AZERBAIJAN SPECIAL REPORT: Religious Groups Cautious Over Reregistration Promises.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 12 December 2001

Less than three weeks before the expiry of the deadline for all religious organisations registered in Azerbaijan to apply for compulsory re- registration, the government's senior religious affairs official has pledged that the obstruction of registration, seen under the old system, will end. "The registration system has fundamentally changed," Rafik Aliev, who took over in June as head of the new State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations told Keston News Service by telephone from the Azerbaijani capital Baku on 11 December. "If registration applications are in accordance with the law there will be no problem gaining re- registration." Some sources in Baku remained suspicious about Aliev's claims. "He often appears to be open and liberal in public while his actions don't always match his words," one source who has had dealings with his office told Keston, in a comment echoed by others.

Religious organisations of a variety of faiths complained to Keston of arbitrary obstruction even in lodging registration applications under the old system, when registration required approval from the local authorities, the government's former Directorate for Religious Affairs (which has been subsumed into the new department) and the Justice Ministry. However, even under the new system the registration procedure has been described by one observer as "onerous". To found a religious organisation, ten individuals have to go to a notary with a letter from their place of work and their passport to prove that they are Azerbaijani citizens and have their signatures notarised. One religious figure pointed out that the new regulations give the state committee power to decide whether a new religious community is "justified", something that the figure feared could lead to arbitrary denials of registration.

Some religious leaders have welcomed some elements of the new system. "Religious groups no longer need approval from the local authorities," Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, which has six registered congregations, told Keston from Baku on 12 December. "That is a positive step."

The compulsory re-registration - the third since Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991 - was instituted in August in the wake of the decree, signed by Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev on 21 June, which set up the State Committee. Rafik Aliev is reported to have told visitors that "religious organisations must be controlled" and that "religion is dangerous". He reportedly added that "Islamic fundamentalism" represents the "primary danger". Speaking to Keston, Aliev would say only that re-registration was needed to "bring order" to the registration, claiming that there had been many "errors" in the previous rounds of registration.

Aliev told Keston that his committee - which reportedly employs up to sixty people compared to four in the old directorate - would take three months from 31 December to consider the re-registration applications. He reported that "almost all" the 406 religious organisations that have registration - he estimates the total number of registered and unregistered religious groups in the country at 2,000 - have already lodged their re- registration applications. "Several applications had to be sent back to be corrected," he declared, but declined to tell Keston how many they were, to which faiths these communities belonged or why the applications were inadequate. (Other sources claim no more than 50 religious organisations - most of them Christian - have applied for re-registration.)

Members of a variety of religious communities, among them Zenchenko of the Baptists, have told Keston that they are adopting a "wait and see" approach to the new registration system, saying it is too early to say whether officials will continue to obstruct the registration of communities they dislike.

Christian Presber, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses in the Caucasus, told Keston from the Georgian capital Tbilisi on 12 December that they too are waiting to see how the process works. "We haven't heard from the state committee in any form that the Jehovah's Witnesses will not be re-registered," he declared. "They told us that re-registration is a formality." However, he expressed concern about a "somewhat slanted" article in the inaugural issue of the committee's bulletin (September/October issue) about the Jehovah's Witnesses. "This, together with hints in the press, that we might not be re-registered disturbs us. We fear that if we are not re-registered, our thousand members in Azerbaijan might face a renewal of the harassment they experienced before the community gained registration two years ago."

In two key cases where communities have been obstructed from even lodging registration applications, those of the Baptist church in the town of Aliabad (which has been applying for registration in vain for five years) and the larger of the two Lutheran congregations in Baku (the congregation affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and the Other States, ELKRAS) - Aliev offered some hope. "The Aliabad church has not applied yet for registration, but it can do so at any time," he pledged. "The Lutheran congregation's documents are here. If they abide by the law there will be no problem. There can be two registered congregations." Mustafa Ibrahimov, head of the former Directorate for Religious Affairs who is now an acting deputy chairman of the new State Committee, had always aintained to Keston that the two congregations could not coexist, a view shared by Fazil Mamedov, head of the registration department at the Justice Ministry, who used to be in charge of registering religious organisations. Aliev said there was no need for the two congregations to resolve their dispute as to which is the authentic congregation in court. Aliev went further than that, though, pledging that both groups would be allowed to invite pastors from abroad to serve the communities. "Lutherans need a pastor to be able to hold services," he declared. "Our committee will resolve this problem."

Dilara Ahmedova, a member of the council of the ELKRAS parish, told Keston from Baku on 12 December that the parish had lodged its registration application with the committee at the beginning of December and that it had been accepted. Like many, Ahmedova withheld judgment on whether the new registration system will remove the obstruction placed by officials in the way of her congregation's registration. "They will respond within three months. We will wait and see what happens."

Aliev sidestepped questions about the Adventist relief organisation ADRA, which has been criticised by the National Security minister Namiq Abbasov for allegedly conducting "religious propaganda" while being registered as a charitable organisation (charges ADRA vigorously denies) and officially warned by the justice ministry. "We have no complaint against them," Aliev told Keston. "Charitable groups conduct charitable activity and religious groups undertake religious work."

Asked about the failure of the state authorities to return places of worship confiscated during the Soviet period (such as a Baptist church, the Lutheran church and an Ashkenazi synagogue in Baku) and whether his committee would help such communities regain their property, Aliev declared: "There is no law on the return of property. When there is, such questions will be decided." He said the issue was not one for his committee. "Religious communities should apply to the Ministry of Culture. My office has no role."

Aliev denied that his former role as head of the Islamic research centre Irshad would have any impact on the way he would function as head of the State Committee. "I'm a Muslim, a doctor and a professor," he told Keston. "I was the founder of Irshad, but I resigned and severed all connections with it on 21 June." He said Irshad conducted conferences and symposia on religion, culture and civilisation, published books and also ran a small hotel, not only for those taking part in Irshad events but "for anyone". (END)