22 October 2003
Prominent independent Muslim leaders Ilgar Ibragimoglu and Azer Ramizoglu have not been detained and are safe in hiding, one of their colleagues reported. Seymur Rashidov, spokesman for religious freedom group Devamm, told Forum 18 News Service that on 20 October Ibragimoglu, imam of the Juma mosque in Baku's old city, left the Norwegian embassy where he had sought refuge to avoid arrest after the police raided Friday prayers on 17 October. Rashidov complained of continuing media attacks on Ibragimoglu and his colleagues and the continued denial of registration for three Muslim and religious freedom organisations. "The authorities don't want anyone in the country to investigate religious freedom because there are so many violations." He said tens of thousands of Muslim women who had refused to be photographed without headscarves for their identity documents were denied the ability to vote in the 15 October presidential election.
20 October 2003
Amid the widespread violence in the wake of the 15 October presidential elections, police swooped on the Juma Mosque in the capital Baku during Friday prayers on 17 October and tried to arrest the imam Ilgar Ibragimoglu and one of his close colleagues Azer Ramizoglu. "They wanted to arrest me and radicalise the believers," Ibragimoglu told Forum 18 News Service from the Norwegian embassy in Baku, where he has taken refuge. He said he was "very worried" about Ramizoglu, who has not been seen since 17 October. "I don't know if he is in hiding or if he has been detained by the authorities." The two – both supporters of failed presidential candidate Isa Gambar - are leading members of religious freedom group Devamm, which has long been denied official registration, and the Islam-Ittihad society, whose registration was stripped from it by a Baku court in August. "Ibragimoglu will be a guest of the Royal Norwegian embassy until the matter is resolved," an embassy official told Forum 18.
29 September 2003
Fr Daniel Pravda, head of the small Catholic community in Azerbaijan, said he is shocked by the reported warning by the government's senior religious affairs official that he has been conducting "illegal religious propaganda", an offence under Azerbaijani law punishable by deportation. "I don't know what Rafik Aliev means by propaganda, but all I do is serve our Catholics," Fr Pravda told Forum 18 News Service. According to the local media, Aliev issued the warning to visiting Vatican foreign minister Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran on 24 September. Forum 18 was unable to reach Aliev to find out whether he had indeed warned Fr Pravda, if so why he had done so and why Azerbaijani law bans foreigners and people without citizenship from conducting "religious propaganda" in defiance of international human rights conventions.
4 September 2003
Local police chief Mukhtar Mukhtarov used "Soviet, KGB methods" in breaking up the Sunday school attached to Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church on 31 August, one of the church's pastors complained. "Mukhtarov said we do not have the right to teach kids and convert Azeri children," Pastor Fuad Tariverdi told Forum 18 News Service. But Mukhtarov rejected any criticism and blamed the church. "They're acting illegally," he told Forum 18. "There was nothing bad, but this must be done with the permission of the Committee for Work with Religious Organisations." The director of the club where the Sunday school met has told church leaders that he has been threatened that if he lets them in again he will be imprisoned.
23 July 2003
Police and local officials raided a Baptist Sunday service on 13 July in a private flat in Gyanja, interrupting the sermon and declaring the service "illegal". They confiscated all the religious literature they could find before singling out the two ethnic Azeris – Zaur Ismailov and Magomet Musayev – to be fined. "They're not criminals, so they have told the authorities they will not pay," Pastor Pavel Byakov, who leads a church in Sumgait, told Forum 18 News Service. "They didn't have registration so their service was illegal," Firdovsi Karimov, head of the local department of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, told Forum 18.
9 July 2003
Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration.
25 June 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service reports on government hostility to the idea of religious freedom, which appears to derive from officials' fear of social forces they cannot control and dislike of pluralism. The main victims are Muslims, whose faith is regarded as a potential challenge and whose communities face government interference and control, and minority faiths the government tries to restrict, including Evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Hare Krishna community. Many religious communities have been denied registration, while all religious literature is subject to compulsory prior censorship.
13 May 2003
Six months after lodging its application with the Ministry of Justice for registration as a non-governmental organisation, the Azerbaijani chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) seems no closer to gaining legal status. "We applied to the Ministry of Justice six months ago but as usual it provides us with no reply," secretary-general Ilgar Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 News Service. He said he and his colleagues intend to consult the head office of the IRLA in the United States and "will probably" challenge the denial of registration through the courts. The head of the registration department of the justice ministry said he "couldn't remember" the IRLA chapter's application. "We get many applications," Fazil Mamedov told Forum 18. At the same time, he insisted there is no ban on registering non-governmental organisations that campaign for religious freedom.
8 May 2003
More than a year after the compulsory re-registration drive was due to have been completed, the senior religious affairs official in Azerbaijan's autonomous republic of Nakhichevan has admitted to Forum 18 News Service that none of Nakhichevan's dozens of religious communities has been re-registered. "It is still a question whether re-registration should take place in Baku or in Nakhichevan," Idris Abbasov, head of the Nakhichevan branch of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, declared. "I don't know." He told Forum 18 that only Rafik Aliev, the chairman of the State Committee, knows the answer. However, no official of the State Committee in the capital Baku was prepared to talk to Forum 18. Although Abbasov denied that lack of re-registration prevented the dozens of religious communities in the autonomous republic from functioning freely, it leaves them in a legal black hole.
8 May 2003
Within days of the reopening of the Adventist church in Nakhichevan after a year when the community was banned from meeting, the local justice ministry informed the church it was seeking its liquidation through the courts. It claimed the community was wrong to have given its legal address as the church in Baku (of which it was a branch) when it registered in March 1996. One Adventist pastor told Forum 18 News Service he was reluctant to speculate on why the authorities are again seeking to prevent the church from functioning "as we don't want to offend the authorities". "But the justice ministry waited a full seven years before pointing out our mistake – and they're the people who registered our church." Idris Abbasov, head of the Nakhichevan branch of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, denied that the Adventists were being obstructed from worshipping. "No-one has informed me of any liquidation through the courts," he claimed to Forum 18. "They're engaged in prayers and services. No-one is stopping them from doing that."
28 March 2003
Twenty thousand copies of a Hare Krishna booklet imported into Azerbaijan in 1996 and held by customs ever since have been earmarked for destruction by the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations. "Maybe they have already been destroyed," the head of the Hare Krishna community Babek Allahverdiev told Forum 18 News Service. The order to destroy the books comes as Rafik Aliev, the chairman of the State Committee, flatly denied that there is censorship of religious literature in Azerbaijan. Allahverdiev rejected Rafik Aliev's claims that there is no censorship of religious literature as "untrue". Equally blunt was Baptist leader Ilya Zenchenko. "He's lying," he told Forum 18. "He says one thing but the facts tell another story."
19 March 2003
Anzor Katsiashvili, a Baptist in Belokani in north western Azerbaijan, was summoned by the local procurator on 13 and 14 March and warned not to hold religious meetings in his home. "He told me I don't have the right to preach as I'm not an Azerbaijani citizen," Katsiashvili told Forum 18 News Service. "At the same time I've been denied citizenship for the past few years because I preach. It's a vicious circle." However, Ilham Babayev, head of the local passport department, denied that his office had obstructed Katsiashvili's application for Azerbaijani citizenship and local registration. "As soon as he comes in we'll give it to him – tomorrow if necessary," he told Forum 18. Katsiashvili rejects the procurator's claim that he cannot gather fellow believers for religious meetings: "I believe I have the right to preach God's word in my own home."