Issue 4, Article 24, 25 April 2000

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

Thursday 20 April 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Several religious groups in Azerbaijan have complained to Keston News
Service over government interference in acquiring religious literature. Article
22 of the 1996 amendments to the country's law on religion requires
government approval before any religious literature can be printed or imported;
officials are said to have used that statute both to forbid the printing of
religious publications within Azerbaijan and to block imports from passing
through customs.

One of the shipments held up for years is a four-tonne consignment of New
Testaments in the Azeri language, blocked by customs officials since 1996 on
the land border with the Russian Federation. `The Azerbaijani customs would
not let the consignment in,' FUAD TARIVERDI, the pastor of the Baku
congregation of the Protestant Greater Grace Church told Keston on 31 March.
`The donation of these books came officially to our church, but the State
Administration for Religious Affairs blocked it. They did not help us to solve
the problem. They should help us - they should be the mediator between
religious groups and the government.' Tariverdi reports that a church worker in
Dagestan was able to take the New Testaments from the Russian customs to
store them in a local church facility, but that theAzerbaijani authorities still
refuse to allow the books to be distributed.

Also recently blocked at the customs were fifty video cassettes with cartoon
Bible stories dubbed into Azeri, confiscated from KONUL BAYRAM, a
member of the Greater Grace Church, when she arrived home from Finland at
the end of February. Her brother, MUSHFIG BAYRAM, pastor of the Greater
Grace church in the town of Lokbaton near Baku, told Keston on 31 March that
the head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs went to the airport
after the cassettes were seized at Baku's Bina airport. `Such confiscations
happen a lot,' he said. `We had to send a letter to the prime minister. The
customs officers also mocked my sister for being a Christian.' The cassettes
have not yet been returned.

Baptists also have encountered problems importing literature, even in small
quantities. The head of the Baptist Church in Azerbaijan, ILYA
ZENCHENKO, told Keston on 29 March that the most recent confiscation was
of 60 kilograms of books in the possession of Baptist IRINA MALOFEEVA,
who was returning home from St Petersburg. As Zenchenko wrote in a letter to
MUSTAFA IBRAHIMOV, the temporary acting chairman of the State
Administration for Religious Affairs, `This literature contains pre-prepared
lessons for Sunday School teachers, which will be sent out to each local church
of our brotherhood on the territory of Azerbaijan, in Sumgait, Ganja,
Neftechala and elsewhere'. He argued that such literature would facilitate the
`moral education' of young church members, `future worthy citizens of
Azerbaijan'. The books have yet to be returned.

Christian leaders told Keston that Ibrahimov insists that he must give prior
approval in writing for each publication and even for the specific quantities that
religious bodies intend to publish or import. They said he refuses - despite the
lack of any such provision in published laws - to let religious organisations
import or print literature in larger quantities than needed to meet the
requirements of the members they already have.According to one pastor,
JEYHUN FARHADOV of the Pentecostal congregation 'Living Stone', `When
you ask for such and such a quantity of literature, they say: �Why do you need
so much?� They are doing all they can to prevent evangelisation.'

Pastor Farhadov also told Keston that as of 30 March his church was still
waiting for a response from the State Administration to its application for
official registration, which had been filed more than a month earlier. Formally
the authorities are required to respond to such applications within ten days.

However, some religious groups report that they have not encountered
problems with importing literature. AZER DJAFAROV, a member of the
Bahai community in Baku, told Keston on 28 March that `we inform Ibrahimov
about what we are importing from Russia and what we are printing here - all in
small quantities - and there has never been a problem.' Likewise MOSHE
BEKKER, the head of the European (Ashkenazi) Jewish community, reported
to Keston on 2 April that they could publish religious books and calendars
without problem, and also import literature from Israel.

A similar view was expressed by SEMYON IKHIIDOV, chairman of the
administration of the religious organisation of Mountain Jews. (The Mountain
Jews, whospeak a dialect of Persian, are one of the oldest religious subcultures
of the Caucasus.) Ikhiidov told Keston on 31 March that publishing books in
Azerbaijan was `expensive and difficult', but that minor problems he had
bringing literature through customs when returning to Azerbaijan were
resolved quickly. `I personally buy prayer books when I visit Moscow and
bring them back in my luggage. There are sometimes problems at customs, but
I explain what the books are and they understand and respect this.' Ikhiidov
told Keston that permission was needed from the State Administration for
Religious Affairs only for `serious literature'. He recounted that sometimes
foreigners were held at customs on entry to the country bringing in religious
literature. `I am brought in as an expert and either explain to the customs or to
Ibrahimov what the literature is. Occasionally there are cases involving 20, 50
or 100 copies of a book, though not often. There was a case at the end of 1999
when a foreigner brought in books for the Jewish community in Kuba.
Ibrahimov told me simply to write that they were for the Kuba community and
there was no problem. Ibrahimov also wrote to say they were OK for use in the
Kuba community. The customs authority at Baku airport don't have specialists
who read Hebrew, so how do they know that an item is not a forbidden book?'
Keston asked what type of books were forbidden. `None,' Ikhiidov replied.

DIMITRI BABAYEV, pastor of Baku's Adventist congregation, likewise told
Keston on 31 March of difficulties importing books, which are sent to his flock
from the Adventist centre in the Russian town of Zaokski. `It has become
difficult to import literature, but we can do it. Periodicals are all right, but
books are more difficult.'

The religious groups that appear to have the most serious problems acquiring
religious literature are so-called 'fundamentalist' Muslim groups and Protestant
Christians, especially those serving ethnic Azeris. Keston was told that a small
booklet `Christianity in Azerbaijan', produced in both Azeri and Russian in the
mid-1990s and published under a pseudonym without state permission, had
particularly aroused the ire of the authorities. Officers of the National Security
Ministry are reported to have objected strongly to its distribution and to have
warned its suspected publishers of possible negative consequences. Because the
booklet argued that Christianity had a long history in the region and was the
national faith of the Azeris before the adoption of Islam, some believe that it
would have been regarded by state officials as an attempt to persuade Azeris to
convert to Christianity and would therefore not have received permission.

The import of copies of the Christian Scriptures in Azeri has also been
obstructed, although Keston observed that it is possible to buy such copies with
relatively little difficulty in ordinary bookshops in the centre of Baku.

Some members of religious communities admitted privately to evading
government controls, arguing that such restrictions were unwarranted given
Azerbaijan's commitments in international human rights agreements to freedom
of speech and freedom of religion.

Adventist pastor Babayev argues that the government should end its controls.
`If the state recognises that religious organisations are not dangerous for
society by registering them, there should not be any restrictions. Why should
anyone need to decide how much I would like to import?' (END)
Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.