AZERBAIJAN: Widespread Opposition to Religious Reregistration.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 March 2002

In an extensive series of interviews with human rights activists, religious leaders, politicians, academics and diplomats in and around the Azerbaijani capital Baku between 24 February and 4 March, Keston News Service found almost no support for the current round of compulsory re-registration of religious organisations. The controversial re-registration process, which officials say is likely to be concluded by the end of March, is the fourth in the decade since Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union. Many people told Keston that re-registration was unnecessary, and that the process was overly cumbersome, subjective and secretive. Moreover, most linked the process to a heightened level of state control over religious organisations and interference in their internal life. Such interference violates Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments as a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (see separate and forthcoming KNS articles).

"The government would like to control religious activity more closely and more effectively," the human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov told Keston. "This is related to United States pressure and the global war on terrorism, but it started before 11 September." Zeynalov - who heads the Baku-based Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan - complained of the "deep intervention of the government into religious activity" and regarded the re-registration process as an instrument of increased state control.

His views were broadly shared by Professor Rovshan Mustafayev, director of the Institute of Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences. "There is a lot of bureaucracy, not just in this area," he admitted to Keston. "We need to make it easier for religious organisations, to take away bureaucratic obstacles." He felt the new round of re-registration was not justified. "In my view we should have registration once and for all, which would set out the rules of the game and be done with it."

Leaders of a broad range of religious denominations - including many of those that have had or are likely to have difficulties with re-registration - strongly objected to the constant rounds of re-registration, some - only half in jest - equating it to Trotsky's "permanent revolution". "We went through so much hassle to re-register in 1992, then again in 1994, then again in 1999 - only to have to go through it all over again now," said one religious leader in remarks widely echoed. "How long is it going to be before we have to go through it all again?"

Tamara Gumbatova, leader of one of two rival Lutheran congregations in Baku, told Keston that re-registration was "against the law". "There shouldn't be re-registration - it's only verification of work that has already been done."

Musfig Bayram, a pastor of the Protestant Greater Grace Church in Baku, was blunter. "They keep asking for re-registration - it is hilarious. Why? They just want to give us a hard time, make us hang in the air, give us a feeling of instability where we do not know what the future will be." His church has decided not to seek re-registration, arguing that it is satisfied with its current legal registration with the Ministry of Justice and does not see any need to change it.

Keston was unable to find out from Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, why re-registration was necessary as he was "too busy" on the day Keston visited the state committee's genteel offices in central Baku, and he answered only a limited number of Keston's written questions. The State Committee employee responsible for Christian organisations, Aleksandr Kozlov, speaking to Keston in his office, was unable to clarify the need for re-registration.

Keston heard widespread complaints about the failure to inform religious groups officially that their old registration under the Ministry of Justice was due to be cancelled and that re-registration with the newly-founded State Committee was required. "No-one wrote to us or phoned us, either from the Ministry of Justice or from the State Committee," declared Pastor Roman Zhmurov of the Protestant Star in the East church. "We were told only orally that we had to re-register," declared Pastor Bayram of Greater Grace. "We never received a letter saying you have to re-register for these reasons." Leaders of many other religious organisations told Keston the same. After he had heard reports in the media about re-registration, Azerbaijan's Catholic leader Father Daniel Pravda phoned the State Committee. "Didn't you know you need re-registration?" he was told.

Keston could discover only one religious group that did receive an official letter: the Ashkenazi Jewish community, headed by Moshe Bekker, received a personal letter from Rafik Aliev on 6 September. However, in Bekker's case the letter came amid an internal community split that eventually saw the government granting re-registration to a rival set of leaders who, in Bekker's words, had conducted a "putsch" to take over the community.

State Committee officials have told diplomats in Baku that the widespread publicity given to re-registration in the media provided religious groups with enough information and that individual letters were not required.

Namik Allahverdiev, Rafik Aliev's deputy at the State Committee, told Keston that religious organisations seeking re-registration had to pay a fee of 27,500 manats (almost six US dollars or four British pounds), which he said was half the fee required for groups applying for registration for the first time. However, Baptist leader Ilya Zenchenko told Keston his church had had to pay 55,000 manats for re-registration and that it cost 110,000 manats for first-time registration. Allahverdiev would not say whether communities that applied for re-registration unsuccessfully would get their fee back.

Keston, international human rights bodies, local human rights bodies and religious organisations themselves have found it extraordinarily difficult to establish which religious communities have gained re-registration, which have been refused (and why) and which have had their documents returned for "mistakes" in the paperwork to be "corrected". Keston has repeatedly asked the State Committee for a full list of religious organisations in each of these categories, but this has always been denied. Officials claim that they "do not keep such lists" and that all the details will be made public at the end of the re-registration process. Kozlov told Keston that even he did not know which Christian groups had gained re-registration and that it was not his responsibility but that of the State Committee's legal department, which is headed by Zemfira Rzayeva.

Rafik Aliev told Keston in his written answers to Keston's questions on 26 February that 120 religious organisations had been re-registered thus far, 20 of them non-Muslim, while "about 100" further applications were still being considered. He failed to say how many of the 406 organisations that had registration with the Ministry of Justice had applied for re-registration, or to say how many had already been refused re-registration. Local believers to whom Keston showed his response snorted in derision when reading his response, pointing out the suspiciously round numbers he presented.

Keston has been able to find out which religious organisations have been re-registered only by asking each community concerned. Among those Keston has confirmed as being re-registered are the Hare Krishna community in Baku (18 January), the Baku Russian-language Baptist Church (25 January), the Baku Catholic parish (31 January), Star in the East Pentecostal church in Baku (1 February), the Baku Jehovah's Witness community (7 February) and the Nehemiah church of the Assemblies of God. Kozlov told Keston that the Baku Molokan community had also gained re-registration, but the Molokan chairman Timofei Baryshev told Keston only that his 200-strong community "always submitted to the authorities, just as we submit to God".

Many groups complained that after submitting their documents they had heard little or nothing about when they were likely to receive re-registration, if at all. Many of these suspected that it was because they were not likely to get it and that the State Committee was putting off telling them. Haji Akif Agaev, deputy head of the Caucasian Muslim Board, the umbrella body for the largest religious community in the country, told Keston that the Board had not yet received re-registration, but he seemed unconcerned. "There is no hurry."

Receiving registration for the first time on 7 February was the Baku Lutheran congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and the Other States (ELKRAS), which had been refused registration with the Ministry of Justice for some years.

Inkeri Aarnio-Lwoff, the Council of Europe's coordinator in Azerbaijan, told Keston that her organisation believed there "could be room for improvement" in the way the re-registration process has been conducted. (END)