Trouble Ahead for Christians in Azerbaijan?

By: Fernando Perez

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report - 6/2012

Azerbaijani President Ilham H. Aliyev will seek his third-consecutive re-election in October 2013. Seen by many as a dictator, the president of this Shi’a-majority nation began to lay the groundwork for the next election by restricting civil and political rights soon after he was re-elected in 2008. And now as the election is closer, he can be expected to further tighten the noose on freedoms.

Growing criticism by human rights groups notwithstanding, the former Soviet nation of 9.2 million people has increasingly shown signs of authoritarianism – from widespread corruption perpetuated by a lack of accountability and transparency to harassment of journalists, bloggers and opposition members with total impunity. And among the targets of the regime are non-traditional Protestant Christian groups.
 
On May 12, police raided a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Gynaja, interrogated church members and children, and imposed heavy fines on a congregant without going to a court, Forum 18 reported. The agency also reported that a court in the capital city of Baku on April 25 ruled to liquidate the Greater Grace Protestant Church when no church representative was at the hearing. Further, it was learnt that authorities were sitting on license applications of about 100 shops wishing to sell religious books.

A presidential election is far more important than parliamentary polls in Azerbaijan, where legislature has little power as compared to the president’s office. The Aliyev regime will likely make every effort to ensure victory. And the efforts could involve a greater crackdown on religious groups.

Perhaps this is why the government has announced that it is facing a serious threat from Islamist terror groups. The National Security Ministry on May 30 claimed it thwarted a series of ambitious terrorist attacks planned during a recent Eurovision Song Contest. The ministry said targets included major hotels housing foreign tourists, and an assassination attempt on President Aliyev, according to The Associated Press.

The government has in recent months made similar claims that al-Qaeda-linked groups and even Iran were involved in terror activities inside Azerbaijan, which is not very friendly with Tehran despite being a Shi’a-majority nation.

With domestic laws that help the government to “legally” harass religious groups and civil and political activists, the “Islamist terror” threat might become a pretext.

In less than six months after his re-election in October 2008, President Aliyev restricted the freedom of the press and removed the two-term limit for the presidency by a constitutional referendum in March 2009, to pave the way to run again in 2013. The same year, the regime also enacted legal amendments to reduce the space for religious groups and non-governmental organizations.

The Religion Law states that freedom is subject to public order and stability in vague and wide terms, requires that religious organizations be registered with the government, and provides for a burdensome registration process, according to the U.S.-based Freedom House. The law also puts many vague riders on the right of religious groups to provide religious education to their members, especially children.

Laws also mandate NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice to be able to function with a legal entity, and procedures laid down for registration are cumbersome and nontransparent. NGOs must also register their grants with the government and foreign NGOs must reach agreements with the government, laws require.

The majority of the media in Azerbaijan are owned or controlled by the government or groups and individuals allied to it. And the government has created conditions that would make it difficult for independent media groups to function and survive.

The existence of courts brings no hope to the citizens, as the judiciary is largely subservient to the government.

Since 2009, the government and its agents have heightened crackdown on journalists and bloggers, arresting them under criminal provisions of defamation, terrorism and inciting hate. Many have been attacked with total impunity.

Restrictions paid political dividends to President Aliyev, who took charge of the country after the death of his father Heidar Aliyev, a former Soviet communist leader who ruled for the majority of years from 1969 with an iron fist. In the 2010 parliamentary election, in which European observers found numerous irregularities, all the 125 seats went to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party and independents loyal to it. The opposition parties of Musavat and Azerbaijani Popular Front have no presence in parliament.

What one sees on the ground is in contrast to the stated ideology of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, i.e. lawfulness, secularism (not in the Western sense), and nationalism; the constitution, which provides for the right to practice, choose and change one’s religious belief and form religious groups; and international obligations of the country, which is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

It’s a nation that takes pride in being the first democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world, and the first Muslim-majority country to allow and appreciate theater and other arts. Some even see this nation as one of the most liberal majority-Muslim nations. However, with its autocratic rule, Azerbaijan is far from being an example for any nation in the world.

According to a diplomatic cable dispatched by the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan and uncovered by WikiLeaks, President Aliyev was compared to a mafia crime boss.

Instead of shying away from openly criticizing the Azerbaijani government, the international community – especially the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United States, and other international and regional institutions and partners – must call a spade a spade, and do that publicly, followed by action.