SPECIAL REPORT: AZERBAIJAN: Believers Object to Religious Censorship.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 15 March 2002

Despite its proclamation that censorship has been abolished, the Azerbaijani government insists that the publication or import of any religious literature requires prior permission from the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, in defiance of the country's international human rights commitments. 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 universal hostility to this censorship, despite some concerns over the potential for religiously-inspired violence. Many believers ridiculed the State Committee's censorship attempts.

"Many religious groups have had difficulty publishing or importing religious literature," Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Keston at his centre. "However, the orders are not put in writing. The government tries hard not to make public such illegal acts."

Professor Rovshan Mustafayev, director of the Institute of Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences, vigorously opposed religious censorship. "There should be no prior censorship of religious literature by the State Committee," he told Keston at his institute, "provided such literature does not promote terrorism."

Nariman Qasimoglu, deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front and the party's spokesman on religious affairs, likewise rejected state censorship, despite his concerns about political forces - especially from Iran – which he claimed were behind some religious groups. "At this stage of our development I believe the censorship of religious literature should be abolished."

Keston attempted to find out from Rafik Aliev, the State Committee's chairman, why he believed prior censorship was necessary or justified. Although he declined to meet Keston during a visit to the State Committee's Baku headquarters on 26 February, Aliev did respond in writing to Keston's question submitted via his deputy. "Information contained in some books could bear an inflammatory nature," he told Keston. "This could arouse hatred and negativism among religious organisations. In some books there could be information on extremism and terrorism. Permission to import holy books, such as the Koran, Bible and Torah, is not required."

As Keston could not question Aliev directly, it was unable to establish why religious books were different from any other publications, which could be challenged through the courts after publication if they contained illegal statements, such as incitement to violence, but were not subject to prior censorship.

Rafik Aliev also failed to explain why, if he maintains that holy books do not require prior censorship, his committee still insists that religious organisations seek prior permission from his office to publish or import holy books in specific languages and quantities.

Believers of a variety of faiths Keston showed his written response to snorted in derision. "Can they read Hebrew? Are they polyglots? What if the publications are in German?" declared Moshe Bekker, leader of the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Baku. "I had to get permission from the State Committee's predecessor for some books from Israel - in Hebrew. They gave permission with no problem, but how could they have any idea what was in them?" He insisted there should be no prior censorship of any religious literature, let alone holy books.

Many Protestants questioned Rafik Aliev's claims that holy books were not subject to censorship. "We've seen copies of the Bible in both Russian and Azeri confiscated at the border and denied entry to the country," one Protestant leader in Baku told Keston. "And Aliev is saying there is no censorship of holy books?"

Babek Allahverdiev, leader of Baku's Hare Krishna community, pointed out to Keston that despite Aliev's claims, many copies of their scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita, are among 35,000 Hare Krishna books that have been held by the State Customs Committee for almost five years. Other books included works on the Hare Krishna faith and vegetarian cookery books.

"We imported the books in summer 1997 and brought them here," Allahverdiev told Keston as the Krishna temple in a Baku suburb, "after paying one thousand dollars in customs fees." He reported that soon after, customs officials came to the temple and "illegally" took them all away again. He reported that community members last saw the books three months ago at the Terminal warehouse in Khirdalar district of Baku.

"We have been trying for nearly five years to get these books back," Allahverdiev reported. "Last year the customs committee demanded we pay thirty dollars in warehouse fees. We refused to pay, telling them that it was their fault that the books had been kept in their warehouse for all that time." He said that in 1997he had met the customs committee chairman Kamaladdin Heydarov, who had accused them of importing the books without permission and refused to hand them over. "He gave no substantive reasons to hold up the books." The community has written to Heydarov repeatedly, most recently at the end of last year, but has received no response.

After the State Committee was founded last June, Allahverdiev also asked for their help. "They told us to write a letter and bring it with a copy of each of the books and that if nothing in any of the books contradicts the law they would order their release." So far, he reported, there is no sign of any movement. "Since 1997 we haven't been able to import any books. We're going to work on this next. People need these books."

Allahverdiev told Keston that because of the difficulties with the authorities, many religious organisations are afraid to publish books in the country. He said that although his community had gained re-registration, it would probably still be impossible.

Professor Saffet Kose, the Turkish dean of the Theology Faculty of Baku State University, told Keston that his faculty imports religious textbooks from Turkey, but that no books can be imported without permission, which they used to obtain from the country's Muslim leader Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade. "We now check with Rafik Aliev," he declared.

Professor Kose admitted that he had published a book earlier in February at his own expense condemning religiously-inspired terrorism without waiting for the required written approval from the State Committee. "The book contains the address I gave at the conference organised by the State Committee in Baku last December on the attitude of Islam to terror. People there said I should publish my speech and Rafik Aliev agreed verbally."

When Professor Kose presented the text to the Adiloglu publishing house in Baku, the publisher asked him for a copy of the written authorisation from the State Committee. "I told them I had spoken on this subject at the conference and that Rafik Aliev had heard the speech and had nothing against it. I promised to give them the letter as soon as I had it and persuaded them to go ahead and print the book."

"I agree it is strange that it is necessary to get permission to publish if there is freedom of speech, which is also enshrined in international conventions," he declared. "I believe people should be able to exchange views and not be persecuted by the police."

Father Daniel Pravda, the leader of the Catholic Church in Azerbaijan, has also printed religious literature without asking the State Committee's permission. "Last year we printed 300 copies of a hymnbook in Russian for internal parish use," he told Keston at his church in Baku.

The Caucasian Muslim Board - which is far from happy with Rafik Aliev's work - is among the religious groups which reject religious censorship. "There is no need for any permission to publish literature from anyone," the Board's deputy chairman Haji Akif Agaev told Keston in his office next to Baku's Taza Pir mosque. "Do you think we at the Muslim Board would set aside the country's laws and abide by decrees from a state institution?" He said the Muslim Board had lived through seventy years of Soviet control when laws were not adhered to, but now it intended to abide by the law, not arbitrary instructions.

Haji Akif reported that the Muslim Board has published editions of the Koran "several times", as well as books devoted to Pashazade's fiftieth birthday in 1999 and his speeches. "We also had a newspaper which was licensed by the Ministry of Justice, but had to stop publishing it after four years for financial reasons."

However, Haji Akif told Keston he believed the state was right to restrict imports of religious literature. "We tell the State Committee what we intend to import and get permission. The government knows the Muslim Board observes the law and protects the interests of the state."

Believers of a variety of faiths told Keston of difficulties importing even small quantities of literature via the airport or through land borders. "Restrictions on importing literature are very strict," Pastor Roman Zhmurov of the Protestant Star in the East Church in Baku told Keston. "We can't even bring in simple hymnbooks." He said it was much easier to import literature in the early 1990s. "But after the changes to the religion law in 1996 the situation changed immediately." He recalls that in 1996 several containers of Christian literature in Azeri and Russian organised by Protestant Churches like Greater Grace or the unregistered Baptists were stopped at the border and sent back.

Pastor Zhmurov told Keston that if even the state approves a certain book, quantities may be heavily restricted. He said his church was once given permission to import Bibles, but only 1,500 copies. "They said you have 1,000 members and that is enough." Pastor Musfig Bayram of Baku's Greater Grace church told Keston that the State Committee likewise questions the quantities of books they wish to import. "They ask us, you have this number of members, why do you need more copies than that?"

The State Committee is especially reluctant to approve books published by minority faiths in Azeri, arguing that this would represent an attempt by those groups to convert Azeris.

Pastor Pavel Byakov of the unregistered Baptists said that "so much" of their literature had been confiscated that in the past two years they have not tried to import large quantities. "The Interior Ministry and the KGB have a big customs centre where they took all out literature. They said we needed to bring a letter from the Council of Ministers or from Pashazade."

He said that when he came through the land border from Russia in early 2001 he had just one religious book on him, his personal Bible in which he had made his own notes. "I have had this Bible for ten years," he declared at his home in a village just outside Sumgait, showing the Bible to Keston. "They said I could not bring it back into the country and would have to leave it there." He said he had to wait at the border but after four hours was allowed through with it.

Jehovah's Witness sources told Keston that in late summer last year some 75 Witnesses who were returning by land from Russia had all their religious literature seized by Azerbaijani customs. "The literature was in their personal luggage, but every piece of literature, including their handwritten notes, was confiscated with the exception of one Bible each," a Jehovah's Witness told Keston. "I presume copies of the Bible were among the literature seized."

Natalya Gaidarova, leader of one of Baku's two Lutheran congregations, told Keston that in October 2000 she and her colleagues who attended a conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and the Other States (ELKRAS) in the Russian city of Samara were given 30 copies of a German-language hymnbook. On arrival back at Baku airport all the copies were confiscated by customs because they had no letter from Religious Affairs Directorate, the predecessor to the State Committee. "Customs asked us 'Why do you need these?'" Gaidarova recalled. "They probably wanted bribes to let them through." The then chairman of the directorate, Mustafa Ibrahimov, authorised customs to release them.

"I'm always checked very closely when I arrive at Baku airport," Father Pravda told Keston. He said he often brings in personal copies of books in Slovak, French, German or Italian. He rarely brings in literature in Russian, though he reports that single copies of a handful of books should get through. "Our people can get Catholic books in Russian in Moscow and bring them in, but one or two copies maximum."

He said the Catholics had never asked officially to import religious literature in larger quantities. "Of course we would like to. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very necessary in Russian. Every parishioner would like a copy."

One traveller who came through Baku airport recently told Keston that he saw a fellow passenger, a Muslim from southern Azerbaijan who was returning from Moscow, have every piece of literature "minutely and individually examined" by customs. The Muslim afterwards expressed surprise that all the books had been let through.

In an interview published in the Baku newspaper Ekho on 8 January, Rafik Aliev reported that in the previous five months customs had seized at the border some 100,000 religious books and booklets in Azeri, Russian and other languages "which sow anti-state, anti-government and anti-Azerbaijani moods and religious hostility". He claimed some incited citizens to disobey laws, insulted other faiths, inspired mutual hostility between Shia and Sunni Muslims and claimed that their own faith was superior to others.

So far the authorities do not appear to have interfered with small quantities of religious literature sent by post. Gaidarova reported that the Lutherans have no problems obtaining 30 copies of ELKRAS' magazine regularly by post. Jehovah's Witnesses reported that their magazines get through also. Pastor Bayram told Keston that bigger parcels, such as those containing videotapes, are opened by customs but then resealed, with the contents left intact.

Although some religious minority leaders admit that calls to violence in some religious publications constitute a problem that needs to be tackled, they maintain that there are other ways to do it than requiring all books to be approved for content, language and quantity in advance.

"There are for example Wahhabis and others who do propagate violence in their publications," Moshe Bekker told Keston. "This needs to be addressed." Babek Allahverdiev agreed. "Some Wahhabi books do have things about terror. I'm not against all scrutiny - there should be sensible censorship. Believers and officials should get together and discuss the content of such books together." Allahverdiev pointed out that extremists from the Jeyshullah group had planned to blow up the Baku Hare Krishna temple in 1997. Nevertheless, he opposed mandatory religious censorship.

"There is a fear of extremism here and we don't want extremism to rise," Father Pravda told Keston. "But I think personally there are other, better methods to control this than censorship of religious literature." (END)