AZERBAIJAN: Pastor Vows to Fight Court Liquidation.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 18 January 2002

Sary Mirzoyev, pastor of the Love Baptist Church in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, has told Keston News Service that he will fight attempts next week to liquidate his church as a legal entity. The hearing in the liquidation suit, brought by Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, begins on 23 January at the court of Baku's Narimanov district. Aliev is alleging that Pastor Mirzoyev preached against Islam and that therefore the church has violated the country's religion law and should be liquidated. "They have alleged that we are arousing religious hatred," Pastor Mirzoyev told Keston from Baku on 18 January. "I said nothing against Islam or against Muslims."

The Love Baptist congregation meets in the same church building in Narimanov district as the Russian-language congregation, which is not affected by the case to liquidate its sister-congregation.

Mirzoyev told Keston his church has still not found a lawyer to defend them and even then has no money to pay for one.

The case to liquidate the church was lodged on 25 December, "the day of Christ's birth" Mirzoyev noted. The state committee's case is based on remarks made by Pastor Mirzoyev in a sermon last December, shortly after the church lodged its re-registration application under the compulsory re-registration round now underway (see KNS 12 December 2001). "We record all our sermons on tape, and one of these tapes fell into their hands," Mirzoyev told Keston. "I was preaching on Chapter 58 of the Book of Isaiah about fasting and I took the example of two people talking, one of them a Muslim. They could have been people of any faith. I was not insulting their faith."

Mirzoyev believes the allegations against him over his remarks are an excuse not to re-register the church. "We had only just given in our re-registration documents and everything was in order with them," he told Keston. "They don't want us to function. They don't like the fact that the church is made up of Azerbaijanis and holds services in Azeri." He pointed out that it was only under international pressure that the church originally gained registration in 1999 after he and fellow pastor Yahya Mamedov spent 15 days in prison (see KNS 1 October 1999).

Mirzoyev reported that after attacks on the church surfaced in the local media in early December, accusing the church of inciting hatred towards Islam, Aliev phoned him to arrange a meeting. Mirzoyev went to visit him on 7 December. "During a two-minute discussion, Aliev said he wanted to help us so that nothing bad would happen to us," Mirzoyev reported. "Then he launched the case to liquidate us."

Aliev was unavailable on 18 January at the state committee, so Keston was unable to find out whether official dislike of Azeri-language Christian churches was behind the move. Reached by telephone on 18 January, state committee deputy chairman Namik Allahverdiyev declined absolutely to discuss the liquidation case. Also refusing to discuss it was an official of the committee's legal department. "We don't answer questions by telephone," she declared. "You must submit an official request."

In an earlier interview, Aliev complained about the church. "They offend Muslims and make fun of them," he told Keston on 11 December, four days after his brief conversation with Mirzoyev. "I listened to the cassette of the sermon. They said that Muslims who observe the Ramadan fast were not correct, that fasting was not necessary and that only Christian fasts were right. They are deceiving God and the people. They're against the state and the people. Anyone can say that another religion is not correct, but this is crude. It was not said in the proper way." He said the church had been given a warning, which he said Mirzoyev had accepted, and had not been banned. "I have given them 10 days to correct their violation of the law."

Both officials and the media have engaged in strong criticism and allegations against Christian minority churches in recent months, especially those with large numbers of Azerbaijani adherents. The tape of Mirzoyev's sermon was broadcast by the private ANS television station in Baku, which has frequently led attacks on converts to Christianity. When the Baptist church was attacked by an apparently drunk man late on 16 December, some media reports alleged that it was being financed by Armenian organisations (Azerbaijan and Armenia have been disputing the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave since 1988).

National Security Minister Namiq Abbasov claimed in an interview with national television on 9 October that the overwhelming majority of missionary organisations working in Azerbaijan are a front for the "special services of interested states". He alleged that Matti Sirvio, formerly pastor of the Baku Greater Grace Protestant church, had been deported from "for espionage for a foreign state". He also accused the Adventist relief organisation ADRA of conducting proselytism on behalf of the Adventist faith, allegations that the organisation has strenuously denied.

It remains unclear whether the media attacks are designed to put pressure on the state not to register some minority religious communities in the new registration round. It is already clear that the majority of religious groups that already have registration will lose it. Aliev told the Baku-based Turan news agency on 15 January that of the 407 religious groups that have registration (out of a total of some 2,000), only 150 have submitted new applications that are still being considered. He said 200 groups have had their applications returned "in view of incorrect composition or violation of the law on freedom of conscience". He admitted that even the country's biggest religious organisation, the Caucasian Muslim Board, has failed to submit its registration application. He said that in view of this slow response to the re-registration process, the deadline had been extended from 31 December to 1 February. (END)