Issue 4, Articles 9-11, 12 April 2000

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





by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

As Azerbaijan's Baptist community prepares to apply for registration of a
central organisation - a Baptist Union - state officials openly rubbish the idea
that the Baptists ought to have or need such a body. Another Protestant church
based in Baku - Greater Grace - is likewise drawing up the documents to re-
register as a religious headquarters.

At present only the Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox diocese of Baku
and the Caspian have such registration. The Orthodox bishop ALEKSANDR
told Keston News Service at an interview in his office on 29 March that his
diocese - which received official registration just days earlier - has just five
registered parishes in Azerbaijan (though it also includes parishes in Daghestan
and Chechnya).

The head of the Baptist community in Azerbaijan, ILYA ZENCHENKO, told
Keston in an interview on 29 March that the church plans to apply to register a
Union as soon as three outstanding registration applications (for churches in
Sumgait, Aliabad and Neftchala) are granted. So far only two Baptist
congregations are registered - the Russian-language congregation in Baku,
which has long had registration, and the separate Azerbaijani-language Love
congregation, which currently shares the Baptists' one Baku church. The Love
congregation, whose pastors SARY MIRZOYEV and his assistant YAHYA
MAMEDOV were imprisoned for fifteen days last September after a police
raid on the church (see KNS 1 October 1999), received registration in March at
the same time as the Russian Orthodox diocese. The church in Aliabad in north
western Azerbaijan near the border with Georgia has been awaiting registration
in vain for five years (see separate KNS story). Mirzoyev and Mamedov, in an
interview with Keston in the church on 30 March, fully endorsed Zenchenko's
plans to register a Baptist Union.

Despite the determination of Zenchenko and his colleagues to register a Union,
government officials involved in religious affairs are implacably opposed to the
idea. In a wide-ranging interview in his office at the Justice Ministry on 29
March, FAZIL MAMEDOV, the head of the department of the ministry that
registers religious organisations, declined to discuss a possible application for
registration from the Baptist Union. `Religious organisations are registered
under their historical centre,' he insisted, implying that Azerbaijan's Baptists
were still subject to the Baptist Union in Moscow, as during the Soviet period.
When pressed by Keston whether his ministry would register a Baptist Union if
the local Baptists applied, he responded angrily: `Are you from an intelligence
service? I don't like the sense of your questions.' He stressed that the
registration of central reigious bodies takes place under the same principles as
the registration of individual religious organisations, but confirmed that only
the Muslims and the Russian Orthodox currently have such registered central
organisations. After an initial interview with Keston on 27 March, during
which he was reluctant to discuss the present situation in detail, MUSTAFA
IBRAHIMOV, the temporary acting chairman of the government's
Administration for Religious Affairs, began a month-long holiday. Keston was
therefore unable to seek his opinion on the registration of non-Muslim and non-
Orthodox central religious organisations.

The next test of Azerbaijan's willingness to register such central organisations
will come when the Greater Grace Church seeks to re-register its Baku church
as a central organisation. The church has been registered since 1993, Pastor
FUAD TARIVERDI told Keston on 31 March, and now that it has a number of
daughter congregations it plans to upgrade its status. `We want to re-register as
a centre and are currently collecting all the documents for a new statute. Then
we will go to the Administration for Religious Affairs to apply.' In a separate
interview on 30 March, Pastor MATTI SIRVIO, the previous pastor who is
now leaving to head the church in the Uzbek town of Samarkand, echoed this
intention. `Greater Grace has churches in Baku, Lokbaton, Sumgait, Ismaili and
five other places. None of them outside Baku currently have registration. We
want to register all of them as our churches, which will be possible when we
are re-registered as a religious centre. We want Baku to be the headquarters,
though we are not a dnominational structure.' He stressed that all the
congregations are indigenous and that while four are still led from Baku, the
rest are autonomous.

It is possible that the Word of Life church (also known as Cathedral of Praise) -
another Protestant denomination that works on a cell principle - might also
seek to register a religious headquarters, but Pastor RASIM declined to be
interviewed by Keston, referring all enquiries to Pastor MATS-JAN
SOEDERBERG. He in turn declined to be interviewed, referring Keston
instead to the Church's headquarters in Sweden.

Under the 1996 amendments to Azerbaijan's law on religion, only religious
centres may establish religious teaching establishments, and even they are
restricted to one such establishment each. Despite this, the Greater Grace
Church runs the large and active Baku Bible Institute and the Baptists also
conduct some teaching.

Although the law does not appear to specify any requirements to have a
minimum number of congregations before applying to establish a religious
centre, the Baptists believe that they cannot do so until they have at least three
or four registered churches. Even so, the Baptist and Greater Grace applications
to register central bodies will provide a test of how ready the Azerbaijani
authorities are to grant true equality to all religious groups in the country, as
prescribed in the law on religion. (END)


by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

The Baptist church has encountered the most resistance in trying to regain their
old church on Azadlyq street in central Baku, which was dedicated in 1911,
was confiscated in 1930 and now houses a barely-functioning cinema named
Safag. When Keston News Service visited the building on 30 March, an
attendant in the videogames room just inside the doorway readily admitted that
the Baptists had built the church and indicated that the director of the company
that runs the cinema would be delighted to accept offers to rent the building,
implying that the cinema business is currently in financial difficulty. However,
in discussions with the Baptist community, officials have openly denied that
the building had ever belonged to the Baptist church. The local Baptist
community then went to some trouble to acquire copies of documents from the
Azerbaijan State Archive attesting that it was built by the community and
belonged to it until its confiscation by the Soviet regime. Keston has seen
copies of these documents and has received copies of a letter from the archive
administration dated 16 September 1996 with an appendix dated 2 September
1996 confirming that documents in the possession of the archive attest to the
Baptists� ownership of the building.

Interviewed in his office at the Justice Ministry on 29 March, FAZIL
MAMEDOV, the head of the department of the ministry that registers religious
organisations, told Keston categorically that �the Baptist church cannot be
given back as it wasn�t theirs�. He declared that as the Baptists had been
persecuted under the Tsarist regime they could not possibly have built the
church, but declined to say who he believed had built the church. When Keston
showed him a copy of the letter from the archives confirming that the Baptists
had indeed built it, Mamedov looked taken aback. �Maybe,� he admitted. �I am
not informed.� However, he continued to insist that the building should not be
handed back and added: �We have laws that the property of the Ministry of
Culture cannot be taken away. But it is not a theme for me. A higher organ, the
government, should decide. It is my personal view that you cannot put history
back.� Likewise MUSTAFA IBRAHIMOV, temporary acting chairman of the
government�s administration for religious affairs, opposed the return of the
church to the Baptists. �They already have a church in Baku. The land was
given to them when they were registered and they built a church.� He also
questioned which of the various Baptist organisations might have a greater
claim to the building than others. But he stressed that his office �has nothing to
do with this matter�, which he said lay in the hands of �state organisations�
which he declined to specify.

Despite these obstructive attitudes among state officials, Baptists Keston spoke
to in Baku seem united in their desire to see the church returned to the
community. Pastor SARY MIRZOYEV, who leads the newly-registered Love
Baptist Church, told Keston in an interview at the newer Baptist church on 30
March that justice demanded its return. �Firstly, the Baptists built it. Secondly,
it was built on God�s money. It is in the centre of town and we would like to
hold services there.�

ILYA ZENCHENKO, the leader of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan and pastor
of the Russian-language Baptist church in Baku, was equally adamant. He told
Keston on 29 March that they have written regularly over the past few years to
the president and to the Ministry of Culture in their attempts to regain the
church, but in vain. Zenchenko stresses that the community would like back its
former church mainly because the current church is not big enough to
accommodate all those wanting to come to services (the church is shared by the
Russian-speaking and the Azerbaijani-speaking congregations) and that the
location is awkward. �Seventy percent of our congregations are made up of old
people, who find it difficult to manage the 20 minutes� walk from the nearest
metro station. They would find it easier to reach a church in the centre of the
city.� As the third reason Zenchenko cites the poor state of the church building
on Azadlyq street and the fact that the cinema is barely functioning. Only in
last place does he put the argument that �our ancestors built it and it is therefore
our property�. Zenchenko is eager to affirm that the Baptists will renovate the
building and return it to its former glory. �It needs a lot of work as it is not in a
good state. The earlier we receive it back the earlier we can start work on it�.


by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Of Baku�s three surviving places of worship which have still not been returned
to their respective religious communities, the former synagogue, which now
houses a song theatre, remains perhaps the closest to being returned. The
synagogue - located in central Baku - belonged to the European or Ashkenazi
Jewish community, one of the three Jewish communities in the country (the
others are the Mountain Jews and the Georgian Jews, and each retain their
separate synagogues in Baku today).

In an interview on 2 April, MOSHE BEKKER, the head of the religious
community of European Jews, told Keston News Service that �in principle� the
government has said the former synagogue will be returned to the community,
but stressed that the final decision will have to be taken by Azerbaijani
President HEIDAR ALIYEV. �I gave the Baku city authorities a large number
of documents at the beginning of January about what belonged to us,� Bekker
declared. �Their representative has not yet met with us, but in principle they are
not against the return of the synagogue.� Bekker mentioned that a German
company had plans to redevelop the area for administrative and domestic
premises, which would include the restoration of the theatre to its original
purpose. �It is a question of money,� he claimed.

However, in an interview in his office in the basement of the theatre on 31
March, the theatre director NIYAZI ASLANOV declared that no decision on
the return of the building to the Jewish community had yet been taken. �I have
seen no official document on the transfer of the building, nothing has been
published in the press and I am not aware of the existence of such a document,�
he declared categorically. �It is all at the level of rumour. If the government
adopts a decision for us to vacate the building we are of course obliged to abide
by it. But they have to provide us with alternative accommodation - they can�t
just put us out in the street.� Aslanov confirmed that the building had originally
housed the synagogue, and reported that it had been remodelled as a theatre in
1988. He said it now belonged to the Ministry of Culture. After initially
bristling at Keston�s questions about the return of the building, Aslanov later
stressed that he considered it would be �praiseworthy� for the building to be
handed back, but insisted that if this were to happen alternative accommodation
for the theatre would have to be provided first, adding that the jobs of the
eighty members of his staff would otherwise be at risk.

SEMYON IKHIIDOV, the chairman of the administration of the religious
organisation of Mountain Jews, told Keston in an interview in his office above
the Mountain Jews� synagogue on 31 March that he believed it was highly
unlikely that the government would hand back the European synagogue. �No
law on restitution has yet reached the Azerbaijani parliament. Why not?
Because the authorities know that if such a law were adopted, all of old Baku
would belong to someone else. The government will never offer the synagogue
back. They spent a lot of money on restoring the building.� However, Ikhiidov
believed the synagogue and the former Jewish school in the adjacent, three-
storey building should be returned. (END)