SPECIAL REPORT - AZERBAIJAN: The Rise And Rise of the State Religion Committee.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 20 March 2002

Ever since the establishment of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations last June and his appointment as its first chairman, Rafik Aliev has become arguably the most important figure in determining Azerbaijan's religious policy, presiding over a State Committee with extensive policy-making and executive powers almost unchecked by any other arm of government. On a visit to Baku and surrounding regions in late February and early March, Keston News Service found a largely "wait-and-see" attitude to the State Committee among religious communities, as the controversial compulsory re-registration process is not due for completion until the end of March (see KNS 13 March 2002). It is only then that believers will see whether the secrecy, arbitrariness and at times illegal activities of the State Committee are aberrations or an integral part of how religious policy will now be determined.

"The State Committee has much stricter control over religious activity than the old structure, the Religious Affairs Directorate," Eldar Zeynalov, the head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan told Keston.

Asked why there had been a need for a new State Committee to replace the old directorate - which itself inherited the functions of the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs - veteran employee Aleksandr Kozlov looked bemused and gestured towards the ceiling. "These things come down from on high," he told Keston in his office at the State Committee. "No-one tells us why."

Not only has the State Committee inherited several of the old officials, it has also inherited the large archive which the directorate had retained from the Council for Religious Affairs (unlike in other republics, no material for recent decades has been handed over to the state archives, to which Keston was denied access in 2000). Kozlov indicated that access to the archives at the State Committee - with the exception of a small cupboard of files on Christian groups still functioning from Soviet days - is controlled by Rafik Aliev alone. As the Armenian Church in Azerbaijan is now defunct, its files are likewise with Rafik Aliev. However, it is unlikely that access to Soviet-era secrets about religious communities - even the Muslims - is of much day-to-day use. It remains unclear whether Rafik Aliev has access to KGB files on religious leaders - these remain under lock and key at the National Security Ministry.

The key shift in power in religious policy lies in the transfer of registration powers to the State Committee. The old Religious Affairs Directorate, which was subsumed into the new State Committee when it was set up, had to approve applications for registration of religious organisations, but applications also had to be approved by the Ministry of Justice, which actually carried out the registration. Now this process has been brought entirely into the State Committee, with no reference to any other state agencies.

The old directorate - which Keston visited two years ago - was housed in the cavernous, shabby rooms of the Government House, a vast building built after the Second World War, mainly by German prisoners of war. It had just four employees, Kozlov told Keston. Kozlov, together with the directorate's chairman, Mustafa Ibrahimov, was transferred to the new State Committee. Another directorate official Vagif Salamov was reportedly sacked after he refused to join the party of President Heidar Aliev, the Yeni Azerbaijan Party, although Keston has been unable to confirm this with Salamov.

Believers who had dealings with Ibrahimov at the directorate told Keston that it was under the close control of Idayat Orudjev, the president's adviser on ethnic issues. However, the new State Committee appears to have no such patron - and does not appear to be in need of one. Rafik Aliev's deputy, Namik Allahverdiev, described his boss to Keston at the State Committee offices as "the minister", although Rafik Aliev does not hold ministerial rank. "The head of a State Committee is more or less equivalent to a minister, as he is appointed by the president," Nariman Qasimoglu, deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front and the party's spokesman on religious affairs, told Keston.

The chairman has respect among many for his academic work and knowledge of Islam. "Rafik Aliev has some authority as a person who propagated pure Islam and published books on the subject," Zeynalov told Keston.

Rafik Aliev's powerful position is bolstered by the fact that the new State Committee has a much larger staff than its predecessor. Both Allahverdiev and Kozlov separately put the number of officials at "about 35", but close observers of the committee's work told Keston the real figure is more than 60. It remains unknown whether all employees have to be members of the presidential party, although this is a common, if unwritten, requirement among state officials.

Some observers claimed to Keston that Zemfira Rzayeva, the head of the State Committee's legal department who is in day-to-day charge of which religious communities get re-registration and which do not, has a dubious background. They allege that she used to work for the Baku mayor's office, but was sacked by Hajibala Abutalibov when he took over as mayor as she was living above her official salary. She was alleged to own a Mercedes car which, local people told Keston, she could not have afforded on her official salary alone. As Rzayeva has repeatedly declined to speak to Keston, it is impossible to gain her response to such allegations.

Keston's visit to the State Committee's offices in central Baku revealed an administration that is not short of funds. The elegant European-style town house where the offices are based, dating back to the turn of the twentieth century, has been carefully restored. Offices have been tastefully decorated, with parquet floors and carpets, modern-style furniture and potted plants (though with the obligatory portraits of President Heidar Aliev on some office walls). The committee has modern computers (on which officials typed Rafik Aliev's answers to the written questions officials allowed Keston to submit to Aliev) and photocopy machines.

As a relative rarity among Azerbaijani government agencies it maintains a website (www.addk.org), although despite sophisticated graphics there is as yet no content, and has a published email address (addk@addk.org). It also produces a glossy, semi-colour magazine (editor in chief: Rafik Aliev, with seven other staff) which began publication as a bimonthly in September/October 2001 but which, Kozlov told Keston, is shortly to become a monthly. Although Allahverdiev gave Keston copies of the first two issues, religious leaders told Keston they had to pay 5,000 manats (one dollar or 75 British pence) for each copy.

Some local people - not just believers - have questioned whether a country as poor as Azerbaijan can or should sustain such a large religious bureaucracy at a time of widespread poverty, with many hundreds of thousands of impoverished refugees and internally-displaced people. They argue that government funds spent on the bureaucracy would be better spent elsewhere.

At the same time, some argue that it is good that the State Committee chairman is already a rich man. "Rafik Aliev has enough money not to seek bribes," Zeynalov told Keston. "In a totally corrupted country like Azerbaijan, it is maybe better to have someone with enough income, rather than hungry people who would use their position at the State Committee for income-generation."

It is significant that on almost every question, State Committee officials have told Keston that they are "not authorised" to speak to journalists and that only Rafik Aliev can speak in the name of the committee. Allahverdiev and Rzayeva have in the past refused to be interviewed, while on Keston's visit to the committee Allahverdiev would only amplify the answers to Keston's questions Rafik Aliev had already given.

Rafik Aliev openly acknowledges that he is a practising Muslim, but has claimed to Keston that as a state official he acts neutrally towards all religious faiths (see KNS 12 December 2001). However, many Protestant Christians disagree. "I can understand when Russians are Christians, but how can Azeris betray their faith?" Pastors Sari Mirzoyev and Yahya Mamedov of the Azeri-language Baptist congregation in Baku quoted Aliev as having told them. Aliev is suing through the courts to have the congregation liquidated (see KNS 7 March 2002). "He fights against Christians," the two pastors complained to Keston. "Why did they make a Muslim head of the State Committee?"

Rafik Aliev's power is clear: as well as moving to liquidate Baku's Azeri-language Baptist church in court, he has summoned the heads of local administrations to Baku to tell them how to treat religious organisations and has taken it upon himself to tell religious organisations which of their communities he will register and which he will not. He has also taken it upon himself to warn religious communities not to complain about violations of their rights to international organisations or President Heidar Aliev (see KNS 19 March 2002). In addition, he retains full control over the registration of new communities and re-registration of existing communities, power of censorship over all religious literature publishes in Azerbaijan or imported into the country (see KNS 15 March 2002) and veto powers over invitations religious communities issue to foreigners to visit Azerbaijan for religious purposes.

Kozlov told Keston that he is also handling the issue of places of worship confiscated during the Soviet period which still have not been returned, including the Baptist church, the Lutheran Kirche and the Ashkenazi synagogue in central Baku, and places of worship in other towns. "Rafik Aliev has more power [than the old directorate]. He would like to give these places of worship back," Kozlov told Keston. "He has already discussed this."

While Zeynalov has concerns over the extent of state control over religious life and the activity of the State Committee, he believes the picture is not entirely bad. "Rafik Aliev has done some positive things." He highlights his attempts to bring some control over the Caucasian Muslim Board and to prevent the Muslim leadership from being able to lobby the government (see forthcoming KNS article).

But believers of a wide variety of faiths mistrust Rafik Aliev deeply and resent the very existence of a government agency which aims to control their every move. "Rafik Aliev wants to widen his powers and enter into the church's doors," Pentecostal pastor Yusuf Farkhardov - one of the two Pentecostals imprisoned for two weeks in Sumgait earlier this year (see KNS 21 January 2002) - told Keston. "They regard religion as a state structure." (END)