AZERBAIJAN: Why Do Teachers Ask Children About Their Faith?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 13 March 2002

Believers of a number of minority religious faiths have complained to Keston News Service about the widespread practice among schoolteachers of asking their pupils about their religious faith and practice, and that of their parents. "Our constitution and laws forbid officials from asking us about our personal faith," one Protestant told Keston in Baku in early March. "Teachers don't have the right to ask our children about this. What do they need the information for anyway?" A senior official of the Education Ministry, however, denied to Keston that his ministry had ordered such enquiries, or even that they could have taken place.

"This is the first I've heard about this," Arif Muradov, head of the Main Administration of General and Pre-School Education at the ministry, told Keston by telephone from Baku on 13 March. "It cannot be. There was no decree from our ministry and there could not be, as schools in Azerbaijan are secular. Religious issues do not come up in schools." He added that such questions to pupils would violate Azerbaijan's constitution, the law on education, the principles of the country's schools and European democratic norms. "It's not banned to believe in school. No-one violates religious freedom."

Despite his assurances, Keston heard repeatedly on a recent nine-day visit to Azerbaijan from believers, parents and children that such questions have been put, mostly at the beginning of the school year last September. Most people believed the instruction came "from above" in the form of a nationwide decree to school directors originating in the Education Ministry.

However, Eldar Zeynalov, the head of the Baku-based Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Keston at his centre on 27 February that the impetus for such a move was more likely to come from the local authorities, which control schools, than the Education Ministry in Baku. "Nothing would have been in writing about this, but maybe there was a central decree ordering school directors to 'increase morality', and the directors made clear to teachers that this was what was expected of them." He said such checks occur periodically in schools when a state campaign is underway. "Last year there was just such a campaign for 'religious cleanliness'."

Pavel Byakov, pastor of a Baptist church in a suburb of Sumgait, explained how such questioning took place among his own school-age children and those in his church. "Teachers had a questionnaire to fill in with a whole series of personal questions, including the full names of both parents, where they worked, where they earned their main income, what their home and mobile phone numbers were, and so on," he told Keston at his home in a village outside Sumgait on 2 March. "Teachers went round the classroom asking children one by one and writing down the answers. Among these questions were ones about which mosque or church they and their parents attended and how often they attended." He said no action appeared to have been taken so far against any children or their parents as a result of these questions, but he too believed schools were wrong to make such detailed personal enquiries of children, especially without the knowledge or permission of parents.

Pastor Ivan (Yahya) Zavrichko, the head of the Adventist Church in Azerbaijan, said he believed the instructions were issued to all school directors in the country and had come from the Education Ministry. He said he had heard of many instances late last year, especially in the western Azerbaijani city of Gyanja. "Instructions were issued to teachers to find out what religion children belonged to in order to discover who was a member of a 'sect'," he told Keston in Baku on 26 February.

Among school children Keston spoke to about these enquiries, one girl in the eighth class reported that soon after the start of the school year the teacher had asked each child in turn about a variety of personal matters, including his or her faith, and that the class leader had written down the answers. Asked how she had responded to the question about her and her parents' faith, she said she had replied "accurately and honestly" that they were Protestant Christians and that they attended church regularly.

Another child in the fourth class told Keston that a similar process had taken place in his school, with the teacher noting down the answers in a special exercise book which, he said, looked like a standard-issue exercise book all pupils use.

Pastor Zavrichko cited the case of the Adventist leader in the town of Nakhichevan in the Azerbaijani exclave of the same name wedged between Armenia, Turkey and Iran. In an exceptional case, the three school-age children of Vahid and Keklik Nagiev were banned from attending school last September for being "sectarians", Zavrichko reported. "The parents were summoned to the school and told orally that the three children could not attend because of their faith. Nothing was given in writing." He said they could not go to school for several weeks, until the Adventists' intervention with the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations in Baku brought success and the school readmitted the children. "The teachers' attitude was an insult to their faith," Zavrichko complained, "although they didn't know who or what Adventists are."

Pastor Zavrichko also reported that in the past few months, Adventists who refuse to send their children to school on Saturdays, the Adventist holy day but a normal school day in Azerbaijan, are facing increasing pressure. "In Baku at least, school directors used to understand if Adventist parents would not send their children to school on Saturdays. Now they are being summoned by directors if children don't go. The directors say the state is separate from religion and that we can't get involved in helping children who won't go to school on Saturdays for religious reasons." He said that in his Baku congregation of some 300 members, he knew of 15 to 20 such cases. (END)