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Azerbaijan: Clampdown On Religion Draws International Criticism

Four times in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet system, Azerbaijan has ordered the reregistration of religious organizations operating within its boundaries. Each time, Baku's restrictions on religion have grown tighter. This time, however, Azerbaijan is pushing through further restrictions despite being a signatory to the Council of Europe's charter, which pledges freedom of religion, among other human rights. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that the Council of Europe and other international organizations are examining Azerbaijan's religious clampdown with a critical eye.

Prague, 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tightening regulation of religious groups and practices in Azerbaijan is attracting critical attention from international agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Baku office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says the OSCE and the Council of Europe will be studying ways that Azerbaijan can bring its religious controls in line with the country's international commitments.

Felix Corley, a religious freedoms monitor, recently completed a two-week visit to Azerbaijan during which he found a widespread clampdown on religious activity.

Corley is editor of the Keston News Service, operated by the Keston Institute, a British NGO specializing in religious freedom issues in the formerly Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia. In an interview with RFE/RL, he says Azerbaijan has adopted a variety of methods for limiting religious freedoms for both its majority Muslims and its numerous small Christian groups:

"Azerbaijan has one of the heaviest systems of control over religious organizations in that part of the world."

Corley says the most intrusive of Baku's control mechanisms is its latest law requiring the reregistration of religious organizations -- the fourth registration regimen in a decade. He says each registration program has set progressively more stringent requirements.

Some Christian groups he talked to, among them Lutherans, applied repeatedly over five years and only now have been registered. Others, like Baptists, have been told they may register only one congregation, even though they are active across the country. Authorities have also refused entry visas to religious figures from various groups.

Even followers of Islam, in a country where 93 percent of the people are Muslim, are feeling the pinch:

"Many religious organizations are not going to get registration [at all]. Muslim organizations outside the framework of the state-sanctioned spiritual administration are by law not allowed to register. Which means any independent mosques -- or mosques that do not like the authority of the administration -- will not be allowed to get registration."

Corley says over the course of his two-week tour, no one could offer an explanation for Azerbaijan's increasingly burdensome religious regulation:

"But no one will actually say why this new system is necessary, why it was instituted, and why it is so difficult under the new system for religious groups to get reregistration."

But the impact of the regulation, he says, is unavoidable. Authorities are closing increasing numbers of mosques and churches and forbidding the religious activities of more and more groups:

"The state committee [overseeing religious activity] itself estimates that there are some 2,000 religious organizations functioning in the country -- 2,000 individual communities. Of those, only 406 had registration under the old system. And the latest figures I was told by the state committee were that 120 had got reregistration [so far in the latest registration program]. About 100 of them were Muslim, and 20 were non-Muslim."

Although Azerbaijani authorities declined to discuss on the record their reasons for tightening regulations, some observers say the government fears that religious leaders with foreign connections -- such as imams from Turkey and Iran and foreign Christian missionaries -- may have politically subversive or other motives for their activities.

Lutz Leichtfuss, democratization officer for the OSCE office in Baku, tells RFE/RL the OSCE is increasingly concerned by Azerbaijan's restrictions on religious liberty:

"While acknowledging that it is important to find ways to deal with terrorism -- including religiously-motivated violence -- and that Azerbaijan may have concerns about spreading fundamentalism financed from abroad, freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. And the ability to express one's religion and beliefs freely is a cornerstone of democratic society and a prerequisite for lasting stability in all participating [OSCE] states."

Leichtfuss says the OSCE and its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) plan to closely examine Azerbaijan's recent actions within the framework of its international relationships.

"The OSCE-ODIHR will therefore be examining the new requirements and looking at how they can be implemented in line with Azerbaijan's international commitments, including the newly assumed commitments contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the detailed commitments contained in the OSCE's Vienna Concluding Document of 1989."

He says other agencies will join in the examination. In addition to being an OSCE member since 1992, Azerbaijan last year (January 2001) joined the Council of Europe:

"We will have, for example, a visit from the Council of Europe next month and [this is] because Azerbaijan has signed now the charter of the Council of Europe and is under the [scrutiny] of the Council of Europe. This is one of the examples."

The Council's Parliamentary Assembly earlier this year passed a resolution urging authorities in Baku to release a number of prisoners it says are being held for political reasons. Holding political prisoners is forbidden in all Council of Europe member states.