SPECIAL REPORT - AZERBAIJAN: Religious Liberty Before the Papal Visit.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 May 2002

As the head of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, arrives in the Azerbaijani capital Baku in the afternoon of Wednesday 22 May on his 96th papal visit outside Italy, the world's attention will focus on the religious situation in this Caspian country. However, it remains unclear whether the pope will raise any religious liberty concerns with the Azerbaijani authorities.

The past six months has seen an unprecedented tightening of state control over all aspects of religion, led by Rafik Aliev, appointed last year to head the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations. The controversial re-registration process launched at the end of last year and still underway has seen the 406 religious communities of all faiths with registration under the old system reduced to just 125, out of an estimated 2,000 religious communities within the country (see KNS 9 April 2002). The State Committee has arbitrarily denied registration or re-registration to many religious communities; believers of a number of faiths have been detained, beaten and fined; religious literature remains censored; and the State Committee has interfered especially in the internal affairs of the Muslim community. Police and local authorities, especially outside Baku, have banned a number of religious groups from holding services without any legal justification (unregistered religious activity is not illegal).

According to the official programme for the "apostolic visit" released by the Vatican on 30 April, on arrival Pope John Paul will first visit the monument to the victims of independence and then meet Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev before holding a meeting with the country's religious leaders and representatives of politics, culture and the arts. On Thursday 23 May, he will celebrate Mass in the morning in Baku's Sports Palace and then have lunch with Father Daniel Pravda and the other Salesian priests who are in charge of the Baku Catholic parish. In the afternoon he is scheduled to hold a joint meeting at the Catholic church with Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukhur Pasha-Zade, the leader of the Caucasian Muslim Board, Bishop Aleksandr (Ishchein), the Orthodox bishop of Baku, and Semyon Ikhiidov, the president of the community of Mountain Jews. Later in the afternoon, he will travel to Sofia, Bulgaria.

Father Pravda told Keston News Service from Baku on 9 May that there would not be an individual papal meeting with other Christian leaders apart from the Orthodox bishop, although Protestant pastors would be present at the papal Mass. Several Protestant pastors have told Keston that although they have not received specific invitations, they do plan to attend the Mass.

In a departure from usual practice, the pope and his entourage will stay not in a religious facility, but in a hotel. In a surprise move, the Vatican has chosen the four-star, 15-room Irshad hotel, opened in 1998 as part of the business empire built up by Rafik Aliev, although Aliev told Keston last December that he had "severed all connections" with his businesses on taking up his position as chairman of the State Committee (see KNS 12 December 2001). Father Pravda denied that the Vatican chose the Irshad (which means "spiritual guide") to smooth difficulties in arranging the programme. "The hotel's apparent ties to Rafik Aliev played no role in the decision and the nuncio paid no attention to it," he insisted. "It is simply a suitable small hotel."

Pope John Paul's visit to Azerbaijan will be the fifth to a country of the Commonwealth of Independent States (he has visited Georgia, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Ukraine). He has also visited the three Baltic states. "The Holy Father is coming to Azerbaijan to express his respect for the Azerbaijani people and the importance of the state, which is at the crossroads of the East and West," Father Pravda explained to Keston. "He will voice his respect for the climate of tolerance and democracy that exists here and which should remain. Islam is very tolerant here and there is no Islamic fundamentalism."

Azerbaijan, like all former Soviet republics with the exception of Russia, has full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The Vatican's nuncio to Azerbaijan, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, is based in neighbouring Georgia.

The one Catholic parish in Azerbaijan is in the capital Baku, with some 120 active members. The parish - part of a "missio sui juris" established in 1998 and directly subject to the Holy See - is led by Father Pravda, a Slovak.

The majority of Azerbaijanis are of Shia Muslim background, although there are also Sunni Muslims. Among the Christian minority there are six Orthodox parishes and many Protestant churches of a variety of denominations (including Molokans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans and Adventists), as well as Jews, Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses, a Hare Krishna community and a handful of Zoroastrians.

Many religious groups have complained of the compulsory re-registration process, describing it as unnecessary, over-complex, opaque, arbitrary and restrictive (see KNS 11 March 2002). The State Committee has repeatedly quibbled with the wording of religious communities' statutes and insisted without legal foundation that they write that they function only in one defined location rather than throughout the country and that they make no mention of publishing activity. It has also instructed them how they should organise themselves. It has tried to prevent minority religious communities from gaining registration outside the capital Baku and failed to prevent local authorities illegally banning such communities from functioning (as happened earlier this year with the Adventist church in Gyanja and the Baptist church in Neftchala).

Azerbaijani law bans Muslim communities from registering outside the framework of the Caucasian Muslim Board, despite the fact that Muslims from a variety of strands exist in the country. The State Committee has interfered in the naming of imams, the verification of their qualifications and internal financial control (see KNS 20 March 2002). Pasha-Zade has rejected Rafik Aliev's declaration to the Turan news agency on 2 May that the Muslim Board, together with his committee, should verify the credentials of all the country's imams, complaining that the state should have no role in this. "Our religion is separate from the state and this is a religious issue," Pasha-Zade told the Baku-based Olaylar news agency on 8 May.

Among minority communities that have faced re-registration obstructions is the Baptist Church. Of its five main churches in Azerbaijan, only two have gained re-registration. "The State Committee is still dragging its feet," Baptist leader Ilya Zenchenko complained to Keston on 9 May. "The process is going very, very slowly." He said no date has yet been set for the appeal hearing when the Azeri-language Baptist congregation in Baku is set to challenge the 3 April court-ordered liquidation of its legal status, which took place at the instigation of the State Committee (see KNS 8 April 2002). However, Zenchenko reported that the earlier ban on services by the church in the town of Neftchala is no longer being enforced and the church can meet again.

Religious believers of a variety of faiths have objected to the prior censorship of religious literature (enshrined in law), which continues to operate despite Azerbaijan's proclamation that censorship has been abolished. Religious books are routinely confiscated on entry to the country, while permission to publish in Azerbaijan - especially for books in Azeri about minority faiths- is routinely denied (see KNS 15 March 2002). Even Christian Bibles have been confiscated.

Sumgait, an industrial town north of Baku, is one of a number of religious liberty blackspots identified by believers, particularly Protestants. In January two Pentecostal Christians were imprisoned for two weeks after holding religious meetings in a private flat, the latest in a string of incidents in the town involving police raids on meetings, beatings of believers, fines and threats. One Protestant needed hospital treatment after being beaten by Sumgait police in January, but could not afford to pay doctors so had to be treated at home (see KNS 25 March 2002).

Some parents in several parts of Azerbaijan have complained that teachers have questioned pupils about their faith in a bid to discover which regularly attended mosques or churches. In Nakhichevan, Adventist parents were told not to send their children to one school last September because they were "sectarians" (see KNS 13 March 2002).

Among other recent incidents, Nina Koptseva, a Russian living in Baku by invitation of the Greater Grace Protestant Church, was forcibly deported from Azerbaijan on 1 April, while one of the church's pastors and two other church members were fined (see KNS 5 April 2002).

Father Pravda told Keston he did not know if the pope would raise religious liberty concerns with Azerbaijani officials during the visit. "I can't say what the Holy Father will raise in his meetings - that is a matter for him." He recognised that there are "individual problems" in the area of religious freedom, but stressed that the religious climate in the country is "tolerant". He pointed to the recent resolution of the problem over securing long-term visas for foreign Catholic clergy (see KNS 14 March 2002) and expressed hope that the pope's visit would help the Church secure official registration for its charitable arm, Caritas. "The position of the Catholic Church here has been improving," Father Pravda declared. "I hope the visit will facilitate further improvements for the Catholic community in Azerbaijan." (END)