SPECIAL REPORT: AZERBAIJAN: Catholics Plead For End to Visa Problems.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 14 March 2002

In the run-up to what could be the first visit by a pope (the Azerbaijani authorities say Pope John Paul II will visit from 22-26 May), the country's senior Catholic priest has pleaded for an end to the visa difficulties that have obstructed the work of re-establishing Catholic life in the Caucasian republic. Father Daniel Pravda, a Salesian priest from Slovakia, told Keston News Service that although he has finally obtained a one-year visa, his colleague Father Stefan Kormancik, still has to renew his visa every three months.

"I struggled terribly with visas last year," he told Keston at his church in Baku on 3 March. "I had to get a new tourist visa every month. The foreign ministry here made it so that we would be regularly fined. I and my two colleagues paid altogether 1,300 US dollars in visa fees and fines last year." He reports that it was only thanks to the intervention of the German ambassador to Baku that he obtained his one-year visa, at a cost of 250 US dollars. He is now hoping that Father Kormancik's visa problems will likewise be resolved, as well as those of Salesian brother Marian Kalis, who currently has a six-month visa. Like Father Pravda, both are Slovak citizens. They do not have Vatican diplomatic passports. Contacted by telephone, the Foreign Ministry press department declined to comment, referring Keston to the ministry's consular department. The consular department likewise refused to comment, either on the question of visas for Catholic priests or on the general system for foreigners seeking visas for work with religious communities, referring all enquiries to the ministry's visa department. The telephone went unanswered at the visa department on 13 and 14 March.

In addition to the Catholics, some other religious communities are served by foreign clergy, among them Muslim, Jewish, Georgian Orthodox and Protestant communities, as were the Russian Orthodox until recently.

The Azerbaijani authorities are highly sensitive about the role of foreigners in the country's religious life. Article 18 of the 1996 law on the status of foreigners and those without citizenship guarantees them freedom of conscience, but denies them the right to carry out "religious propaganda". Article 300 of the administrative code punishes any foreigner or person without citizenship involved in such "religious propaganda" with deportation, which may be supplemented with a fine of between 20 and 25 times the minimum monthly wage. Numerous Iranian Muslim clerics, Lutheran pastor Gunther Oborski and some Western Protestant religious workers have been deported from the country in recent years.

Father Pravda denies that he and his colleagues are conducting religious propaganda, insisting that they were invited by the Catholic community to serve its believers who are already there. He therefore argues that there is no reason for the foreign ministry not to give them full one-year visas. He says the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations has never restricted the number of Catholic priests working in Azerbaijan.

The State Committee insists that religious communities must get its permission before inviting any religious representatives to the country. "We do inform the State Committee, though this is a form of control," Babek Allahverdiev, chairman of the Hare Krishna community, told Keston at Baku's Hare Krishna temple on 26 February. "We inform them a week before people arrive. There have been no problems with visas." Pastor Ivan (Yahya) Zavrichko, the Adventist leader in Azerbaijan, expressed similar concerns. "The State Committee asks us to write for permission. This demand is strange, but we do it," he told Keston on 26 February. "When they write back giving permission, they always warn that propaganda by foreigners in Azerbaijan is forbidden."

While many religious communities abide by this demand that they seek permission for visits - however reluctantly - others ignore it. Pastor Musfig Bayram of Baku's Protestant Greater Grace Church told Keston bluntly on 25 February: "The State Committee tells us to ask their permission before we invite anyone from abroad. We don't do that. We don't see why we should."Difficulties have been placed in the way of some foreign citizens visiting Azerbaijan. When the leader of the Word of Life Protestant church, Swedish pastor Ulf Ekman, visited Baku last September for a series of meetings in the Gulistan hall, the pastor of Word of Life's local church, the Cathedral of Praise, applied for permission from the State Committee. The State Committee failed to respond before his arrival, but after he had already arrived in Baku issued a written rejection. Word of Life sources told Keston that Pastor Ekman was unable to address the church, while the Gulistan hall meetings, which had already been widely publicised, were banned. "The director of the hall banned us from entering the hall," a Word of Life source declared. "The hall administration said the meetings had been banned. They said such meetings could take place, but not with the participation of Pastor Ekman."

At a meeting with about twenty Protestant leaders at the State Committee offices on 30 January, State Committee chairman Rafik Aliev told them that they could invite foreigners to the country for religious purposes, but not Pastor Ekman.

Now that the Baku congregation belonging to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and the Other States (ELKRAS) has been registered after a long battle (see KNS 11 March 2002), it remains to be seen whether the state authorities will allow a new pastor to come to serve the community. Pastor Oborski encountered the wrath of the authorities for refusing to confine his ministry to local people of German background. Natalya Gaidarova, leader of the ELKRAS Lutheran congregation (though on the insistence of the State Committee she is not one of the ten official "founders" of the congregation), told Keston that a pastor from the German city of Rostock, Ingmar Timm, is to arrive on 22 March to serve the congregation for two weeks. "The German embassy has invited him officially for us at the request of ELKRAS," she told Keston on 1 March. "But we want a permanent pastor like we had before."

There is also evidence that the government is cutting back on the number of Turkish imams it allows to work in the country. Professor Saffet Kose, the Turkish dean of the Theology Faculty of Baku State University, told Keston in his office on 27 February that previously about ten Turkish imams had been working in Azerbaijan at any one time. However, a new agreement between the Azerbaijani and Turkish governments had cut that number to just three. "In 1992 Azerbaijan asked Turkey to build mosques and after that said it wanted Turkey to send imams. In each mosque with a Turkish imam there was also an Azerbaijani imam. Now most will have to leave."

Professor Kose, who is working in Azerbaijan solely as a teacher under a separate 1992 agreement between the university and the Turkish Religion Ministry, said it was not for him to say whether Turkish imams should remain in larger numbers. "The Azerbaijani people know if they are still needed or not."

However, Haji Akif Agaev, deputy head of the Caucasian Muslim Board, was unenthusiastic about Turkish imams. Asked about their role in Azerbaijan, he initially declared: "What Turkish imams?" He then went on to say it was something the government had arranged, not the Board, but that they are "not needed now". "Religious propaganda by foreigners is not allowed - they can't work in mosques."

Perhaps to head off possible future problems from the government, the Russian Orthodox hierarch in Azerbaijan, Bishop Aleksandr (Ishchein), renounced his Russian citizenship and took Azerbaijani citizenship last November. (Azerbaijan does not allow dual citizenship.) The Russian-born Bishop Aleksandr only came to Azerbaijan to take up a fulltime position in 1995, when he became rector of the Orthodox cathedral in Baku and dean of the parishes in Azerbaijan. His previous church service had been in Russia's North Caucasus.

It remains to be seen whether the Azerbaijani government would approve applications for citizenship from other foreign-born clerics. (END)