AZERBAIJAN: Eight-Month Ban on Baptist Services Overridden.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 21 December 2001

A Baptist church in the western Azerbaijani town of Gyanja held its first public service yesterday (20 December) after an official of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations in the capital Baku overrode a ban on the church's public worship issued by the local police last April. Pastor Boris Kuliev told Keston News Service from Gyanja on 20 December that the official, Zemfira Rzayeva of the State Committee's registration department, gave the verbal assurance the previous day when the church lodged its re-registration application at her office in Baku. "She said we could meet and declared that no-one had the right to ban us," Kuliev told Keston.

Ilya Zenchenko, the head of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan to which the Gyanja church belongs, told Keston on 12 December that this had been a difficult year for the church. "For six months it could not meet," he complained. "However, we believe the problems are on the way to being resolved."

The Gyanja church, which has existed for more than a hundred years and which gained registration in 1967 under the restrictive Soviet-era legislation, was banned by the police, who claimed that because it had not undergone the compulsory re-registration of all religious organisations in 1997 it was functioning illegally. "The police came during a Sunday service, took me off to the police station and told me to halt services until they church gained re-registration," Kuliev recounted. "They said it was illegal to meet without this." Azerbaijan's published laws do not require religious groups to register to be able to function, and the vast majority of religious communities, especially mosques, function without state registration.

"We had gained re-registration in 1994, but not in 1997 as no-one told us we needed it," Kuliev reported. "When we asked officials at the time they said we didn't need re-registration and when we did they would tell us." They were banned from continuing to use a state-owned building which they had turned into a prayer house (though they continued to pay the rent), and between April and October they had to meet in private homes. "Despite the ban we resumed our services in our rented prayer house in October, and no-one has touched us."

In the wake of the April ban on meeting, the church lodged its re-registration documents with the old Directorate for Religious Affairs (which has now been subsumed into the new State Committee), but for months there was no progress. However, Kuliev reports that when the application was submitted this week under the new regulations introduced in the autumn, which require all religious organisations to apply for re-registration by 31 December (see KNS 12 December 2001), there were no problems. "Everything was handled correctly. We expect to get re-registration earlier in the new year."

Kuliev would like to build his own church for the congregation so that it would not have to rely on rented premises. However, he told Keston that his congregation does not have the money to do so.

Both Zenchenko and Kuliev reported that the Gyanja Adventist church had had similar problems during the year. (END)