The government imprisoned several religious activists and used the registration process to restrict the activities of religious groups it considered “non-traditional,” including Jehovah’s Witnesses and unsanctioned Muslim religious organizations. In several cases, police raided gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but charges were either not filed or dismissed in court. Unregistered groups, including readers of texts by Islamic theologian Said Nursi and some Christians, remained vulnerable to government raids.
On March 4, police interrogated two Baptists in Zagatala for allegedly holding illegal religious gatherings. On March 29, a Zagatala court levied fines of AZN 1,500 ($1,875) on each individual. The Baptist community filed an appeal, and on April 29, the Sheki Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision.
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. In May authorities released two conscientious objectors, both Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had been convicted of refusing to serve in the military.
Controls on a variety of Islamic activity, including religious television broadcasts and sale of religious literature at metro stations, remained in effect.
The government continued to use the re-registration process to limit activities of groups it deemed undesirable. Non-traditional religious groups, both Muslim and non-Muslim, operating without official registration continued to have difficulties functioning; the government fined them for administrative violations.
Many religious communities complained that the government was slow to act on registration applications and refused some on questionable grounds. As of October 30, eight religious groups had complied with the requirement that all religious groups, regardless of their previous registration status, re-register. This brought the total of registered groups to 809 since registration requirements were first instituted, of which 34 were non-Muslim. According to government officials, as of November 20, of the 588 organizations that successfully registered since the 2009 amendments to registration requirements came into law, 567 were Muslim and 21 non-Muslim, including 12 Christian, six Jewish, two Bahai, and one Hare Krishna group. The approved applications included 374 renewed registrations and 216 first-time registrations. As of November 20, the SCWRA was reviewing registration applications for 40 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 non-transparent registration procedures prolonged the process. There continued to be confusion with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) about the validity of pre-existing legal registration of religious groups as non-governmental entities. For example, the Greater Grace Protestant Church continued to submit parts of a registration application to the SCWRA. The application began in April 2012 when a Baku court issued a verdict revoking the previous MOJ registration of the Greater Grace Protestant Church on the basis of its refusal to comply with the requirement to re-register with the SCWRA. As of November, the church was awaiting a response.
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 the government, during the first half of the year the SCWRA received 440 requests to import religious material and denied six. 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 granted all 84 requests received for publication of religious documents.
The government took no legal steps to implement the government directive prohibiting girls from wearing the hijab, or headscarf, in primary and secondary schools, and the majority of school administrators throughout the country did not implement the directive. According to a local NGO, authorities arrested Nihad Gahramanov for participating in a protest against the government’s ban on wearing the hijab in schools and on October 21, the Narimanov District Court sentenced him to four years in prison. During the year, authorities also imprisoned four other activists arrested in 2012 for protests against the hijab ban.
A number of mosques closed by authorities in 2010 remained closed. Local executive authorities closed some mosques 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.
During the year authorities reconstructed and inaugurated three mosques. President Aliyev participated in the inauguration of the grand mosque in Shamakhy, the grand mosque in Sumgayit, and the Gabala City Mosque. Publicly-funded restoration work continued at the Ganja City Imamzade Mosque, and construction was underway on the grand mosque in the Binagadi District of Baku. This will be the largest mosque in the country.
Authorities renovated two Georgian churches in Gakh and funded construction of the Russian Orthodox bishop’s chair in the Orthodox Church of Jen Mironosec (Holy Mirrors).
In February the Cabinet of Ministers approved a decree allocating funds to religious communities. The government subsequently allocated AZN 2 million ($2.5 million) to Islamic communities and AZN 400,000 ($500,000) to non-Islamic communities, both traditional and non-traditional.
The SCWRA embarked on a pilot project to provide funds for social projects undertaken by religious communities. Twenty religious communities received grants of up to AZN 5,000 ($6,250) each for social programs.
The SCWRA continued to hold conferences and public events on religion and state affairs. The SCWRA sponsored seven regional conferences at which prominent religious leaders delivered messages and promoted tolerance. The SCWRA also hosted a soccer tournament at which religious communities competed for the “Tolerance Football Cup.” Additionally, the SCWRA took up an initiative of the Cathedral of Praise, a Christian community, to plant 18,000 trees.
In September SCWRA officials met with local and international members of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) to discuss concerns about registration and problems with distributing religious literature. The BWA representatives assessed the meeting positively.
In September a group of Salafi Muslims complained that police forced individuals to shave their beards.
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.
The 18 cases brought by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the European Court of Human Rights concerning religious re-registration, the right to assemble, and censorship of religious literature remained pending.