars) demanded by the Culture Ministry for each service. The church is now closed for renovation work. Vagif Salamov, an official of the government's religious affairs administration, confirmed to Keston on 23 April that the building had been closed but pledged that `as soon as repairs are over' both the Lutherans and other Protestants who have been using the church, including the Adventists and the Greater Grace church, will be allowed to use it again.

The 22 April Lutheran service, led by visiting German pastor Reinhard von Loewenich, was held in a club for the deaf and dumb. `Twice during this time the police came in and told us that we had been only allowed to meet there because there had been a request from the German embassy in connection with the visit of the pastor,' a church member told Keston on 23 April, `but we would not be able to meet there again.' This was the last service led by Berlin-based Pastor von Loewenich, who had to leave Azerbaijan on 28 April.

On Easter Day, 15 April, some 60 church members, diplomats and visitors from the German parliament attended a service led by Pastor von Loewenich, which also had to be held away from the church.

Pastor von Loewenich told the congregation that Bishop Gert Hummel, who has been entrusted by ELKRAS, the St Petersburg-based Lutheran Church in the former Soviet republics, with oversight over the church in Azerbaijan, is due to visit Baku around 20 May. The visit is due to coincide with the visit to Azerbaijan of the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer who, he declared, is expected to urge the Azerbaijani authorities to grant the long-withheld registration of the Lutheran congregation.

A diplomat of the German embassy in Baku, who preferred not to be named, told Keston on 23 April that he and his colleagues are closely following Lutheran developments. However, he declined to say whether Fischer would raise the parish's difficulties with the Azerbaijani authorities. `The programme of the visit is being planned at the moment.'

The diplomat confirmed that the congregation is no longer able to use the church building, but stressed that the main obstruction for the Lutherans remains the continuing refusal to register the parish (see KNS 2 January 2001). `There has been no progress on registration. The Justice Ministry refuses to recognise the duly-elected church leadership,' he added, in a reference to the ministry's insistence that the Lutheran community led by Tamara Gumbatova (which has registration but is not recognised by ELKRAS) can be the only Lutheran congregation allowed to register. `The embassy continues to try to urge the authorities to recognise the duly-elected leadership or to register a second community.'

Baku's Lutherans have this week written to the German government and parliamentarians, complaining about their plight. `For the second year, and in violation of Azerbaijan's law on freedom of confession, we are experiencing targeted pressure from state and law enforcement agencies,' they write, `such as the police, the procuracy, the religious affairs administration and the Ministry of Justice, which is manifested in telephone calls with threats, sending of letters to places of work and even to our children's schools.'

The letter - signed by Natalya Gaidarova and six other members of the church council - highlights the difficulties of conducting public worship since use of the former Lutheran church was halted. `Our 120-strong community has been left without the right to hold services on Sundays in the church that was built 100 years ago with the funds of Lutherans, our forebears. Worse still, we do not have the right to meet in a club nor to rent even one public building. Thus the Evangelical Lutheran community of Jesus Christ in the city of Baku has neither a pastor, nor a church, nor an office, nor registration.'

Salamov told Keston he was not aware of the police visits during the 22 April service and was unable therefore to say why they had visited. He maintained that the Lutherans are allowed to rent facilities such as clubs, declaring that any decision whether to rent or not to rent was up to the club management.

Despite repeated calls, Keston was unable to reach Fazil Mamedov, the official at the justice ministry responsible for registering religious organisations, to ask why the Lutherans' application has still not been accepted a year after it was again submitted. Keston was also unable to reach Shaban Nasibov, a lawyer at the culture ministry, to ask why the Lutherans are being asked to pay such a large sum to use a church built by their forebears. (END)