Changes to the law “On freedom of religion” have been debated and
in the National Assembly
According to a change to the law, any Azerbaijani citizen receiving religious training abroad can receive approval to perform rites and ceremonies relating to Islam via the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus and the relevant government agencies.
Additionally, the adopted changes to the law also state that religious institutions may send citizens to receive education at institutions of religious education in a foreign country, and institutions of religious education, as well as religious organizations, may exchange students and teachers, all with agreement from the relevant government agencies.
Do these changes to the law hide within them dangers for society?
Head of the Carl Becker Center for Religious Research Movsun Hajiyev told Meydan TV that the most recent move once again shows that the government is continuing its trend of behaving like a bull in a china shop.
He spoke of the 1997 bill signed by Heydar Aliyev which forbade foreigners from engaging in religious outreach on the territory of Azerbaijan.
“Essentially, at that time, the edge of this decree was directed at members of Baptists sects, whose activities had already attained threatening dimensions”, says Hajiyev, and asserts that this was essentially a reaction by official structures to people being ‘entranced’ en masse, on the one hand by sects, and on the other by information about their potential cooperation with the Armenians.
“And so, according to the media, members of these sects went so far as to speak before residents of villages on the front, and call for them not to fire on the Christian Armenians.
“The ban lead to a mass exodus of foreign pastors from the country. The most obstinate of them, Pastor Matthias, a citizen of Finland, even tried to receive Azerbaijani citizenship. But he was turned down.
“By the way, an active lobbyist for these sectarians at that time was Stanley Escudero, who was then the US ambassador, and is now an activist in the Binagadi District Organization of the New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). He actively got in touch with Azerbaijani media outlets that were writing on the sectarians’ activities and convinced them not to touch this topic, associating his position with defense of the principles of freedom of conscience.
“But later on, a no-less-significant threat arose from the area of the Persian Gulf. At first, the government also applied the letter of the law in dealing with preachers of Salafism. By my memory, at least one citizen of Jordan was deported from the country.
“However, in the near future, the process began to get out of control because of young people who went abroad for education. Many of them graduated from institutions of higher education under the influence of Salafists. As a result, you had the same old Salafist preacher, but this time with an Azerbaijani passport. Of course, the officials in our security agencies have never really liked following the letter of the law, but deporting Azerbaijani citizens from the country was too much even for our reality.
“Because of this, a couple years ago the government got down to its favorite business: making messes. They adopted a law, in accordance with which all those who have received religious education abroad were barred from propagating their beliefs in Azerbaijan.
“This law also affected members of the Shiite spiritual leadership who had been educated in Qom. Considering that, in 25 years, there has yet to appear an institution that might train Islamic religious scholars, this was like treating a headache with a hammer.
“Now they’ve adopted new amendments to the law, in accordance with which graduates of foreign educational institutions can preach, but only with consent from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations”.
The leader of the Center for Religious Research is sure that this is dynamic is a vivid indicator of the fact that there are big problems with freedom of conscience in Azerbaijan.
“Uncovering hotbeds of extremism is the work of the security services – why don’t they take a little break from persecuting the opposition, independent journalists, and all of civil society, and earn their keep?” he said.
“As regards the victims of this law, who are banned from propagating their religion in Azerbaijan, they have an excellent chance to bypass every court in Azerbaijan and receive justice in the European Court for Human Rights”, concluded Movsun Hajiyev.