Concerns over freedom of conscience in Azerbaijan
Due to legislative changes and the ensuing bureaucratic obstacles, many religious communities in Azerbaijan failed to re-register, as required, before January 1, 2010. As a result, most of them have been banned from conducting any religious activities and face being stripped of their legal entity status, the Institute of Religious Freedom, Kyiv reports on the basis of information received from Baku.
According to IRF information, official refusals to renew registration in order to comply with the new version of the Law on Religion have been issued to the Nehemiah Church, the Cathedral of Praise Church in Baku as well as the Seventh Day Adventists, Baptist and Pentecostal Churches in Azerbaijan.
The new procedure of state registration of religious communities has become the biggest obstacle to religious freedom in Azerbaijan. Amendments to the Law make it overly cumbersome with far more requirements imposed on the founders. From now on a religious community must submit a certificate of the date when it was formed, information about religious education and its attitude to secular education.
A religious community is also prohibited from using as its official registration the personal address of a believer. Legislative changes have also limited a congregation’s activity to only the territory where it is officially registered.
However under Article 12 of the Law on Religion, religious communities may only conduct their activities at their legal address. Such a rule is often used by the State Committee of Azerbaijan on Relations with Religious Organizations to prohibit a church from using leased premises. This results in religious communities which do not have their own premises being legally unable to worship together.
A flagrant example of infringement of religious freedom in Azerbaijan due to this new law is the situation with the Cathedral of Praise Evangelical Church in Baku.
This religious community provided all the necessary documents for re-registration in time. However in May 2010 it received a copy of an official refusal adopted by the State Committee two months ago. Other Christian Protestant communities have also faced a similar situation.
The Cathedral of Praise Evangelical Church was the first to register protest, filing an appeal against the refusal of registration in the judiciary. However, representatives of the authorities referred to the formal inconsistency of information about the founders of the community with the data submitted during the initial registration in 2001. On 30 July the believers were staggered to find that their appeal had been rejected. In spite of the complete absence of the necessary documentary evidences the court supported the position of the authorities.
In early January 2010 the place where the Cathedral of Praise Church in Baku worshiped was completely destroyed by fire. Prior to this at the end of 2008, the Protestant community’s building, purchased by the believers, was confiscated. This happened without any compensation and as a result of a rather questionable trial in favour of the local oil refinery “Azerneftyag”.
The Cathedral of Praise Evangelical Church was founded in Baku in 1994 and currently has about 1000 members. According to official data the majority of Azerbaijan’s population are Shiite Muslims, or followers of other denominations of Islam.
In February 2010, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted the deteriorating situation in Azerbaijan during the past five years. These legislative changes, hastily adopted in Azerbaijan in May 2009, have caused particular concern.