AZERBAIJAN: Campaign Launched to Close Down Jehovah's Witnesses.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 24 October 2002

Rafik Aliev, the powerful head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, has told the Azerbaijani media that his office is due to lodge a court application to have the registration of the Jehovah's Witness community in Baku cancelled. He accuses the community of holding "illegal meetings" and involving children in "unhealthy religious services" which, he claims, is a violation of the country's law on religion and justifies initiating court action. On 24 October an official of the State Committee told Keston News Service that Aliev was "too busy" to speak about the case against the Jehovah's Witnesses. "No-one apart from Rafik Aliev can give this information," she added.

On 23 October a front page article in the Baku newspaper 525 Qazet reported an interview Aliev had given to the Azerinform news agency accusing the Jehovah's Witnesses of violating the religion law. He said that information about their "illegal activities" is now being gathered. "In a few days we will submit to court documents with that information," he told the agency. In a pointed reference, Aliev noted that a Baku court had already liquidated the registration of the Love Baptist church at his committee's instigation (see KNS 8 April 2002).

Matthew Kelly, a visiting representative from the Jehovah's Witness headquarters near St Petersburg, told Keston from Baku on 24 October that if the State Committee goes ahead and seeks to liquidate the community, the Jehovah's Witnesses will contest the case "vigorously". He said that if the State Committee is planning to base its case on a convention that the Jehovah's Witnesses tried to hold in a Baku hotel on 29 September - which was cancelled hours before it was due to begin, despite having prior written approval from the State Committee - this would be "totally unfounded". "We went above and beyond the law in informing them in advance about the convention."

Kelly said he had met Aliev at the State Committee on 23 October, and Aliev had made no mention of the impending legal case. Kelly told Keston the discussion had been "very cordial", though he said Aliev had reminded him that the Jehovah's Witness community in Azerbaijan must abide by the law. "He expressed concern that we should respect the traditional way of life and religious sensibilities of the local population," Kelly reported. "He said new religions should tread carefully." Kelly told Aliev that the Jehovah's Witnesses fully accept this, while maintaining the right to offer their faith to other people.

In discussion of the stalled convention, Aliev accused the Jehovah's Witnesses of "violating the law", as the ballroom of the Absheron Hotel, where the convention was due to have been held, could hold only 150 people rather than the 500 the convention organisers had envisaged. (Kelly maintains that with all the tables removed to make way for chairs there is ample space to accommodate 500 people, as the director of the hotel had agreed.)

It was only when Kelly met officials of the Baku office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) later in the day that he saw the newspaper article reporting Aliev's decision to seek to close down the community through the courts. "Aliev had said nothing about it during the meeting," Kelly noted. "This was strange as he had stressed that his office seeks to work transparently and expects religious organisations to be transparent too."

Kelly said he had phoned Aliev that evening and Aliev had declared: "You can't always believe everything you read in the newspapers." Kelly said Aliev had pledged that the Jehovah's Witnesses had "nothing to worry about" and that legal action would not be taken to liquidate the community.

Branislav Solvic, human rights officer of the OSCE in Baku, told Keston on 24 October that if the State Committee does go ahead and launch the case to liquidate the Jehovah's Witness community "the OSCE office will monitor the case closely".

The Baku Jehovah's Witness community, which has a regular attendance of about 500 people, holds two meetings in Russian on a Sunday and one in Azeri. It was first registered in December 1999 and re-registered earlier this year under the compulsory re-registration round. It is the only registered Jehovah's Witness community in Azerbaijan.

In addition to the Love Baptist Church, Aliev has also had closed down 22 of the country's 26 madrassahs (Islamic schools). He told a press conference in Baku on 20 September that the schools had violated the norms for religious education by failing to teach subjects from the general syllabus like history and geography and that some of the teachers had turned out to be foreign citizens which, he said, was a violation of the law. (END)