KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 12 December 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

KESTON NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT

AZERBAIJAN: RELIGIOUS GROUPS CAUTIOUS OVER RE-
REGISTRATION PROMISES. It is too early to say whether Azerbaijan�s
new registration system for religious organisations will put an end to
officials� power to obstruct the registration of communities they dislike,
members of a variety of religious communities have told Keston News
Service. All religious organisations registered in Azerbaijan must apply
for compulsory re-registration by 31 December this year. Speaking to
Keston on 11 December, the government's senior religious affairs official,
Rafik Aliev, pledged that obstruction of registration will end, as �the
registration system has fundamentally changed�, but some sources in the
Azerbaijani capital Baku remain suspicious about his claims. "He often
appears to be open and liberal in public while his actions don't always
match his words," one source told Keston.

AZERBAIJAN: RELIGIOUS GROUPS CAUTIOUS OVER RE-
REGISTRATION PROMISES

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Less than three weeks before the expiry of the deadline for all religious
organisations registered in Azerbaijan to apply for compulsory re-
registration, the government's senior religious affairs official has pledged
that the obstruction of registration, seen under the old system, will end.
"The registration system has fundamentally changed," Rafik Aliev, who
took over in June as head of the new State Committee for Relations with
Religious Organisations told Keston News Service by telephone from the
Azerbaijani capital Baku on 11 December. "If registration applications are
in accordance with the law there will be no problem gaining re-
registration." Some sources in Baku remained suspicious about Aliev's
claims. "He often appears to be open and liberal in public while his
actions don't always match his words," one source who has had dealings
with his office told Keston, in a comment echoed by others.

Religious organisations of a variety of faiths complained to Keston of
arbitrary obstruction even in lodging registration applications under the
old system, when registration required approval from the local authorities,
the government's former Directorate for Religious Affairs (which has
been subsumed into the new department) and the Justice Ministry.
However, even under the new system the registration procedure has been
described by one observer as "onerous". To found a religious
organisation, ten individuals have to go to a notary with a letter from their
place of work and their passport to prove that they are Azerbaijani
citizens and have their signatures notarised. One religious figure pointed
out that the new regulations give the state committee power to decide
whether a new religious community is "justified", something that the
figure feared could lead to arbitrary denials of registration.

Some religious leaders have welcomed some elements of the new system.
"Religious groups no longer need approval from the local authorities,"
Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, which has six registered
congregations, told Keston from Baku on 12 December. "That is a
positive step."

The compulsory re-registration - the third since Azerbaijan gained
independence in 1991 - was instituted in August in the wake of the
decree, signed by Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev on 21 June, which
set up the State Committee. Rafik Aliev is reported to have told visitors
that "religious organisations must be controlled" and that "religion is
dangerous". He reportedly added that "Islamic fundamentalism"
represents the "primary danger". Speaking to Keston, Aliev would say
only that re-registration was needed to "bring order" to the registration,
claiming that there had been many "errors" in the previous rounds of
registration.

Aliev told Keston that his committee - which reportedly employs up to
sixty people compared to four in the old directorate - would take three
months from 31 December to consider the re-registration applications. He
reported that "almost all" the 406 religious organisations that have
registration - he estimates the total number of registered and unregistered
religious groups in the country at 2,000 - have already lodged their re-
registration applications. "Several applications had to be sent back to be
corrected," he declared, but declined to tell Keston how many they were,
to which faiths these communities belonged or why the applications were
inadequate. (Other sources claim no more than 50 religious organisations
- most of them Christian - have applied for re-registration.)

Members of a variety of religious communities, among them Zenchenko
of the Baptists, have told Keston that they are adopting a "wait and see"
approach to the new registration system, saying it is too early to say
whether officials will continue to obstruct the registration of communities
they dislike.

Christian Presber, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses in the
Caucasus, told Keston from the Georgian capital Tbilisi on 12 December
that they too are waiting to see how the process works. "We haven't heard
from the state committee in any form that the Jehovah's Witnesses will
not be re-registered," he declared. "They told us that re-registration is a
formality." However, he expressed concern about a "somewhat slanted"
article in the inaugural issue of the committee's bulletin
(September/October issue) about the Jehovah's Witnesses. "This, together
with hints in the press, that we might not be re-registered disturbs us. We
fear that if we are not re-registered, our thousand members in Azerbaijan
might face a renewal of the harassment they experienced before the
community gained registration two years ago."

In two key cases where communities have been obstructed from even
lodging registration applications, those of the Baptist church in the town
of Aliabad (which has been applying for registration in vain for five
years) and the larger of the two Lutheran congregations in Baku (the
congregation affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia
and the Other States, ELKRAS) - Aliev offered some hope. "The Aliabad
church has not applied yet for registration, but it can do so at any time,"
he pledged. "The Lutheran congregation's documents are here. If they
abide by the law there will be no problem. There can be two registered
congregations." Mustafa Ibrahimov, head of the former Directorate for
Religious Affairs who is now an acting deputy chairman of the new State
Committee, had always aintained to Keston that the two congregations
could not coexist, a view shared by Fazil Mamedov, head of the
registration department at the Justice Ministry, who used to be in charge
of registering religious organisations. Aliev said there was no need for the
two congregations to resolve their dispute as to which is the authentic
congregation in court. Aliev went further than that, though, pledging that
both groups would be allowed to invite pastors from abroad to serve the
communities. "Lutherans need a pastor to be able to hold services," he
declared. "Our committee will resolve this problem."

Dilara Ahmedova, a member of the council of the ELKRAS parish, told
Keston from Baku on 12 December that the parish had lodged its
registration application with the committee at the beginning of December
and that it had been accepted. Like many, Ahmedova withheld judgment
on whether the new registration system will remove the obstruction
placed by officials in the way of her congregation's registration. "They
will respond within three months. We will wait and see what happens."

Aliev sidestepped questions about the Adventist relief organisation
ADRA, which has been criticised by the National Security minister
Namiq Abbasov for allegedly conducting "religious propaganda" while
being registered as a charitable organisation (charges ADRA vigorously
denies) and officially warned by the justice ministry. "We have no
complaint against them," Aliev told Keston. "Charitable groups conduct
charitable activity and religious groups undertake religious work."

Asked about the failure of the state authorities to return places of worship
confiscated during the Soviet period (such as a Baptist church, the
Lutheran church and an Ashkenazi synagogue in Baku) and whether his
committee would help such communities regain their property, Aliev
declared: "There is no law on the return of property. When there is, such
questions will be decided." He said the issue was not one for his
committee. "Religious communities should apply to the Ministry of
Culture. My office has no role."

Aliev denied that his former role as head of the Islamic research centre
Irshad would have any impact on the way he would function as head of
the State Committee. "I'm a Muslim, a doctor and a professor," he told
Keston. "I was the founder of Irshad, but I resigned and severed all
connections with it on 21 June." He said Irshad conducted conferences
and symposia on religion, culture and civilisation, published books and
also ran a small hotel, not only for those taking part in Irshad events but
"for anyone". (END)

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