AZERBAIJAN: OSCE 'Surprised' at Liquidation Of Baptist Church.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 8 April 2002

Lutz Leichtfuss, democratisation officer at the Baku office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has told Keston News Service of his "surprise" at the 3 April decision of the Narimanov district court in Baku to liquidate the Love Church, an Azeri-language Baptist church based in the Azerbaijani capital. "I was surprised by the final verdict as my impression was that there wasn't so much evidence to close down the church," Leichtfuss told Keston today (8 April). "My advice to the Baptist church is to appeal to a higher court." However, the head of the legal department of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations (which brought the liquidation suit) has strongly defended the court-ordered liquidation. "We have witnesses who heard the pastor insult Islam several times and told this to the court," Zemfira Rzayeva told Keston today (8 April) from Baku. "We had more than enough proof."

The Love church and the Baptist leadership in Azerbaijan have rejected the court ruling as "illegal" and "unjust". "We are not criminals - we have not broken the law," Baptist Union leader Ilya Zenchenko told Keston from Baku on 8 April. "We didn't believe until we heard the verdict that the court would take such a decision against the law." He said that the first day of the hearing, 2 April, the judge was very fair and had appeared to sympathise with the church. However, the following day he hurried through the hearing and confined himself to presenting the verdict. "He must have received a very strong order as to how to rule in the case - he doesn't appear to have taken the decision himself," Zenchenko claimed. "It seems he is prepared to listen to the State Committee more than to justice."

Zenchenko reported that after the Sunday service on 7 April, the Love church had held a members' meeting and drawn up a letter of complaint to Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, signed by more than 150 church members. "We intend to deliver this letter to the presidential administration tomorrow." He said the church would be appealing against the verdict within the one month period allowed, though he stressed that the church needed funds to be able to do this.

He complained that journalists from newspapers and ANS television (one of the media that has been leading the campaign against religious minorities) arrived at the Baptist church on 7 April and were surprised that the church was still functioning, despite the fact that the court ruling has not yet come into force.

Leichtfuss, who was present in court on both 2 and 3 April, told Keston that the court proceedings had been conducted "correctly", in contrast to other court hearings he had attended. "The court was quiet and everyone in the case was allowed to express their opinion." He maintained that it was therefore all the more surprising that the court had then reached such a decision.

He added that the OSCE office has held several meetings about the case with State Committee officials and, since the verdict was announced, has written to state committee chairman Rafik Aliev.

Rzayeva told Keston that the Baptist church has one month to lodge an appeal against the verdict and stressed that the court decision does not enter into force until after any appeal is heard.

The suit to close down the church was initiated last December after Rafik Aliev obtained a tape-recorded copy of a sermon Pastor Sari Mirzoyev had preached the previous month which he said had insulted the dignity of state officials (the traffic police) and insulted Islam. In its suit to the court, the State Committee complained that the church promoted "inter-religious dissension, intolerance and an insulting approach to other religions". Pastor Mirzoyev vigorously rejected the charges.

However, despite Aliev's claims, the legal case rests solely on whether the church had violated Article 22 of the religion law which requires religious organisations to obtain permission from the State Committee to publish or make copies of religious literature or tapes (a provision that violates Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments). The church acknowledges that sermons were taped without permission, but says this was for internal use only.

Speaking to Keston at his home in Baku in March, Pastor Mirzoyev expressed his anger at what he said was a "relentless campaign" against him by the government and through the local media (see KNS 7 March 2002).

The Love Baptist Church gained registration at the Justice Ministry on 18 March 2000 and has applied for re-registration under the new regulations. It has not received a formal rejection of its re-registration application, but officials of the State Committee insist that the court-ordered liquidation nullifies the application. Rzayeva insisted to Keston that the court verdict solely liquidated the church's legal status, without removing other religious rights from its members, such as the right to meet for worship. "They can meet in another form, not as the Love Church, and apply for registration with the State Committee," she declared. "No-one is restricting their rights. No-one is preparing to persecute them." (END)