AZERBAIJAN: 11 weeks with no Sunday liturgy
Amil Javadov, head of communications at Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in the capital Baku, told Forum 18 News Service he "can't say" why the only Georgian Orthodox priest cannot return to serve his community. The Azerbaijani State Border Service denied re-entry to the country to the only Georgian Orthodox priest (and bishop-designate), Georgian citizen Fr Demetre Tetruashvili, on 21 June. For the past 11 Sundays, the communities of its two state registered parishes in the northern Gakh Region have been unable to host the liturgy. "People go into the church and pray individually, but without a priest there is no liturgy, no service," a Georgian Orthodox Christian lamented to Forum 18. Officials had earlier denied permission for the community to invite a second priest, while a third parish was denied registration. The Church has been banned from re-opening all but two of its historic churches closed during the Soviet period.
Javadov of the State Committee insisted that Forum 18 should ask its question in writing as to why Fr Demetre cannot return to his place of service. Forum 18 put the question in writing the same day (as it had done on 29 June and 3 July). Like Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry (to which Forum 18 had put the same question on 29 June and 9 July), the State Committee had not responded to Forum 18 by the end of the working day in Baku on 8 September.
The telephones of Mehman Ismayilov, regional representative for the State Committee, went unanswered each time Forum 18 called on 7 and 8 September.
Fr Demetre (secular name Levan Tetruashvili) was based at St George's Church in Gakh and is the bishop-designate for the Georgian Church's Azerbaijan Diocese. He had served in Azerbaijan from 2011 until his sudden denial of re-entry in June 2015. He also served in the second and only other registered Georgian Orthodox parish of St Nino in the nearby village of Alibeyli (see F18News 13 July 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2080).
Meanwhile, two of the five Sunni Muslims arrested in February and later imprisoned for selling religious literature without state permission – Azad Qafarov and Salim Qasimov – have had their appeals rejected. The appeal of the third – Imam Mubariz Qarayev – is due to continue at Baku Appeal Court on 11 September. Qasimov was freed in August at the end of his six-month sentence (see F18News 9 September 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2098).
Three prisoners of conscience arrested for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief – two female Jehovah's Witnesses and one male Shia Muslim - remain in detention at the National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police Investigation Prison in Baku. Two of them – the Jehovah's Witnesses – have had their pre-trial detention extended for a further three months (see F18News 9 September 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2098).
Struggle for churches, priests
Azerbaijan's Georgian Orthodox community – most of whom live in Gakh Region - have struggled to be allowed to re-open places of worship forcibly closed in the Soviet period and provide clergy for them.
St George's Church in Gakh re-opened and gained state registration first. In 2010 the State Committee registered St Nino's Church in Alibeyli. In 2012, Fr Demetre discussed with the authorities a request for permission for a priest to be allowed to serve in Alibeyli. "They initially said yes, then after two hours' discussion said it was impossible," he told Forum 18 from the Georgian capital Tbilisi on 4 September.
Another parish – Holy Trinity Church in the village of Kotuklu – prepared a registration application, signed by 20 parishioners, Fr Demetre added. The application was handed to the State Committee. "For four years negotiations continued – they said this was wrong, that was wrong, this is missing, there weren't enough official founders. Ten times we corrected the documents. Then silence. They don't put anything in writing."
Amendments to the Religion Law, signed into law in July 2011, raised the required number of adult founders for a religious community from 10 to 50 (see F18News 14 December 2011 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1647).
Fr Demetre noted that the local authorities in Gakh Region had banned him from using Holy Trinity Church in Kotuklu for worship. "According to the law it is not forbidden, but they are their own law," he lamented to Forum 18.
St George's Church in Kurmukh is among other historic Georgian Orthodox churches kept forcibly closed since 2007 by the authorities, despite appeals from local people (see F18News 29 January 2009 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1246).
The State Committee website lists four Georgian Orthodox churches (St George's in Gakh, St Nino's in Alibeyli, Holy Trinity in Kotuklu and St Michael's in Meshabash), with a short history of each and photos, even though it is only prepared to register two of them, Forum 18 notes.
Many registration denials
The Georgian Orthodox parish in Kotuklu is among many religious communities of a variety of faiths which have been refused state registration or re-registration since 2009, when re-registration was imposed yet again after revisions to the Religion Law.
No Jehovah's Witness, Baptist or Seventh-day Adventist communities have been able to gain state registration. Only three Protestant communities have been allowed to register (Lutheran, New Life and Word of Life), while many others have had their applications rejected or ignored. Many Sunni Muslim mosques have suffered or been threatened with enforced closure (see Forum 18's Azerbaijan religious freedom survey http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2081).
The State Committee claims that 632 religious communities now have state registration out of an estimated 2,000 in the country (excluding the exclave of Nakhichevan [Naxçivan], which has its own system of harsh state control on religious communities). However, given incomplete data on the State Committee website it is impossible to verify these figures. The State Committee has not responded to Forum 18's request for a full list (see F18News 5 August 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2086).
Partial figures on the State Committee website indicate that 13 mosques gained registration in 2013, 38 mosques in 2014 and 35 mosques in 2015 so far. No non-Muslim communities are known to have gained state registration since May 2012. In summer 2015 the State Committee removed from its website the list of 21 non-Muslim communities which had state registration, so it remains unclear if even they still have legal status.
Struggle for diocese
The Georgian Orthodox Church Holy Synod ruled on 3 June 2014 to create a separate Diocese of Gakh and Kurmukh, splitting it from the Georgian-based Diocese of Hereti. The new Diocese incorporates the various parishes in Azerbaijan. The Synod named Fr Demetre as the bishop-designate, the Patriarchate website noted the following day. So far, he has not yet been consecrated bishop.
"The Azerbaijani government knew about this decision and knew we wanted proper juridical status," Fr Demetre told Forum 18. "The old leadership of the State Committee was prepared to give the Georgian Church proper status."
However, the Holy Synod decision came a month after Elshad Iskenderov had been sacked as Chair of the State Committee. He was replaced in July 2014 by ruling party functionary Mubariz Qurbanli. Fr Demetre notes that Qurbanli has been less sympathetic than Iskenderov to allowing Georgian Orthodox Christians to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. "We don't have freedom, human rights or religious freedom," he lamented to Forum 18.
In addition, the authorities have refused to allow commemorations at the grave of St Mikael Kuloshvili. The priest was killed in 1918 and is buried in the grounds of St George's Church in Gakh. The Georgian Orthodox Holy Synod pronounced him a saint in 2012 (see F18News 13 July 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2080).
On 15 July, the Russian-language news site Day.az published an attack on Fr Demetre, insisting that he had been told that foreign citizens are not allowed to conduct "missionary activity" in Azerbaijan. The article then cited allegations about the priest, claiming these had "become known", though without giving any source for its information. It claimed that because of them, "parishioners themselves had become dissatisfied with him".
The author of the article – "Araz Mamedli" – is not known to have contributed articles to Day.az or any other news website. The website's partner sites in Azeri and English do not appear to have carried the article.
Friends of Fr Demetre described the article to Forum 18 as "slander".
"Day.az would not publish anything unless they had received approval from above," one Baku-based commentator on the media told Forum 18.
Church for "offensive" videos, but not for worship
Georgian Orthodox Christians expressed outrage to Forum 18 on 4 September that a video was filmed in St George's Church in Kurmukh depicting individuals dressed as monks fighting and digging up buried treasure. The video was filmed by and used to promote private Azerbaijani television channel ATV. Church members pointed out that they do not have access to the church for worship, while it can be used for purposes they regard as "offensive".
The Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate protested about ATV's filming and use of the video. A 5 September statement on the Patriarchate website described it as a "complete violation of religious feeling" of thousands of believers and called for the Azerbaijani authorities to take "appropriate measures".
In a statement on its website on 7 September, ATV defended its filming of "promotional, creative imagery" in a place of worship. But, it added, "taking into account the concerns of the Georgian Patriarchate" it had halted further use of the video.
Strangely, the Caucasian Muslim Board announced on 7 September that its head, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade had visited St George's Church in Gakh and met Georgian Orthodox parishioners, according to the local media. It said he had "given help to the religious community", but did not say what this "help" consisted of. (END)
For more background information see Forum 18's July 2015 Azerbaijan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2081.
More coverage of freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Azerbaijan is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=23.
See also the Norwegian Helsinki Committee/Forum 18 report on freedom of religion or belief in Azerbaijan at: http://www.nhc.no/content/uploads/2018/07/Rapport2_15_Aserbajdsjan_web.pdf
A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1351.
For a personal commentary, by an Azeri Protestant, on how the international community can help establish religious freedom in Azerbaijan, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=482.
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11 August 2015
Sunni Muslim prisoner of conscience Eyvaz Mammadov was given a nine-month prison term in Azerbaijan's capital Baku for selling religious books and other religious items which have not undergone state censorship. However, the assistant to the Judge who sentenced him described the sentence to Forum 18 News Service as a "judicial secret". Mammadov was the last of five Muslim prisoners of conscience to be jailed on the same charges. Another of the five, Salim Qasimov, failed in his appeal against his six-month prison sentence. Shia Muslim Jeyhun Jafarov has failed to overturn the latest court order that he should be held in pre-trial detention at the NSM secret police Investigation Prison in Baku for a further four months. An NSM secret police officer dismissed Forum 18's question as to whether Jafarov and two female Jehovah's Witnesses also held by the secret police might be subjected to torture. "There is no torture here – there can't be," the official insisted. Azerbaijan has refused to allow publication of a report on an April 2015 visit to this and other prisons by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT). The criminal trial of five Muslim former prisoners of conscience arrested for participating in a meeting to discuss their faith is due to resume in a Baku court on 7 September.
5 August 2015
A court in Azerbaijan has officially warned 13 Jehovah's Witnesses after they were detained when 10 police raided a meeting in a Baku home to exercise freedom of religion or belief. One Jehovah's Witness – Georgian citizen Goderdzi Kvaratskhelia – was on 6 July ordered to be deported, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. One week later, a court in Sheki rejected appeals by two Jehovah's Witness sisters against fines of more than three months' average wages for discussing their faith on the street. They escaped criminal prosecution as the New Testament and Jehovah's Witness brochure they had with them had been imported with permission from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. A Baku resident who sold Muslim books without the required State Committee licence has lost his Supreme Court appeal against the fine of 18 months' average wages.
16 July 2015
As increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience are jailed by Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service notes that freedom of religion or belief and related human rights such as the freedoms of expression and of assembly remain highly restricted. Among the regime's current prisoners of conscience are 14 Muslims and two Jehovah's Witnesses jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief. There is also one Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector to compulsory military service in a disciplinary military unit. Other freedom of religion or belief issues documented by Forum 18 are: attempts to counter discussion of human rights violations with outright denials and claims of "inter-religious harmony", "religious tolerance" and similar assertions; officials behaving as if the rule of law places no limitations on their actions; unfair trials lacking due legal process; "legal" restrictions on and punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief; arbitrary official actions denying fundamental rights to citizens and foreigners; a highly restrictive censorship regime, including pre-publication, bookshop, photocopy shop and postal censorship; an arbitrary compulsory state registration system, designed to make all exercise of freedom of religion or belief dependent on state permission; enforced closures of places people meet for worship, especially Sunni mosques; a ban on praying outside mosques; and severe denials of human rights in the Nakhichevan exclave.