AZERBAIJAN: And Then There Were Two.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 March 2002

The Baptist church in the north-western city of Gyanja has now achieved re-registration, the second of five Baptist congregations in the country to have achieved this status and the first non-Muslim religious organisation to gain re-registration outside the capital Baku. The Baptist Union leader in Azerbaijan, Ilya Zenchenko, told Keston News Service from Baku on 27 March that the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations - which is handling the controversial compulsory re-registration process - has indicated that the Baptist Union's congregation in the town of Sumgait north of Baku will also be re-registered soon. The news came as two religious organisations in Baku lodge challenges to the legality of the re-registration process itself.

The first Baptist congregation - the Russian-language church in Baku - gained re-registration in January. This now leaves two more Baptist congregations awaiting re-registration, in Neftchala (which was closed by the authorities in early February - see KNS 25 March 2002) and the Azeri-language congregation in Baku (which the State Committee is trying to liquidate through the courts - see KNS 7 March 2002). "The Neftchala church was illegally closed down," Zenchenko maintained, "so I am going down there next Sunday [31 March] to reopen it."

In a similar development, the State Committee has told the Adventists that their congregation in Gyanja will also be re-registered "within days", sources in Baku told Keston on 27 March. The church had been closed down by the local police in late February on the grounds that it had not attained re-registration, despite the fact that its old registration with the Ministry of Justice was still valid (see KNS 27 February 2002). The church has since reopened.

The Adventists have also been told that the third congregation for which they have applied, in Nakhichevan, will be considered after re-registration is complete and the State Committee moves on to consider new applications. The Nakhichevan Adventist church did not re-register in the 1998 re-registration round (re-registration of all religious organisations has taken place approximately every three years since independence in 1991), so its current application is regarded as a new application.

None of the six Russian Orthodox parishes in Azerbaijan have yet been registered (there are three in Baku, and one each in Gyanja, Sumgait and Khachmaz), although the diocese itself received re-registration on Christmas Day, 7 January. Hieromonk Aleksy (Nikonorov), secretary to Russian Orthodox Bishop Aleksandr (Ishchein), told Keston by telephone from Baku on 28 March that the State Committee had returned all six parish applications as they had found "mistakes". He said the State Committee had, for example, questioned provisions in the parishes' statutes about their commercial activities. "We're still working on the applications," he told Keston.

The State Committee continues to refuse to provide Keston (or anyone else) with precise statistics on which religious organisations have achieved re-registration, which have been refused and which are still being considered. Contacted by telephone on 26 March, deputy chairman Namik Allahverdiev told Keston "I am not going to answer your questions," after complaining that he had been misquoted in Keston's recent articles on the re-registration process. However, his colleague Samed Bairamzade, head of the department for relations with religious groups, told Keston the same day that the re-registration process - which committee officials had earlier said was expected to be completed by the end of March - was still continuing and had not yet been concluded.

Rafik Aliev, the State Committee chairman, was quoted by the Yeni Azerbaijan newspaper on 28 March as declaring that "over 130" religious organisations have been re-registered, while the applications of "over 100" are still being considered. Once again he failed to make clear why such a small number of the estimated 2,000 religious organisations in the country (406 of which had registration under the old system) have achieved re-registration so far.

Two religious organisations that had registration under the old system - the independent Lutheran congregation in Baku led by Tamara Gumbatova and the Ashkenazi Jewish congregation led by Moshe Bekker - filed legal challenges to the entire re-registration process on 26 March at the economic court of Baku city (which handles complaints by juridical entities). They argue that there had been no valid legal act - neither a presidential decree nor a law - authorising such a re-registration process to be conducted. The two challenges will be considered together by one judge. The court must respond to the plaintiffs within ten days and, if no friendly settlement can be reached, a date for a hearing will then be named.

Although the Lutheran and Ashkenazi communities lodged their re-registration applications last year, it was only in late March that they finally received letters from the State Committee declaring that their applications needed "corrections". The Lutheran congregation was told there were "mistakes" in its application and that it should have been submitted in Azeri, rather than Russian. Gumbatova told Keston by telephone from Baku on 27 March that she wrote back to the State Committee pointing out that their application "had been in accordance with the law". In its letter to the Ashkenazi community, the State Committee declared that an Askenazi Jewish community had already been registered in Baku (the rival organisation set up - apparently with state backing - last year) and suggested that the community should reapply under a new name.

Gumbatova told Keston that she had learned from a reliable source - whom she could not identify - that in the wake of widespread complaints to President Heidar Aliev about the way the re-registration process was being conducted, an instruction had gone out to halt the process. So far Keston has not been able to verify this. (END)