AZERBAIJAN: Unregistered Groups 'Will Be Banned'.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 8 February 2002

When the controversial re-registration process now underway is complete, religious groups functioning without state registration will be closed down and have their activity halted through the courts, and all future unregistered religious activity will be forbidden, a senior religious affairs official has told Keston News Service. Namik Allahverdiev, deputy chairman of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, told Keston by telephone from the Azerbaijani capital Baku on 8 February that religious groups without registration "can function now, but this will change".

The compulsory re-registration - the third since Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991 - was instituted in August 2001. Chairman of the State Committee Rafik Aliev told Keston that it needed to "bring order", claiming that there had been many "errors" in the previous rounds of registration. He is reported to have said elsewhere that "religious organisations must be controlled" and that "religion is dangerous", with "Islamic fundamentalism" representing the "primary danger" (see KNS 12 December 2001).

Another innovation which violates Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments (it has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and, as a member of the Council of Europe, has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which guarantee free religious practice) is a new provision banning religious organisations from functioning outside their designated location. Allahverdiev's boss, Rafik Aliev, first mentioned this new provision in an interview with the TV station ANS, broadcast on 1 February. Allahverdiev confirmed that the provision was being introduced, but declined to discuss it, referring all enquiries on this to Aliev, who was not in the office.

Pressed by Keston as to what his committee would do with religious organisations that are refused re-registration, Allahverdiev said the suits to close down religious organisations currently registered with the Ministry of Justice but which either did not apply for re-registration by the deadline of 1 February or which fail to gain re-registration would be presented to court when the re-registration process is complete. His committee expects this to be at the end of March. Keston was unable to ask Allahverdiev how such a ban on unregistered religious activity accords with Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments, as he had already rung off, pleading that he was in a hurry.

Allahverdiev was once again "in a hurry" when Keston phoned him on 6 February to find out statistics on the re-registration process. He said that as of 1 February, some 80 religious organisations had been re-registered, adding that among them were Muslim and Christian groups. Pressed to specify how many of each affiliation there were, he replied that he "did not know the exact breakdown by religious affiliation".

He also declared that the applications from "more than 100 religious organisations" were still being considered. "There is a lot of information there and many documents that must be considered by our legal department. It will take a lot of time to work through it all."

Allahverdiev told Keston that only one religious organisation had so far been refused registration, the Love Baptist Church in Baku. Asked whether this refusal to grant re-registration had been issued in writing, Allahverdiev was evasive, though he did eventually say yes. Contacted the same day, Sary Mirzoyev, the church's pastor, told Keston the church had not received a written refusal. He said that the only official statement they had received on this was a remark in a letter of last December informing them that because of the state committee's suit to liquidate the church in court, the church could not be re-registered. The court hearing, which had been scheduled for 23 January but was postponed (see KNS 24 January 2002), has not yet been rescheduled. "We've been given no date and every time we ask we're not told anything," Mirzoyev complained.

Although Allahverdiev declined to discuss with Keston how many re-registration applications have been returned to religious organisations for further work, officials of the committee have told foreign diplomats that these amount to more than 100. Officials have claimed to have found "errors" in the applications. Allahverdiev told Keston the deadline to lodge re-registration applications closed on 1 February and would not explain whether the groups whose documents have been returned will be considered for re-registration.

Allahverdiev agreed with Aliev's earlier comments to Keston that of more than 2,000 religious organisations functioning in Azerbaijan only some 406 had registration under the old system. However, Allahverdiev said he did not know how many of these had failed to lodge re-registration applications. Asked by Keston what had happened to the 120 or so that appear not to have filed such re-registration applications, he said he did not know.

Asked whether religious groups that have legal status through their old registration with the Ministry of Justice will retain it after the end of the re-registration process, Allahverdiev was evasive. He eventually said that the validity of such registration would terminate at the end of the re-registration process, which he expects to be at the end of March.

Keston has been able to establish independently that most of the 80 or so religious organisations that have received re-registration have been Muslim. Some three or four have been Christian, including the Russian-language Baptist church in Baku and a Russian-language Pentecostal Church. "It is significant that all the Christian churches re-registered so far have been Russian-speaking. They don't want to re-register Azeri-language churches," Pastor Mirzoyev told Keston. Keston has not been able to discover any non-Muslim or non-Christian religious community that has so far received re-registration, although others, including Jewish, Bahai, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna communities, function in the country.

An ominous indicator of the crackdown on unregistered religious communities were the 15-day prison terms handed down to two Pentecostals, Yusuf Farkhadov and Kasym Kasymov in Sumgait on 18 January (see KNS 21 January 2002). Keston has confirmed that the two were freed as scheduled at the end of their term.

Also in Sumgait, three members of a Baptist church that refuses registration on principle were detained by the police and threatened with 15-day prison terms for distributing Bibles on the street on 2 February. In a letter of complaint to Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev and the head of the local administration T. Bakhshiev, written the following day and signed by 58 church members (of which Keston has received a copy), the Baptists complain that one of those detained, Rauf Gurbanov, was "severely beaten" by the police. The Baptists call on President Aliev to "put an end to the illegal actions" against the church. (END)