There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including religious prisoners and detainees. The government also placed restrictions on members of religious groups it considers “nontraditional,” including Jehovah’s Witnesses and unsanctioned Muslim religious organizations. In addition to 13 cases already pending before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed four cases before the ECHR concerning religious re-registration, the right to assemble, and censorship of religious literature. The ECHR had not ruled on whether the cases were admissible by year’s end. Unregistered groups, including readers of texts by Islamic theologian Said Nursi and some Christians, were vulnerable to government raids. In May police raided a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ganja.
Domestic human rights monitors continued to criticize the government for not offering any form of alternative service for those conscientious objectors who refused compulsory military service. On September 25, a court in Ganja sentenced Fakhraddin Mirzayev, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to a one-year prison sentence for refusing to serve in the military forces.
Controls on a variety of Islamic activity, including religious television broadcasts and sale of religious literature at metro stations, remained in effect. On June 1, police in Baku stopped the Shining Sun religious-themed publishing house from operating and arrested three employees for illegal operation of an unlicensed printing company and for tax evasion. All three employees received five-day sentences and were released.
On June 23, police detained three Baptists in Khachmaz for proselytizing and threatened criminal prosecution.
Since 1991, the government has required religious groups to re-register on five occasions, with the most recent re-registration beginning in 2009. The re-registration process has served as a point of leverage for the government to use against religious groups it deemed undesirable. The groups most susceptible to government scrutiny have typically been nontraditional religious groups, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Such nontraditional groups operating without official registration continued to be vulnerable to government harassment, including fines for administrative violations and court cases demanding their closure. As a result, these groups found it difficult, or in some cases impossible, to function.
Many religious communities complained that the government was slow to act on registration applications and refused some on questionable grounds. During the year, six religious groups complied with the requirement that all religious groups, regardless of their previous registration status, re-register. This brought the total of registered groups to 801 since registration requirements were first instituted, of which 34 were non-Muslim. According to government officials, of the 576 organizations that have successfully registered since the 2009 amendments to registration requirements came into law, 555 are Muslim and 21 non-Muslim, including 12 Christian, six Jewish, two Bahai, and one Krishna group. The approved applications included 372 renewed registrations and 204 first-time registrations. According to the SCWRA, since 2009 it has returned applications of 193 Muslim organizations to the CMB for further adjustments to meet registration requirements. At the end of the year, the SCWRA was reviewing registration applications for 25 religious organizations.
Several Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported that the SCWRA either rejected or did not adjudicate their re-registrations. Despite a requirement that registration applications be acted on within 30 days of receipt, several religious organizations stated that nontransparent registration procedures prolonged the process. There was also confusion about the validity of pre-existing legal registration of religious groups as non-governmental entities with the Ministry of Justice. For example, on April 25 the Administrative Economic Court in Baku issued a verdict revoking the previous registration of the Greater Grace Protestant Church by the Ministry of Justice on the basis of its refusal to comply with the requirements to re-register with the SCWRA.
Religious groups whose registration was denied or left in limbo during the year included some Islamic groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Baku International Fellowship.
According to an NGO report, on May 12 local authorities in Ganja disrupted a meeting of Seventh-day Adventists and fined a member for attending a gathering they deemed illegal. The SCWRA denied knowledge of the disruption and indicated that the group had been registered.
According to the government, during the first half of the year the SCWRA received 333 requests to import religious material and denied 40. Several Muslim and Christian groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, complained of censorship and a lengthy and burdensome process to obtain permission to import religious literature. During the first half of the year, the SCWRA received requests for publication of 74 religious documents and denied three.
The government took no legal steps to implement the government directive prohibiting the right of girls to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in primary and secondary schools, and the majority of school administrators throughout the country did not implement the directive.
There were reports of bans on the call to Islamic prayer in some areas.
On May 29, the Supreme Court decided the evangelical group Cathedral of Praise was eligible for registration as a religious group, ending the congregation’s long-standing property and registration dispute with the SCWRA.
A number of mosques closed by authorities in 2010 remained closed. Some were closed by local executive authorities on the grounds that they were in need of renovations or for safety reasons, such as the Shahidlar Mosque in Baku. Authorities closed the Sunni Juma mosque in Ganja for failing to follow registration requirements.
Authorities in the Surakhani District of Baku continued to block construction of the Fatima Zahra Shia congregation’s mosque in the Yeni Guneshli settlement pending resolution of the community’s registration request.
On November 14, the CMB made a public announcement on the eve of the Islamic month of Muharram encouraging religious observation in mosques rather than in informal gatherings to prevent the spread of radical preaching.
During the year, public authorities reconstructed and inaugurated seven mosques. President Aliyev attended the reopening of the remodeled central mosque in Gabala on September 10.
On June 10, in celebration of the 10th Anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Baku, Cardinal Fernando Filoni visited Baku and gave a homily during religious services attended by representatives of the government and different religious groups.
In July the Synagogue of Baku received its first new Torah scroll since the Soviet era, which was funded in part by a special grant from President Aliyev. Over 500 congregants, including member of parliament Yebeda Abramov, attended the signing ceremony.
In October SCWRA officials met with Jehovah’s Witnesses local and international representatives to hear their concerns about registration difficulties and obstacles to importing literature as well as to offer further cooperation and dialogue. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, however, were reportedly unsatisfied with the meeting.
In December the SCWRA and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation held the First International Baku Forum on “State and Religion: Strengthening Tolerance in a Changing World.” More than 30 representatives from 10 countries attended, including high ranking officials from Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait, and the Dagestan Republic of the Russian Federation.
The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Religious groups and NGOs, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Forum 18, reported that they faced some restrictions and abuses in Nagorno-Karabakh.