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22 September 2011

Azerbaijan: Religious Liberty

Azerbaijan: Religious Liberty

Christian communities and other religious groups are still struggling to meet and worship in Azerbaijan, despite the country's human rights commitments. After a police raid during the summer, Pavel Byakov, leader of a Baptist church, was given a verbal warning not to meet for worship again without state permission, reports Forum 18. When Mr Byakov asked to see a warrant, the official told him: "I'm the permission and the warrant."   

During the raid, thousands of books were confiscated from the church and handed to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, who will decide if they are legal. In Azerbaijan religious literature is always subject to censorship by the State Committee and shops selling the literature require a licence, or run the risk of raids from police and officials from the State Committee. On the same day, raids took place on a Jehovah's Witness meeting and three of their members were fined for worshipping illegally. One man was fined the equivalent of almost 18 months' wages. The men taken to the local police station were subjected to questioning for almost 10 hours. Sadly, these raids are only the latest in a series on religious communities.  

Azerbaijan citizens are subject to harsh religion laws, which were amended for a 13th time in June 2011. Against Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments, these laws make unregistered religious activity illegal. One amendment in 2009 required all religious communities to re-register with the state for a third time. Many faith communities including almost all protestant communities and Jehovah's Witnesses have been waiting since then to gain legal status, in what's described as a "tortuous process". The process typically requires 15 separate documents from both the founders of religious communities and the communities themselves. Communities which fail to gain re-registration remain in danger of official threats, police raids and fines. One representative from a religious community told Forum 18 that "our rights to practise our faith are guaranteed in Azerbaijan's Constitution, but the State Committee acts against this".  

By July this year, only 543 communities throughout the country had been given legal status, of which 524 are Muslim. Of the 19 other faith communities, only one was Catholic and another Protestant. Open Doors reports that Christians in Azerbaijan are thought of as traitors, as Christianity is seen as the religion of Azerbaijan's rival nation Armenia. Despite the harsh conditions and laws that Christians are living through, and the difficulties associated with setting up a church, the number of Christians in Azerbaijan actually continues to rise, due to the amount of Christians who continue to do outreach work in their neighbourhoods. Open Doors encourages people to continue to pray for these Christians facing these religion laws and pray for the provision of Bibles to get through the strict state control.