AZERBAIJAN: Gyanja Police Close Adventist Church.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 27 February 2002

Police in the western Azerbaijani town of Gyanja broke up a service of the local Adventist church last Sunday afternoon (24 February) and have banned any further services until the church gets its re-registration certificate, Keston News Service has learned. "The police arrived in the middle of a service," Pastor Ivan (Yahya) Zavrichko, the head of the Adventists in Azerbaijan, told Keston in Baku on 26 February, "and said our church had no document allowing them to meet." However, Ilgar Balakishiev, the head of the department of social order of the Gyanja police, who was identified by the Adventists as leading the raid, denied to Keston that he had taken part. "It was the city authorities - I wasn't there," he told Keston by telephone from Gyanja on 27 February. "What's it got to do with me? I'm head of the department of public order." He told Keston that if it quoted him in its article he would take Keston to court.

Namik Allahverdiev, a deputy chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, and his colleague Aleksandr Kozlov, who handles Christian affairs, confirmed to Keston on 26 February at the offices of the State Committee that the raid had taken place. "Such raids are unpleasant, especially when they take place in the middle of services," Kozlov told Keston.

Pastor Zavrichko reported that Balakishiev and another policeman had arrived at the church at about 2 pm. They asked to see the church's registration certificate. On being told that the church's registration documents were with the State Committee as part of the compulsory re-registration of all religious organisations now underway in Azerbaijan, "they didn't want to hear it," Zavrichko declared. "They said we couldn't hold services without a registration document and banned the next meeting that afternoon."

They then asked to see identity papers of the ten or fifteen people present, and took the details of five of them, including the teacher and the piano player. "We will deal with you," they were told, without explaining what "dealing with" meant.

The church's pastor, Rasim Bakhshiev, was summoned to a commission at the local administration in Gyanja on 26 February. An official of the State Committee responsible for re-registration of religious organisations in Gyanja was also present. Bakhshiev was told - incorrectly - that his church should have obtained re-registration by 1 February and the officials present demanded that he sign a statement that he would not hold any further meetings in the Adventist church until it had received the re-registration certificate. "Pastor Bakhshiev signed the certificate - reluctantly," Pastor Zavrichko told Keston. Officials also said they would seal the church to prevent the Adventists gaining access. This is expected to take place today (27 February). A further meeting at the mayor's office is expected today also.

The 200-strong Gyanja Adventist church, which has been functioning for decades, holds its main weekly worship on Saturdays, but holds youth and family meetings on Sundays in its own church building. The church currently has registration with the Ministry of Justice as a branch of the Baku Adventist church. It submitted its re-registration application with the State Committee in December 2001 as an individual church. The State Committee found "mistakes" in the application - as it did in the two other Adventist applications - and "corrected" versions were submitted at the end of January, ahead of the 1 February deadline. Kozlov told Keston that the state committee is expected to approve the Adventists' re-registration applications very soon.

Members of a variety of faiths have told Keston that especially outside the capital Baku, local authorities often put great pressure on religious communities they do not like. "Local authorities think that if groups haven't got permission they can't meet," Kozlov of the State Committee complained. "We explain it to them." He said the State Committee hosted a meeting of heads of local administrations last December and explained that they should not touch religious groups, but that if they have doubts about a group's activity they should telephone the State Committee for advice. "They were told they should only fine them if there is justification."

The Gyanja Adventist church is subjected to "periodic" raids, Zavrichko told Keston. "Every two or three months they visit during services, check up on who's there, disturbing or halting the service. They then allow them to continue. We don't agree with this but there is nothing we can do."

Other Protestant groups in Gyanja have faced similar pressure. Some have been fined in recent months, but local Protestants have asked Keston not to publish details of these incidents for fear of making their position worse. (END)