AZERBAIJAN: "KGB methods" used to break up Sunday school
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.
The raid came as the Sunday school was almost ending. Pastor Tariverdi said the only children present in a club near the church were the children of church members. "Actually the parents asked us to take care of their children while they sit in the church service," he reported. "We even had written permission from each parent."
He said Mukhtarov had ordered the local police to make sure that the director of the club where the Sunday school is held "never lets us back in again". Pastor Tariverdi quoted Mukhtarov as saying that the church and its members are bad and "should be out of his area".
But Mukhtarov insists all he did was to call the Sunday school leaders to act in accordance with the law. "There was nothing bad, but this must be done with the permission of the Committee for Work with Religious Organisations," he told Forum 18. "They must list all the parameters of what they are doing, all the subjects they are teaching." He brushed aside as irrelevant church claims that all the parents had given written permission for their children to be present.
Mukhtarov then complained that the club where the Sunday school was held "is not designated for such use". But he denied that he had banned the Sunday school from meeting again and insisted he was not "against the church".
Pastor Tariverdi told Forum 18 that the church can no longer use the club, as the director is now too afraid to lend it. "We met him on Tuesday. He's been told if he lets us in he'll be imprisoned." The church does not know where it will take the fifty or so children for the Sunday school from now on.
Pastor Tariverdi claimed Mukhtarov has been "persecuting our church for years". "He always sends people to invite our leadership to talk to him and tries to prove to us that we are wrong, bad, illegal and tries to intimidate us, using Soviet/KGB ways and mentality," Pastor Tariverdi maintained. He said Mukhtarov had even turned up at the church one Sunday – a day when he was not working - and summoned the elders. "The elders have been summoned four times since January – each time without anything in writing."
Pastor Tariverdi believes Mukhtarov hates his church and is abusing his position to push his own private views. "He violates the Constitution of Azerbaijan and human rights, using his power and putting his personal dislikes ahead of Azeri law and government policy."
Azerbaijani officials at all levels have obstructed the work of many minority religious communities, especially Protestant churches which have many ethnic Azeris as members (see F18News 25 June 2003).
The Greater Grace church was registered with the Justice Ministry in 1993. It has been seeking re-registration with the Committee for Work with Religious Organisations for the past two years. "Hopefully we're now at the last stage of this re-registration process," Pastor Tariverdi declared.
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.