AZERBAIJAN: MAJORITY LUTHERAN CONGREGATION TO PURSUE REGISTRATION

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 27 November 2000

Following the failure of a reconciliation meeting between the two factions of Baku's divided Lutheran congregation, Lutheran Bishop Gert Hummel has declared that the second community - which represents the vast majority of the city's Lutherans - will pursue separate registration with the Ministry of Justice. The bishop told Keston News Service from the Georgian capital Tbilisi on 27 November that he was disappointed by the failure of the meeting, but said that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and the Other States (ELKRAS), to which the Baku Lutherans belong, remains committed to trying to resolve the dispute. He declined to say whether he had held any meetings with the Ministry of Justice or the government's Administration for Religious Affairs during his visit to Baku.

Bishop Hummel was asked by the ELKRAS Synod in August to hold the reconciliation meeting, which eventually took place on 21 November. He chose a Baku hotel as the venue rather than the Lutheran church, he told Keston, preferring `neutral ground'. He had hoped for a joint meeting of the two sides, but the leadership of one side (apparently the government-sponsored group led by Tamara Gumbatova, though Hummel refused to specify) had declined to hold a joint meeting with the other, which was led by Natalya Gaidarova. He had met for three hours in the morning with one side and three hours in the afternoon with the other. Five representatives had been present from each side.

In a brief statement issued in the wake of the failure of the meeting, Bishop Hummel declared that given the unacceptability to the other side of Gumbatova's conditions for reunification, `the only solution remains the next step of achieving registration of the second community'. `This step will be pursued single-mindedly,' the statementadded. Bishop Hummel also deplored what he described as `incorrect' statements going around the world about the dispute, an apparent reference to emailed statements from church members, and begged for discretion. `There are a lot of people who are willing and able to throw a spanner in the works of a good solution.'

The dispute within the Baku Lutheran community would have remained an internal dispute had it not been for the intervention of the state authorities, which have consistently backed Gumbatova. Formerly chair of the main parish, Gumbatova spearheaded attempts to have German pastor Guenther Oborski expelled from Azerbaijan in late 1999. At an emergency parish meeting in November last year she refused to accept a vote to remove her from office (a decision approved by Archbishop Georg Kretschmar, who is based in St Petersburg). Gumbatova's community was registered at record speed by the Justice Ministry earlier this year.

The Lutheran congregation led by Gaidarova first submitted its separate application for registration to the Religious Affairs Administration in May, which sent it on to the Justice Ministry in July. However, the Justice Ministry refused to pass it to the ministry's board for consideration, citing the reconciliation meeting as a reason for delaying (see KNS 27 October 2000). Bishop Hummel told Keston that he will now be pushing for legal recognition of the community based on this application. `The application has already been there for many months. We will have to wait for the Justice Ministry board to meet.'

The division in the community has also helped the authorities delay the return of the Baku Lutheran church, confiscated during the Soviet period and still used for much of the time as a concert hall. It has also hindered the provision of a pastor for either congregation. (END)