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Azerbaijan: New Religion Policy May Target Iran, Arab Gulf States

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

In an apparent effort to protect his country from unwanted foreign influences, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has ordered that all religious communities operating in the country be re-registered within the next few months. Authorities say the new license requirement will apply to all religious groups regardless of their faith, but the move is seen by some as being aimed at organizations that have links with Arab Gulf countries and Iran, whose relations with Azerbaijan have grown especially tense. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:

Prague, 23 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 20 August, Azerbaijani authorities announced that they had arrested six residents of the southern Jalilabad district on charges of spying for neighboring Iran.

Such incidents usually pass unnoticed. Arrests and expulsions of alleged Iranian spies have been common practice in Azerbaijan since the former Soviet republic regained independence in 1991. Iran and Azerbaijan are at odds over a number of issues and often accuse each other of conducting intelligence activities on their respective territories.

But the latest arrests occurred less than a month after Baku accused an Iranian warship of violating its Caspian Sea territorial waters, triggering an unprecedented diplomatic dispute with Tehran.

The arrests also took place a few weeks after Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev -- who is scheduled to visit Iran next month -- ordered a series of measures apparently aimed at protecting his country from the influence -- real or alleged -- of foreign religious groups.

Two months ago, Aliyev decreed the creation of a new government structure to monitor all organizations involved in religious activities in Azerbaijan.

Known as the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations, this new body will supercede the Religious Department in the government. It has been notably charged with supervising the renewal of licenses for religious groups operating in the country.

Initial registration procedures will start next month, and the whole process should be completed within six to seven months.

Rafiq Aliyev (no relation) is the chairman of the new state committee. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said all religious groups, regardless of their faith, will have to renew their registrations or apply for a license:

"Our committee has been set up not to struggle against a particular country, or to combat the influence of a particular country, in Azerbaijan. The [new requirement] will apply to all Azerbaijani and foreign citizens who have religious interests in Azerbaijan. It is not aimed at any particular country."

More than 90 percent of the country's almost 8 million people are nominal Muslims. In addition, the government says between 2,000 and 5,000 Azerbaijanis have converted to Christianity during the past 10 years.

Committee Chairman Aliyev said the purpose of the registration requirement is to establish "normal relations" between the state and the 1,500 or so registered and non-registered religious groups operating in the country. He also said that authorities will make sure that the activities of these groups do not contravene existing legislation and that religious organizations will enjoy all rights provided under the 1992 law on freedom of worship.

Despite the authorities' statements, it is generally believed that the new rules are primarily aimed at curbing the influence of Islamic groups connected with Iran or with Arab Gulf countries.

Earlier this month (10 August), the independent Turan news agency quoted Rafiq Aliyev as saying that up to 90 percent of religious organizations running medressahs (Islamic religious schools) were not registered with the state.

Aliyev reportedly warned that authorities will scrutinize all textbooks used and programs taught in medressahs. He also said that the volume of religious literature that registered groups will be authorized to import will be strictly proportional to the number of their adherents. The import of any extra books, he said, will be considered "religious propaganda," which is forbidden by Azerbaijan's legislation.

In comments made last week (18 August) at a meeting to discuss state education policy, the head of the presidential administration said some 1,400 mosques have been set up in Azerbaijan in recent years. Ramiz Mehdiev noted that there are almost two mosques in each village in the southeastern Masalli district next to the Iranian border.

In line with the new registration requirement, all mosques now will be submitted to the single authority of the Baku-based Spiritual Board of the Caucasus Muslims, a Soviet-era body run since 1979 by Azerbaijan's chief cleric, ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade.

Iran and Azerbaijan share the same predominant Shi'ia Muslim faith. Even before the southern Caucasus republic regained its independence in 1991, Iranian clerics started setting up mosques and medressahs -- mostly in unused buildings -- in Azerbaijan's southern districts and in some peripheral areas of the capital, Baku.

In his account of the early years of Azerbaijan's independence, American journalist Thomas Goltz recalls how in 1991 he attended the ceremonies of Ashura, the holy Shi'ia Muslim feast that commemorates the death of Imam Husein, the Prophet's Grandson, in the late 7th century. Goltz describes how, in a makeshift Baku mosque, dozens of young boys were beating their breasts with their fists -- in remembrance of Husein's sufferings -- under a portrait of Iran's late religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

When Heidar Aliyev -- a former Politburo member and Azerbaijan's Communist Party boss -- rose to power in 1993, he made no initial attempt to stem the influence of Iranian mullahs. On the contrary, he tried to improve relations with Tehran after the 12-month rule of his predecessor, the pro-Turkish, anti-Iranian President Abulfaz Elchibey.

In an effort to enhance his religious credentials, Aliyev even traveled to Mecca for the traditional hajj Muslim pilgrimage. But Aliev's conspicuous religious fervor progressively cooled off, particularly as relations with Iran further deteriorated and as Iran grew closer to Azerbaijan's regional rivals, Russia and Armenia.

Ali Abasov is the former director of the Philosophy, Sociology and Law Institute of Azerbaijan's National Academy. He tells RFE/RL that the country's leadership has progressively taken a tougher stance toward Muslim religious groups with foreign links:

"Before, the law on freedom of worship allowed all religious organizations to be headquartered abroad. But this provision has been modified and now only Judaic and Christian communities are allowed to do so. Muslim communities have been deprived of this right. Their spiritual center must be located here [in Azerbaijan] and placed under the authority of the Spiritual Board of [Caucasus] Muslims and its sheik [religious leader]."

President Aliev's struggle against Iran's religious influence culminated in 1996 when the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan was banned. Shortly after, security forces arrested nine party members on charges of attempting to overthrow the regime with the alleged help of Iran's intelligence.

Abasov says that if, on the surface, Iranian groups have reduced their religious activities, they nonetheless remain influential among the 800,000 or so war refugees scattered throughout the country:

"[These groups] have turned into charitable organizations. They are providing humanitarian help to refugee camps, where they are also running Arabic-language lessons, Koran study classes, and even computer classes. Since the legislation was amended, they have many fewer opportunities. They can no longer teach or propagate Islam. This is the reason why they are mostly involved in humanitarian aid activities."

For similar reasons, Abasov says, religious groups linked to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Oman, or even secular Turkey are now concentrating their efforts on social welfare to compensate for the shortcomings of the government.

Parallel to their struggle against Iran's religious influence, the Azerbaijani authorities have launched a campaign against so-called "Wahabbis," a generic term used in most former Soviet countries to designate alleged radical Islamic militants originating in the northern Caucasus republics of Chechnya and Dagestan.

Members of a fundamentalist group known as "Jeyshullah" -- an Arabic word that means "Warriors of Allah" -- were tried last year on charges of carrying out a series of terrorist acts in Azerbaijan between 1997 and 1999.

More recently, Azerbaijani authorities blamed alleged "Wahabbis" for armed attacks against Interior Ministry troops and police forces in the northern town of Zakataly. Local separatists were eventually held responsible for the attacks.

According to Rafiq Aliev, "Wahabbis" are particularly active in Baku and in Azerbaijan's northern areas bordering Dagestan.

Whether the influence of foreign clerics and preachers represents a real threat to Azerbaijan's secular statehood, President Aliyev seems determined to strengthen his control over religious affairs.

No sanctions are planned for those communities that fail to register with the state. But State Committee chairman Aliyev makes it clear that they will be considered illegal and prosecuted accordingly.