AZERBAIJAN: Baptists Reject Religion Chief's 'Meddling'.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 February 2002

Azerbaijan's Baptist leader has rejected suggestions by the chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, Rafik Aliev, as to how the community should structure itself. "He 'suggested' that now it is registered, the Russian-language church in Baku should be the main Baptist church in the country and that the other churches - which we want to register independently - should only be sub-branches of it, without individual registration," Pastor Ilya Zenchenko told Keston News Service in Baku on 27 February. Keston has been unable to clarify why Aliev made the "suggestions", which appear to violate Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments outlawing state interference in how religious organisations structure themselves. Aliev declined to meet Keston at the State Committee in Baku on 26 February, declaring via his assistant Namik Allahverdiev that he was "too busy", though he did agree to answer a limited number of questions submitted in writing, while Keston waited. There was no opportunity to ask why he is interfering in religious groups' internal affairs. Other groups have also complained to Keston about such interference.

Only one of the country's Baptist churches has received re-registration under the compulsory re-registration process launched last year - the fourth in Azerbaijan's decade of independence. "In 1992 we had ten registered churches," Pastor Zenchenko told Keston. "After compulsory re-registration in 1994 it was six. After compulsory re-registration in 1999 it was two. Now it is one. See what success they're having."

Aliev's suggestions on the Baptist community's structure were made at a meeting requested by the Baptists at the State Committee in Baku on 25 February. Present were Pastor Zenchenko and Pastor Pyotr Konovalchik, head of the Baptist Union in the CIS, who was visiting from Moscow. Despite their request that Pastor Yahya Mamedov of Baku's Azeri-language Baptist church join the meeting, Aliev refused to receive him. Mamedov's church is currently being liquidated through the courts at Aliev's insistence (the case goes to the court of Baku's Narimanov district on 6 March after being postponed on 23 January, see KNS 24 January 2002). "We'll meet you in court," State Committee officials told Mamedov.

Zenchenko told Aliev that the Baptists want registration for all five of the communities for which they have submitted applications - in addition to the two congregations in Baku they applied for one in Gyanja, one in Sumgait and one in Neftchala. Local authorities have banned the Neftchala church from meeting since 8 February on the grounds that it cannot produce a registration certificate (for a similar case with the Adventists in Gyanja, see KNS 27 February 2002). Aleksandr Kozlov, who handles Christian affairs at the State Committee, confirmed to Keston on 27 February that the Neftchala church's application is still with the juridical department of the State Committee.

Zenchenko said he would agree to Aliev's suggestion that the Baptists simply open "branches" of the Baku church in other places only as a very limited temporary measure. The Baptists expect all their churches to be registered within the three-month period specified in law, after which they will register a Baptist Union. "I told them we could not accept his suggestion as a permanent measure, because if the Baku church was suddenly closed we would be left with no registered churches in the country," Zenchenko told Keston.

Kozlov said he had no responsibility for these issues and that all enquiries should be referred to Aliev. He did not know why Aliev was making such suggestions, nor did he know whether Aliev had the right to do so.

Pastor Ivan (Yahya) Zavrichko, the leader of the Adventist church in Azerbaijan, told Keston in Baku on 26 February that his church had been given "friendly advice" from the State Committee not to try to register two congregations in Baku. Deciding that it would be fruitless to try in the wake of such advice, the Adventists submitted re-registration applications for just one church in the capital, as well as applications for their churches in Gyanja (which was closed on 25 February - see KNS 27 February 2002) and in Nakhichevan.

Other groups too have complained to Keston about such state pressure over how to structure themselves, but declined to have details published, citing how cumbersome the re-registration process already is without adding to the difficulties.

In addition to this direct pressure on individual religious groups, the country's law on religion (adopted in 1992 and amended three times in 1996 and most recently in October 1997) specifically allows Islamic communities to register only within the framework of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus, which is headed by Sheikh-ul-Islam Pashazade. In a similar case, the Moldovan government refused to register the Bessarabian Orthodox Church as it claimed no other Orthodox Churches could be registered than the Moldovan Orthodox Church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in December that denial of registration on such grounds was wrong and required the Moldovan government to pay damages to the Bessarabian Church of nearly 30,000 euros (see KNS 14 December 2001).

Keston was unable to find out why Azerbaijan refuses to register Islamic communities outside the framework of the Spiritual Administration - Allahverdiev failed to put Keston's written question to Aliev as he could find no such restriction in the registration instructions issued by the State Committee last year and was unaware of this provision of the law.

Now Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, those denied registration for no valid reason will likewise be able to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. (END)