AZERBAIJAN: Christmas Gagging Order for Lutheran Pastor

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 2 January 2001

An attempt by the government’s Administration for Religious Affairs to prevent visiting German Lutheran pastor Reinhard von Loewenich from conducting Christmas services at the invitation of Baku’s Lutheran congregation failed after the Administration was overridden by Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry. The Administration’s acting chairman claimed that Pastor von Loewenich’s activity would violate the country’s ban on ‘religious propaganda’ by foreigners, despite the fact that the pastor was due only to conduct services in the Lutheran church for those who had chosen to attend.

Although both Lutheran and diplomatic sources in Baku have confirmed the attempted gagging to Keston News Service, administration acting chairman Mustafa Ibrahimov initially denied the events. ‘I didn’t see the pastor, didn’t speak to him and had no contact with him,’ he told Keston by telephone from Baku on 2 January. Sounding angry, he refused to discuss the events further, confining himself to spelling out the ban on ‘religious propaganda’ by foreigners. ‘There is Azerbaijani law and the Azerbaijani constitution. All foreign citizens have to abide by it. We banned no-one,’ he declared, before putting the phone down.

Dilara Ahmedova of the Lutheran congregation told Keston from Baku on 26 December that the congregation’s chairwoman Natalya Gaidarova telephoned Ibrahimov on 22 December about another matter and it was then that Ibrahimov had issued his ban on the visiting pastor leading services or preaching, telling her that under Azerbaijani law religious ‘propaganda’ by foreigners is forbidden. ‘At first Gaidarova paid no attention to this and decided to ignore the ban,’ Ahmedova told Keston. ‘But then Vagif Salamov [one of Ibrahimov’s aides] phoned her and confirmed it, telling her that he had received an instruction to check up that it had been followed.’

Gaidarova immediately phoned Pastor von Loewenich who phoned the deputy chief of mission at the German Embassy in Baku, Martin Langer, who in turn contacted the Foreign Ministry. The ministry assured Langer that there had been a misunderstanding and that everything would be sorted out. Following the ministry’s intervention, von Loewenich was able to lead services in the city’s Lutheran church, known as the Kirche, on Sunday 24 December (Christmas Eve) and on Christmas Day. Salamov attended one of the services, where he was obliged to apologise to Langer on behalf of Ibrahimov.

Ever since the expulsion of the congregation’s German pastor Guenther Oborski in late 1999, the Lutherans have been without a resident clergyman, depending on visiting pastors when available. Von Loewenich, who has served in Baku on brief visits before, was invited specially to Baku for two weeks over Christmas to hold services.

The congregation has been repeatedly denied registration by the authorities, despite the fact that it completed all the legal formalities and presented its documentation to the Administration for Religious Affairs in May 2000, which passed it to the Justice Ministry in July 2000 (see KNS 28 November 2000). Fazil Mamedov, who heads the department for registration of religious and social organisations at the Justice Ministry, told Keston from Baku on 2 January that the application the congregation submitted by the congregation last year has been ‘rejected’, adding that the congregation must now begin the process all over again. ‘We have already given them our response to their application, calling on them to hold a constituent meeting and draw up the documentation.’ Mamedov rejected declarations by the Tbilisi-based Lutheran bishop Gert Hummel that the Lutheran Church of the CIS (ELKRAS) has backed the congregation’s application. ‘Hummel may be satisfied with the application but we have not had a letter from the Bishops’ Council from St Petersburg.’ Mamedov repeatedly referred to the split in the congregation as a reason for refusing the application.

A rival, government-supported Lutheran congregation, led by Tamara Gumbatova, was registered last year. It does not have a pastor and reportedly did not hold Christmas services. (END)