SPECIAL REPORT - AZERBAIJAN: Believers Identify Religious Liberty Blackspots.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 25 March 2002

Local authorities in several locations in Azerbaijan have been threatening, fining, detaining, beating and expelling or attempting to expel believers who simply want to practise their faith peacefully, and closing places of worship, Keston News Service was told on a nine-day visit to Baku and the surrounding area at the end of February and beginning of March. Although believers of a number of religious minorities identified the country's second largest city Gyanja as a leading blackspot, authorities violated believers' rights in many other towns, as far apart as Sumgait, Neftchala, Ismailli, Kedabek district and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan. The central authorities in Baku have done little to stamp out such violations, despite claims to Keston by officials of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations in Baku.

In Gyanja the authorities closed down the 200-strong Adventist church on 24 February, arguing that because it was not registered it could not function (see KNS 27 February 2002). Other Protestant groups have faced harassment and fines in recent months, but Keston has been asked not to publicise details.

In Sumgait, a bleak industrial town north of Baku with mile after mile of derelict factories, Protestants have faced a lot of pressure from the local authorities. It was here that two Pentecostals from Assemblies of God congregations, Yusuf Farkhadov and Kasym Kasymov, were sentenced to two weeks in prison last January (see KNS 21 January 2002). "There is a tense situation there - it's worse than in Baku," Farkhadov told Keston. "All the [Protestant] churches have to meet almost secretly." He blamed the local police for the hostility.

Farkhadov recalled that when police burst in on the private flat on 18 January (when he and Kasymov were arrested), they and the local administration knew full well that it was there that the church met. "I don't know how they knew, though we had been meeting there for more than two years." Although the two were not beaten during their detention, they were verbally abused. "They shouted at us and insulted us, both for our faith and not for our faith. They asked why we had exchanged our faith. We replied that there is freedom of conscience in the country." The head of the Sumgait police summoned the two to his office and told them they would each get 15 days in prison, then they were taken to a brief hearing. "The hearing lasted no more than 40 minutes. The lawyer did not defend us - it was a very strange defence."

He reported that nine women who had also been present at the prayer meeting had their identity documents confiscated by the police, who did not return them for two weeks. They were all forced to write statements about their religious activity under threat of being taken to the police station themselves if they refused. Personal phone numbers were also taken, and police have telephoned at least one and threatened her. Farkhadov also reported that all religious literature - even including personal notebooks - was confiscated without a police record or a court order.

Farkhadov lodged an appeal against his prison term to the appeal court in Baku on 21 February, regarding the case as a test of whether Christians - and citizens in general - can establish protection against unlawful imprisonment through the local courts. "I am not a hooligan - I'm a believer," he insisted. "I did nothing against the authorities. I never broke the law. I hope and believe my court challenge will be a success."

In a sinister twist, local police have used the imprisonment of Farkhadov and Kasymov to threaten other Christians in Sumgait. After a service of the Path to Life Protestant church had already finished at a rented flat in August 2001, police arrived and took the flat's owner to the police station. Asked why she allowed the Protestants to rent her flat for services she responded that she was poor and needed the money just to eat. The police then threatened to shave her daughter's hair off. "They intimidated her into stopping the use of her home. She was scared."

A member of the same church was summoned by police at the beginning of this year. They told her they would imprison her for two years and demanded 2,000 US dollars not to do this. She told them she could not afford to pay and that in any case it was not allowed by the Constitution and she had God to protect her. She told them no Christian meetings were held in her flat, but the police arrived one evening at 11 pm, ostensibly to verify that no Christians were meeting. They came again on 18 January (the day Farkhadov and Kasymov were sentenced) and showed her the decision of the court. "See what happened to them," they reportedly warned her. "The same will happen to you."

Another Protestant denomination - which asked Keston that it not be identified - also reported harassment of its church in Sumgait. "Last September the police came to our church and asked why the church was not registered," the denomination's pastor in Baku told Keston. "They said they were registered as a branch of the Baku church, but were told they had to have registration in Sumgait to be able to function there." The pastor recounted that church members then went to the town administration to ask what documents they needed to be able to meet. "A woman official told our church members that as long as she was working there she would never register them as they were traitors to Islam." The pastor said complaints to the State Committee in Baku were always fruitless. "When we told them they said the Sumgait officials were wrong to do that and that they don't know the law, but they did nothing to help."

A typical raid, the pastor recounted, happened last September, when the Sumgait had finished its service in a private flat and church members were sitting and chatting. Five church members - all ethnic Azeris - were taken to the police station. Two, a woman and a child, were freed that evening, but the three men all spent the night in a small cell. The following afternoon the pastor travelled there from Baku with the church's registration documents, to show the church had legal status with the Ministry of Justice. "They said they must pay a fine of 80,000 manats [17 US dollars or 12 British pounds] each. I had to pay, but they gave no documents and no receipts. They said then they would let two of them go and start a criminal case against the third." On 18 January - "maybe there was a city-wide order to crack down on Christians" - the police arrested the man while he was working at home on his balcony next to the street. "Several officers grabbed him by the arms and took him to the police station." They said he should either renounce his faith or be beaten. "He refused to renounce his faith in Christ, so they beat him," the pastor told Keston. "They bashed his head against the wall. Then they let him go. He's an Azeri Christian, that's why they are so hostile to him." The man, who has a wife and children, needed hospital treatment, but had to be treated at home because he had no money to pay the doctors. "He's not afraid - he told the police he was not afraid even to die for Christ."

The pastor - who declined to allow the man's name to be published for fear of making his position worse - said the man had already been imprisoned for 15 days last August as he did not have the money demanded to pay off a fine imposed for attending church meetings.

The unregistered Baptist church in a suburb of Sumgait, led by Pastor Pavel Byakov, reported that problems several years ago had eased, though he said complaints his church had made about the beating of church member Rauf Gurbanov on 2 February by Major Vyali (who refused to give his last name) of the Sumgait police (see KNS 8 February 2002) had not brought a resolution. When they complained to Baku the complaint was sent back to the Sumgait police, which has so far failed to explain why Gurbanov was beaten and threatened with 15 days' imprisonment. The Sumgait procurator investigated the case, Pastor Byakov told Keston, and summoned five police majors to tell them that they had no right to beat or insult those they had detained. Gurbanov was again detained with two other Baptists for running a street library in the town on 16 March but after two hours of threats and insults the three were released.

Despite phone calls from officials both to himself and to his wife asking where he had been born and other personal information, Byakov said the church itself had not suffered any raids since 2000.

The Caspian port of Neftchala, 160 kilometres south of Baku, has seen attempts in recent months to punish Baptists for holding services. At the end of January Telman Aliev of the Baku congregation of the Baptist Union travelled down to Neftchala from Baku to work with the local congregation. "The police came to see him the same day at his home there. Then the deputy head of the district police told him he had no business there and that he shouldn't come back there again," Pastors Sari Mirzoyev and Yahya Mamedov told Keston. "They told him not to hold any services there at all." Aliev was forced to return to Baku. The head of the Baptist Union, Pastor Ilya Zenchenko, then went down to Neftchala to try to resolve the problems with the local administration. "He was told that Aliev could hold services for ethnic Russians, but that it was impossible for Azeris to meet." Soon after Zenchenko returned to Baku, he had a telephone call from a local Baptist women's group complaining that they had again been banned from meeting. The Neftchala church applied for re-registration under the controversial compulsory re-registration process, but has yet to receive it.

Pavel Byakov of the unregistered Baptists travelled down from Sumgait to Neftchala at the end of February with a fellow Baptist to help their local congregation. A district police officer soon arrived and told them that "under the new law" the church was not registered and could therefore not meet (no such new law has been adopted). Byakov asked what they should do if there are only seven church members. "He said we didn't have the right to meet or agitate. I responded that we do not - we just let anyone who wants to come to meetings in a flat." The two talked for two hours, and ten minutes after the police officer had left the local police chief summoned him, but he refused to go. "They told me that the other Baptists had been closed down and that we shouldn't meet. I told them we were going to carry on meeting regardless."

Unregistered Baptists have also had difficulty reaching the villages of Saratovka and Ivanovka in western Azerbaijan close to the border with Armenia. The criminal search police detained and interrogated a group of visiting Baptists from Baku in December 2001 and, although it was the middle of the night and the road was dangerous because of ice, they were refused entry to the villages and sent back. When they tried again in January, Ivan Orlov and his fellow Baptists were taken to the mayor of Kedabek, when police officers and administration officials were also present. Orlov refused their demand that the Baptists should inform the mayor every time they came to visit fellow Baptists in Saratovka and Ivanovka, declaring that he had visited his friends there for many years and that as citizens of Azerbaijan they enjoyed freedom of movement throughout the country. The Baptists were allowed to visit the two villages, but were accompanied by police who even attended the services.

Byakov told Keston also of a convert to the Baptist faith from Shamkir, 35 kilometres north west of Gyanja, who had been threatened by the police "for abandoning his faith".

A congregation of the Greater Grace Protestant Church has been facing pressure from the local administration in the town of Ismailli. "The local authorities instructed the church many times not to hold meetings, in 2000 and in 2001," Pastor Musfig Bayram of Greater Grace Church in Baku told Keston. "Who are you? We don't need Christianity here!" Pastor Bayram quoted the local authorities as having told his church members. Pastor Roman Abramov, who has worked with the congregation, told Keston that three mullahs had visited the Ismailli church in January 2001. "They said they were checking up on illegal activity and that they had 50 signatures on a complaint to the procuracy, but they couldn't find an article of the criminal code to use against us." He recounted that he and two others had been fined 55,000 manats by the police in March 2001 under Article 299 of the administrative code for giving out copies of the New Testament. "The fine wasn't very big, but it is the principle of it." On 7 April, police in a village near Ismailli arrested seven church members who had travelled to see their fellow believers to give them some Christian books. "We were accused of spreading Christianity," Pastor Abramov recalled. Although all seven were freed the same evening, two of them were summoned on 10 April and sentenced to ten days' imprisonment for "wilful refusal to submit to the authorities". One, Azer Gasymov, served ten days in prison, but the other - who suffers from diabetes - was released after paying a fine of 100,000 manats. He has since been fined again.

But hostility has focused on Aga and Hoshgadam Kasymov and their family, who have been summoned for interrogation by the local procuracy nine times. Hoshgadam was sacked from her work in January 2001 for her involvement in the church, while her son Azer was sacked soon after release from prison in April. In the summer Aga too was sacked from his work. Pastor Abramov is concerned that the family has nothing to live on - no-one dares to employ them and the money they were living off after selling their last cow in the autumn has now run out.

"A small group of believers still meets for worship and they don't have problems at the moment. But we want there to be a church in Ismailli," Pastor Abramov insisted. Pastor Bayram reported that church attendance had fallen to about 15 people in the wake of the local authorities' pressure.

In the exclave of Nakhichevan, wedged between Armenia, Iran and Turkey, the local authorities have put pressure on the small Adventist church and especially its leader, Vahid Nagiev and his wife Keklik. Three of their children were barred from attending school last September because they are Adventists, although pressure from Baku saw that decision overturned (see KNS 13 March 2002). In October, the local authorities asked the family to leave Nakhichevan. "The family complained," Pastor Yahya (Ivan) Zavrichko, the head of the Adventist Church in Azerbaijani, told Keston in Baku. "They told the authorities they couldn't deport them. They are registered there. They quoted Article 48 of the Constitution, guaranteeing the right to confess any faith they chose." Pastor Zavrichko said the 15-member strong Nakhichevan church, which is registered as a branch of the Baku Adventist church, has applied for individual registration, as it has the required 10 founding members.

Many leaders told Keston that harassment of their communities was stepped up after the announcement of the compulsory re-registration process last year, with police and local authorities visiting meeting places and insisting (wrongly) that groups without a re-registration certificate were not allowed to meet. One Protestant pastor told Keston he had made 30 copies of his church's re-registration certificate to give out to local congregations to try to prevent police closing down worship services.

"Incidents happen almost everywhere Christians meet across Azerbaijan," a Protestant pastor told Keston. "But we don't want there to be publicity about every incident because the church teaches that problems should be resolved with God and that he should intervene. We don't want there to be extra difficulties - there might be steps towards further persecution." (END)