AZERBAIJAN: When Can Deported Adventists Return?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 25 July 2002

More than six weeks after being expelled from Azerbaijan's exclave of Nakhichevan, an Adventist family have been told that they will soon be able to return home. The pledge was given at a meeting on 23 July with Samed Bairamzade, an official of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations in the capital Baku. Pastor Vahid Nagiev, his wife Keklik Kerimova and their four children, who are registered to live in the town of Nakhichevan, were subjected to internal deportation on 10 June, despite the fact that Azerbaijan's laws do not allow for internal deportation. "Bairamzade promised us everything would be all right," Kerimova told Keston News Service from Baku on 24 July. "He told us he had sent letters to all the relevant parties and that he would tell us when we will be able to return." Speaking to Keston the same day, Bairamzade insisted that the family could return at any time. He denied that anyone had ever expelled them from Nakhichevan and refused to discuss with Keston whether the Adventist church they led would be able to resume meeting.

Kerimova told Keston that Bairamzade, who heads the State Committee's department for relations with religious organisations, had received both her and her husband after he had studied the appeal they had sent in at the beginning of July and investigated their case. She added that Bairamzade had promised that their children would be allowed to study in school once they return. Although Kerimova said the church would be able to meet for worship, she said Bairamzade had told her that "time was needed" before it could be registered. Kerimova pledged that the family will return to Nakhichevan as soon as the State Committee tells them they can do so. "We've got our own flat there - that's our home," she told Keston. "We've got nothing here."

However, Bairamzade's account of the meeting differed. "Everything is all right - in all senses," he insisted to Keston. "They received a positive response." But he denied that the family needed permission before they could return. "They're citizens of Azerbaijan with all the same rights as every other citizen." He denied that his office would be contacting the family to tell them when they could return. "Our office does not give instructions." He went on to deny the family's version of their expulsion in June. "It wasn't the case that the police came to expel them. That's only their version. Have you heard this from anyone else?" He then pointed out that he was "not responsible" for the police. He declined to answer any further questions about how free the family would be to practise their faith once they return to Nakhichevan and put the phone down.

The same day Keston telephoned Bairamzade's colleague Zemfira Rzayeva, head of the State Committee's registration department, to ask about the Nakhichevan Adventist church's registration application, which was lodged in January. The woman who answered the phone - who did not give her name - said Rzayeva was out of the office. When Keston had outlined its question, the woman said that Keston's reporting about religious liberty issues in Azerbaijan "doesn't accord with the truth". "You speak to Baptists and people and fabricate interviews with us, reporting things we never said." Asked to specify what information Keston had published which was inaccurate, she said: "We're not going to talk to you again." Asked again about the facts of the Nakhichevan Adventist church's application she put the phone down.

Pastor Nagiev and his family were forced to leave Nakhichevan after several visits from police officers, including the chief of police of the town of Nakhichevan. Although they presented no written order, the police claimed the family could be preparing "terrorist actions" against President Heidar Aliev, who began a visit to the exclave on 15 June. The Nagievs visited the State Committee in Baku on 1 July to seek its help in overturning their banishment (see KNS 3 July 2002).

The Nagiev family have encountered pressure from the local authorities in Nakhichevan. Last September, three of their children were barred from attending school on the grounds that they are Adventists, a decision overturned after pressure from Baku. In October the authorities tried to deport them, but they refused to go, citing Article 48 of the Azerbaijani constitution guaranteeing the right to confess any faith they chose. The police officers who ordered them to leave in June also declared that they would not allow a Christian church to exist in the centre of the town. (END)