Issue 5, Article 26, 29 May 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

Monday 29 May 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

As Azerbaijan�s application to join the Council of Europe is about to be
considered, officials of the Council�s secretariat in Strasbourg have told Keston
News Service that the reason the many problems in the area of religious liberty
in Azerbaijan have been glossed over in the rapporteur�s report on Azerbaijan�s
application is that no religious group in the country informed the Council of any

This is despite the well-documented delays in the granting of official registration
to many communities belonging to religious minorities, the ban on registering
Muslim communities independent of the state-sanctioned Muslim Board, raids
on religious meetings and the detention of religious leaders, the refusal to return
places of worship confiscated during the Soviet period, dismissal of religious
activists from their jobs, the continuing censorship of all religious literature that
religious groups wish to publish or import, the confiscation of religious
literature at customs, government meddling in the internal affairs of religious
communities, and the publicly-expressed desire by the official in charge of
registration at the Justice Ministry in Baku that he would like the law on religion
tightened up to ban unregistered religious activity.

The 41-member Council of Europe declares that it �promotes democracy and
human rights continent-wide�. Azerbaijan, which currently has guest status in
the organisation, applied for membership on 13 July 1996. The Council�s
Parliamentary Assembly will examine Azerbaijan�s application at its plenary
session in Strasbourg from 26 to 30 June.

The report, �Azerbaijan's application for membership of the Council of Europe�
(Document 8748, issued on 23 May), compiled for the Council�s Political
Affairs Committee by the rapporteur JACQUES BAUMEL, a French politician
of the European Democratic Group, contains just one paragraph on freedom of
religion (Para. 84). This reads in full: �At the meeting with representatives of the
different faiths, the latter all confirmed that freedom of worship was respected in
Azerbaijan. The Churches practised their activities freely, building churches,
celebrating religious holidays, religious instruction, visiting prisons, etc. The
Armenian Church has not been banned, but because of the mass exodus of the
Armenian population, it is not active. Islamic extremism was condemned by the
representatives present as a confrontational movement bent on setting up a
society based wholly on Islamic fundamentalism.�

This report was approved unanimously by the Political Affairs Committee at its
meeting in Dublin on 17 May and the meeting recommended for approval the
country�s application to join the Council, subject to the acceptance of a series of
commitments on Council of Europe conventions, the Nagorno-Karabakh
conflict, domestic law and human rights. However, Baumel�s report laid down
no specific commitments in the area of religious liberty.

The report�s bland assessment of the state of religious liberty in Azerbaijan is
based on a meeting with representatives from a variety of religious groups held
in Baku several years ago, officials of the Council�s secretariat told Keston from
Strasbourg on 26 May. �Since no group reported any particular problems in the
course of the meeting, the issue of freedom of religion was not followed up on
later visits to Baku,� one official declared. �The Azerbaijani government made
no commitments in the area of freedom of religion because it was not asked to.�

Asked what steps the Council�s representatives had taken to find out the
situation for religious believers, the official stressed that they had frequently
visited Baku on well-publicised visits and the hotel where they were staying was
also well publicised. �We received petitions from many, many people,� the
official told Keston, �we had phone calls from people in our hotel room and
people delivered petitions. We had petitions from people who were beaten in
police stations. People who wanted to get in touch with us succeeded, but no
religious believers did so.�

Keston requested an interview from Baumel on 26 May, but his office in Paris
declared that he was busy with meetings and unavailable for an interview, but
suggested Keston fax a set of questions, which it did the same day. However,
Keston has received no response to its enquiry as to why Baumel�s report failed
to address Azerbaijan�s religious liberty violations.

However, another official at the Council secretariat told Keston from
Strasbourg on 26 May that the Council�s Human Rights Committee is aware of
problems in the area of religious liberty in Azerbaijan, adding that a rapporteur
GEORGES CLERFAYT has drawn up a separate document on human rights
that includes information about religious liberty problems. The official told
Keston that the report is due to be released sometime in the week beginning 29

Speaking to a wide range of representatives of religious organisations in
Azerbaijan in late March, Keston found support for Azerbaijan�s accession.
Although some representatives believed that the impact such membership of the
Council of Europe would have on the human rights picture in general and the
religious liberty situation in particular would be only limited, all believed that
membership could only do good. Some pointed out that membership would
allow religious believers who felt their rights had been violated to take their
cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, as believers have
done in other former Soviet states, such as Moldova and Russia.

State officials, on the other hand, rejected suggestions that if Azerbaijan accedes
to the Council of Europe it would result in any changes in the legal framework
on religion or the way state bodies interact with religious communities in the
country. (END).