KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 2 January 2001

AZERBAIJAN: LUTHERAN PASTOR�S CHRISTMAS GAGGING
OVERRIDDEN

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

An attempt by the government�s Administration for Religious Affairs
to prevent visiting German Lutheran pastor Reinhard von Loewenich
from conducting Christmas services at the invitation of Baku�s
Lutheran congregation failed after the Administration was
overridden by Azerbaijan�s Foreign Ministry. The Administration�s
acting chairman claimed that Pastor von Loewenich�s activity would
violate the country�s ban on �religious propaganda� by foreigners,
despite the fact that the pastor was due only to conduct services in the
Lutheran church for those who had chosen to attend.

Although both Lutheran and diplomatic sources in Baku have
confirmed the attempted gagging to Keston News Service,
administration acting chairman Mustafa Ibrahimov initially denied
the events. �I didn�t see the pastor, didn�t speak to him and had no
contact with him,� he told Keston by telephone from Baku on 2
January. Sounding angry, he refused to discuss the events further,
confining himself to spelling out the ban on �religious propaganda�
by foreigners. �There is Azerbaijani law and the Azerbaijani
constitution. All foreign citizens have to abide by it. We banned no-
one,� he declared, before putting the phone down.

Dilara Ahmedova of the Lutheran congregation told Keston from
Baku on 26 December that the congregation�s chairwoman Natalya
Gaidarova telephoned Ibrahimov on 22 December about another
matter and it was then that Ibrahimov had issued his ban on the
visiting pastor leading services or preaching, telling her that under
Azerbaijani law religious �propaganda� by foreigners is forbidden.
�At first Gaidarova paid no attention to this and decided to ignore the
ban,� Ahmedova told Keston. �But then Vagif Salamov [one of
Ibrahimov�s aides] phoned her and confirmed it, telling her that he
had received an instruction to check up that it had been followed.�

Gaidarova immediately phoned Pastor von Loewenich who phoned
the deputy chief of mission at the German Embassy in Baku, Martin
Langer, who in turn contacted the Foreign Ministry. The ministry
assured Langer that there had been a misunderstanding and that
everything would be sorted out. Following the ministry�s
intervention, von Loewenich was able to lead services in the city�s
Lutheran church, known as the Kirche, on Sunday 24 December
(Christmas Eve) and on Christmas Day. Salamov attended one of the
services, where he was obliged to apologise to Langer on behalf of Ibrahimov.

Ever since the expulsion of the congregation�s German pastor
Guenther Oborski in late 1999, the Lutherans have been without a
resident clergyman, depending on visiting pastors when available.
Von Loewenich, who has served in Baku on brief visits before, was
invited specially to Baku for two weeks over Christmas to hold
services.

The congregation has been repeatedly denied registration by the
authorities, despite the fact that it completed all the legal formalities
and presented its documentation to the Administration for Religious
Affairs in May 2000, which passed it to the Justice Ministry in July
2000 (see KNS 28 November 2000). Fazil Mamedov, who heads the
department for registration of religious and social organisations at
the Justice Ministry, told Keston from Baku on 2 January that the
application the congregation submitted by the congregation last year
has been �rejected�, adding that the congregation must now begin the
process all over again. �We have already given them our response to
their application, calling on them to hold a constituent meeting and
draw up the documentation.� Mamedov rejected declarations by the
Tbilisi-based Lutheran bishop Gert Hummel that the Lutheran
Church of the CIS (ELKRAS) has backed the congregation�s
application. �Hummel may be satisfied with the application but we
have not had a letter from the Bishops� Council from St Petersburg.�
Mamedov repeatedly referred to the split in the congregation as a
reason for refusing the application.

A rival, government-supported Lutheran congregation, led by
Tamara Gumbatova, was registered last year. It does not have a
pastor and reportedly did not hold Christmas services. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.