AZERBAIJAN: Third Time Lucky for Stalled Book Import?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 26 September 2002

The Baptist church in the capital Baku is hoping its third application to be allowed to import 3,000 copies of the Book of Proverbs will be successful. Pastor Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan, told Keston News Service from Baku on 26 September that so far the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations - which is in charge of the compulsory prior censorship of all religious literature produced in Azerbaijan or imported into the country (see separate KNS article) - has so far given permission for only 500 copies to be released. "If they were given permission to import a certain quantity, the Committee believes that's enough for them," Mirzabala Amirakhov, the head of the department that deals with Christian groups at the State Committee, told Keston from Baku on 26 September. He failed to explain why it was in the power of the State Committee to decide how many copies of any publication an individual religious community needed.

The registered Baku Baptist church applied to the State Committee in May to import the copies of the Azerbaijani-language translation of the Book of Proverbs, entitled "The Wisdom of Solomon", which had been produced and donated to it by the Bible Society of Kazakhstan. Zenchenko reported that with his application he had provided a copy of the work for the State Committee to assess in reaching its decision. He reported that it was not until 23 July that State Committee chairman Rafik Aliev wrote back to say that permission was being granted for only 500 copies and that the remaining copies would have to be sent back to Kazakhstan at the church's expense. "He failed to explain why this limit had been set," Zenchenko complained. "Besides, it took him two months to respond to our application."

Dissatisfied with this response, the Baptist church again applied for permission to import the full 3,000 copies, which by then were awaiting clearance in customs in Baku. Aliev wrote again on 16 September declaring once again that only 500 copies would be released. Zenchenko said Aliev again failed to give any reason for the decision. He had therefore written a third application letter on 25 September seeking the release of all the copies.

Jeyhun Mamedov, head of the "expertise" department of the State Committee that assesses all religious literature before it is authorised for publication or import, said that his department had examined the Wisdom of Solomon and approved it for import. "The book is OK," he told Keston from Baku on 26 September. "There is nothing harmful in it." He said he was unable to say why Aliev had decided that only 500 copies could be imported. "Our department doesn't specify the number of copies of a book that may be produced or imported," he explained. "We just say if it is OK or not."

In a written answer of 26 February to Keston's questions about religious censorship (see KNS 15 March 2002), Aliev had claimed: "Permission to import holy books, such as the Koran, Bible and Torah, is not required." Given that the Wisdom of Solomon is a text in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, it remains unclear whether Aliev has now changed his mind. Keston was unable to reach Aliev or his deputy Namik Allahverdiev by telephone on 26 September, being told they were both out at a conference.

Mamedov blamed the quantity of religious publications that the Committee needed to assess for the two-month delay in responding to the Baptists' May application. "We have a lot of work. We couldn't have responded quicker." Amirakhov too was unable to say why two months had been required for the response.

Zenchenko said the Baptists could only speculate as to why Aliev's committee had approved the import of the book, but restricted the quantity. "Maybe they don't want it to be in Azerbaijan," he declared. "It's a very beautiful book with nice illustrations. Solomon is very popular in Islam and is respected as a prophet. Maybe they're afraid we'll give out the book to people."

Zenchenko told Keston that he intends to raise the issue with the Baku office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to which Azerbaijan belongs and which commits member countries to democratic values and respect for human rights, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression. He added that if the church does not get permission to import the books, it will seek to resolve the issue through the courts.

At the same time, Zenchenko had no complaints about the customs which are holding the books. "They have acted according to the procedure."

Customs often confiscate religious literature from people entering Azerbaijan or shipments of literature sent to religious communities in the country. Christian literature in Azerbaijani, the country's official language, is often targeted for confiscation. (END)