Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution states there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups and their status as legal entities. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by parliament.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually or collectively, in public or in private, and it explicitly recognizes the right of persons belonging to national minorities to freely express their religion without prohibition or compulsion. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred.

The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion, and it prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.

By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The commissioner may issue decisions and impose fines, which the affected parties may appeal in court.

The law specifies that the State Committee on Religion, under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister, is charged with regulating relations between the government and religious groups, protecting freedom of religion, and promoting interfaith cooperation and understanding.

The government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups, but a religious group must register with the Tirana District Court as a nonprofit association to qualify for certain benefits, including opening a bank account, owning property, and exemption from certain taxes. To register, a group must submit information on the form and scope of the organization, its activities, the identities of its founders and legal representatives, the nature of its interactions with other stakeholders (e.g., government ministries and civil society organizations), and the address of the organization as well as a registration fee of 2,000 leks ($19). A judge is randomly assigned within four days of submission to adjudicate an application and typically starts and finishes the adjudication in one day.

The government has agreements with the AMC, Bektashi community, Catholic Church, AOC, and VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A 2009 law directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time – the AMC and Bektashi communities, Catholic Church, and AOC. This law does not include VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision in the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.

Although the government’s agreements with the five religious communities stipulated the government would return religious objects and property, subsequent legislation delegated this role to the courts. Religious communities must file claims in court for restitution of, and compensation for, property confiscated by the former communist government, as must all other claimants. To reclaim property, the religious community must first obtain ownership title from the court, and then register the properties with the SAC, the official register established in 2020 to show quantity, value, and ownership of real estate. By law, bailiff offices must execute court rulings in property cases. If the property cannot be restituted because it is occupied, in use by the government, or otherwise unavailable, the community may, upon demonstrating ownership title, petition the Agency for the Treatment of Properties for financial compensation, which, until February, the government paid based on a legislatively determined formula. A February Constitutional Court ruling abrogated the formula, requiring a legislative amendment to re-establish the compensation formula.

The law allows the five religious communities with agreements with the government to operate educational institutions, as well as to build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.

Religious groups, including religious communities, foundations, and missions, must have building permits to construct new houses of worship. The law allows the government post facto to legalize “informal” buildings constructed prior to 2014 without permits.

Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion. The law allows the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 113 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, AOC, and VUSH communities operated numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AMC runs four madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government continued the process of legalizing buildings built by religious groups, primarily Sunni mosques, Catholic and AOC churches, and Bektashi tekkes (centers of worship) built without government approval after the fall of communism in the early 1990s. The SAC reported that during the year, it legalized 62 such buildings (compared with 92 in 2020): six Catholic churches and other buildings of the Catholic church, 46 mosques and other buildings of the AMC, two Orthodox churches, four tekkes, and four buildings used for religious purposes – a Catholic church belonging to the International Association for Solidarity, an addition to a mosque belonging to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Qatar Charity, a privately owned worship space, and a church of the Protestant NGO Little Family. Twenty-five other buildings, mainly belonging to the AMC, remained under review. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by the SAC and those of the religious communities. The AMC reported it obtained legalization papers for 32 mosques during the year, with 368 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported no new legalizations during the year.

Among the six Catholic Church properties legalized during the year were the Church of Koplik and the Franciscan Albanian Province Zonja Nunciate’s Museum against Genocide, both located in the northwest of the country. On December 25, SAC General Director Artan Lame presented the certificates of legalization for the two properties to Catholic Archbishop of Shkoder-Pult Angelo Massafra. According to Lame, “It is absurd that the Albanian state has not been able to provide permits before the construction of at least religious buildings, making us face the need for legalization for houses of God.”

The SAC reported challenges in returning property to religious communities seized under the former communist regime, providing physical compensation by means of other property, or paying cash compensation. According to the SAC, these challenges included refusal by current owners (including private owners and the government) to relinquish property, necessitating time-consuming litigation, and lack of government funds to pay compensation in cases where the government had transformed the properties into space that was no longer useable for religious purposes.

As of year’s end, the legislature had not acted to re-establish a formula for property compensation, as required by a February Constitutional Court ruling. According to the AMC, the Agency for the Treatment of Properties, which was responsible for paying compensation, stopped processing new applications once the Constitutional Court made its ruling and would not begin again until the legislature set a new formula.

Religious communities criticized the SAC’s approach to legalizing property, stating the process was bureaucratic, produced delays, and was hampered by the SAC’s inability to locate relevant documents in state archives. The AOC said the SAC’s refusals of applications were perfunctory and lacked documentary explanation or supporting arguments, making further pursuit of property registration in court difficult. Religious groups said that even in cases where the SAC approved applications, it often failed to provide the groups with supporting documentation, making it difficult for the groups to register the property or protect their rights in the future.

The AMC again expressed concern that the SAC gave it title only to buildings and not to the land on which they were built.

The AMC, the Bektashi community, and the AOC continued to state there were lengthy delays in court proceedings that could make it difficult to enforce an eventual restitution ruling before the 10-year statutory limit on the execution of civil judgments expired. The AOC said it won some property cases in court, but Church representatives stated outside influence on bailiff offices by interested parties, including businesses, private individuals, or government officials, was slowing the bailiffs’ execution of court rulings and that such influence often involved corruption. Bektashi representatives reported that at least four cases of property restitution and compensation between the Bektashi and the government or individuals were still pending in court at year’s end, while the AMC reported it had 67 property cases pending in court.

The Catholic Church and the AOC stated that the government had not implemented its agreements with these communities to return religious objects and properties. The Catholic Church said the government had not created the ad hoc commission stipulated in the agreement to handle restitution of objects and property, nor had it returned properties. The AOC reported it was still seeking restitution for several properties formerly owned by the Church but currently owned by different government ministries. The AOC informally proposed to the government and the Interfaith Council that special legislation be created to handle religious communities’ properties confiscated by the former communist regime, and that a special structure be created within the SAC to implement that legislation.

According to some government officials, officials in the human rights NGO Albanian Helsinki Committee, as well as media reports, corruption, lack of government knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction over property cases and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to advance claims to their property or compensation. Thousands of cases were with the Supreme Court, which was still in the process of replenishing its quorum with judges who passed a comprehensive vetting process. Lacking a quorum, the Supreme Court was unable to decide cases for most of the year. The AMC reported that since 2016, it had submitted approximately 500 applications for restitution or claims for compensation encompassing approximately 23,000 hectares (57,000 acres) of property worth what AMC estimated to be approximately six billion euros ($6.8 billion). The AMC reported the government had not yet paid compensation on four judgments in its favor from 2020. The Bektashi community reported that during the year, the government paid it 146 million leks ($1.38 million) in compensation for “informal” (not legally recognized) properties others had built on Bektashi land. The community used the compensation to build new tekkes in Elbasan and Gjirokaster and to buy shares of the Continental Hospital, previously owned by a former member of the AMC. The SAC, however, reported the government had paid the AMC 13.88 million leks ($131,000) in compensation for land with an area of 510 square meters (5,490 square feet), and the Bektashi 12.33 million leks ($116,000) as compensation for land with an area of 2,534 square meters (27,276 square feet).

The AOC again said that despite numerous requests, the government had not returned all sacred objects, relics, icons, and archives confiscated during the communist regime. The AOC said that on April 12, the Ministry of Culture returned the remains of Saint John Vladimir to the Monastery of Shijon in Elbasan, and in October 2020, the ministry returned the land in Tirana on which Saint Procopius Church stands. AOC representatives said the government continued to oppose some of the Church’s claims on monasteries and churches, stating the properties were cultural monuments that fell under the purview of the state. The Ministry of Culture stated that although the law allowed religious communities to possess title to religious property listed as cultural heritage or a cultural monument, in some cases such property would remain property of the state, due to its national importance. According to the Ministry of Culture, in some cases, religious communities did not seek property title because the law on cultural heritage places the burden of restoration, rehabilitation, and maintenance primarily on the owner, with potential for additional financial penalties if not fulfilled as prescribed by law.

Bektashi leaders reported continued problems dealing with local property registration offices. The community again reported the government had not responded to its complaints at the central and local level that the government, without the community’s permission, built apartments for individuals who lost their homes during a 2019 earthquake on Bektashi property. In addition, the Bektashi community reported that four cases it had filed contesting a decision by the Agency for the Treatment of Property not to recognize the community’s property claims on tekkes in Frasher, Alipostivan, Permet, and Turan-Tepelene continued to work their way through the court system.

The Bektashi community and the AOC again objected to paying the value-added tax, as well as other taxes and fees, stating those payments violated their agreements with the government. The AOC reported it paid the government 113 million leks ($1.07 million) in annual taxes and social and health insurance but had not been reimbursed as called for in its agreement with the government. The Bektashi community reported it had held meetings with the government on the value-added tax (VAT) paid for its buildings but had not yet reached a resolution. It reported that in previous years it had paid 124 million leks ($1.17 million) in VAT on construction of the Odeon, a multipurpose center at the World Bektashi Headquarters in Tirana, and that it also had VAT disputes over the ongoing construction of the Grand Tekke of Elbasan and the tekke of Shtuf in Gjirokaster. Religious communities said public services and support received in return were not commensurate with the taxes paid.

VUSH stated the government again failed to respond to a request it submitted in 2017 for land on which to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities.

VUSH reported it remained unable to register its ownership of most of the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. VUSH’s case against the Tirana municipal government for issuing construction permits for others to build residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land after refusing permits for VUSH to build on its own land remained pending in the Tirana District Court. VUSH also filed a case in Tirana District Court against the construction company that built on its land, which was also pending at year’s end.

In March, the Ministry of Education and Sports approved the establishment of a bachelor’s degree program in Islamic studies in English, a master’s program in Islamic Sciences in Albanian, and a master’s degree program in Religious Studies in English at AMC-affiliated Beder University College. The programs began during the year. The master’s degree program offered degrees in Interreligious Dialogue, Religious Leadership, and Religious Education. The government continued not to recognize diplomas in theology and religious studies issued by foreign institutions.

The Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination reported one case of discrimination based on religious grounds in which the director of a school in Laprake, Tirana, asked a girl to leave the school because she wore a hijab, which the director said violated the dress code. The commissioner worked with the school and the family to enable the girl to continue attending school and took no action against the director.

Religious communities said they continued to face financial problems during the year due to COVID-19 containment measures that they had urged members of their communities to follow. They stated they felt discriminated against because the government did not respond to individual or collective requests through the Interfaith Council for additional financial support to pay religious workers during COVID-19 restrictions, such as lockdowns. They also said the limits on the size of gatherings, which applied to secular venues as well, inhibited their fundraising capabilities.

The Catholic Church complained of discrimination to the chair of the Technical Experts Committee on COVID-19 after the government, without consulting with the Church, decreed a COVID-19-related curfew at the last minute on Christmas Eve in 2020 that interfered with midnight Mass, but the Church received no response. The government’s anti-COVID-19 curfew remained in place throughout 2021, including on Christmas Eve, which passed without comment by faith communities.

The Council of Ministers again failed to adopt regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion. The AOC again raised concerns over the missing regulations, particularly in the south of the country, home to many members of the Orthodox faith.

The State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations counted 195 organizations, 174 of which were evangelical Christian. The AMC had one organization, the AOC four, and the Catholic Church 16. The then committee chair said responding to the census was not required by law but that the committee hoped through the initiative to gain better understanding of the religious communities.

The government postponed the 2020 population census to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious communities again expressed concern that the postponement would reduce their groups’ reported numerical strength, with a corresponding reduction in government support. The communities stated they had sought to participate in focus groups to help explain the religion questions in the census, but the government had not responded to their request. For the first time, AOC Archbishop Anastasios in a Mass in October instructed Orthodox parishioners publicly to confirm their religion during the 2022 census.

The Catholic, AMC, AOC, and Bektashi communities reported receiving government financial support totaling 113 million leks ($1.07 million), four million leks ($37,800) more than the previous year and the first increase since 2015. The AMC received 33.12 million leks ($313,000), an increase of more than one million leks ($9,400) over 2021, while the other remaining communities received 26.64 million leks ($251,000), a slight increase from the previous year. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff, as stipulated by a Council of Ministers’ decision in April. The Bektashi community used some of the funds to pay part of the wages of its staff; it used the rest to continue building the Grand Tekke of Elbasan and raise awareness of the Bektashi community domestically and internationally. The communities stated that the government should provide financial support according to the size of each community. The government did not indicate the basis on which it allocated the funds among the four communities.

VUSH continued to seek changes to the law that would allow it to receive financial support from the government.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the Ministry of Culture, the Albanian American Development Fund, and the Municipality of Vlora committed to building a museum in Vlora dedicated to the country’s efforts to protect persecuted Jews during World War II. The government and the Albanian American Development Fund opened the bidding process for the project in September but had not announced a winner by year’s end.

On March 22, President Ilir Meta awarded the Interfaith Council with an Honor of the Nation medal “in appreciation of the comprehensive contribution to preserving and promoting the spirit of harmony, understanding, and coexistence between religions in Albania.”


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief.  It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs.  It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality.  The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.

Under the legal code, a nonviolent crime is considered an administrative offense.  An administrative arrest may last up to three months.

The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA.  The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities.  A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application.  A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration.  Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.

To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.

By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline.  Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradict the constitution or other laws.  Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter or other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false.  Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.

The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca.  Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.

The law bans activities by unregistered religious groups, punishable by fines or imprisonment.

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity.  The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.”  The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as believing no one outside of one’s religious group may criticize that group).  According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals.  It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature; setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions; and engaging in terrorist activities.  The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms ranging from 15 years to life.

The law specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.”  Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.

Amendments signed into law in June include a new requirement for the SCWRA to approve the appointment of all non-Islamic religious leaders.  The new amendments forbid individuals from forcing children to practice religion; prohibit the promotion of religious extremism; disallow religious leaders from engaging in religious activities when employed by the state; provide government-approved religious centers the sole right to grant religious titles; require religious centers to coordinate with the government when opening religious education institutions; restrict religious ceremonies (with exceptions) to places of worship; require believers to inform the government about travel to foreign countries to visit religious sites; grant the government authority to approve the appointment of religious figures in non-Islamic religious communities; require religious communities to suspend activity when they lose a religious leader until a new one is appointed; and allow military service members to worship in their spare time, with the exception of during combat operations.  The law also contains a new requirement for the reattestation every five years of Muslim clerics who are appointed by the CMB; reattestation is conducted with the involvement of State Committee officials.  Smaller communities without a “religious center” are not allowed to grant religious titles or ranks to the clergy; apply for permission to have foreign citizens as religious leaders; establish religious educational establishments; organize visits by their adherents to shrines and religious locations abroad, or exercise other rights that are attributed only to “religious centers.”  Mass religious worship, rites, and ceremonies (with some exceptions) may as a rule be held only in places of worship and shrines.  SCWRA permission is required under the June amendments to hold religious “mass events” anywhere other than at state-approved places of worship or shrines.

Rituals and ceremonies related to Islam may be performed only by citizens of the country.  The law allows foreigners invited by non-Islamic registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they obtain special permission from the CMB.  Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 to 5,000 manat ($590-$2,900).  A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

The administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people as well as the organizing or holding meetings by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”

The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution.  Punishments for the “production, sale and distribution of religious literature (on paper and electronic devices), audio and video materials, religious items, and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of importation, sale and distribution without appropriate authorization” are proscribed by law.  Punishments for first-time offenders include a fine of between 5,000 and 7,000 manat ($2,900-$4,100), up to two years’ restricted freedom, or up to two years’ imprisonment.  Violations by a group of individuals “according to a prior conspiracy,” an organized group, an individual for a second time, or an official carry a fine of between 7,000 and 9,000 manat ($4,100-$5,300), between two and four years’ restricted freedom, or imprisonment of between two and five years.  In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added the alternative punishment of “restriction of freedom” (probation) – two to four years in cases involving an individual first-time offender and two to five years in aggravated cases – to the preexisting punishments.

There is no religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions.  Students may study religion at higher educational institutions, such as the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad.  The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.

Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds.  Refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code by imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.

The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist acts; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.

According to the constitution, the law may restrict the participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to parliament.  The law does not define “religious officials.”  The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in a position of religious leadership.  It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.  By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity.

The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism,” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity.  The law also prohibits threats against, or expressions of contempt for, persons based on religious belief.

The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so.  In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.

The law prohibits the use of headscarves in passport photos.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On June 16, President Aliyev signed into law amendments to the religious freedom law.  Among other provisions, the new amendments prohibit the promotion of religious extremism, disallow religious leaders from engaging in religious activities when employed by the state, provide government-approved religious centers the sole right to grant religious titles, and require religious communities to suspend their activities in the absence of a government-approved religious leader.  The government justified the amendments by the need for security.  Civil society said the changes provided the SCWRA even more control over religious groups.  Parliament passed the amendments into law on June 4, following closed door discussions.  Human rights groups criticized the laws as lacking public scrutiny and increasing restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief.  When speaking to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, lawyer Asabali Mustafayev called the amendment regarding mass religious worship “dangerous” and noted the absence of a requirement regarding the number of participants for a meeting to be considered “a mass event.”  The amendments also specified, “It is forbidden to force children to believe in religion.  The religious upbringing of children shall not adversely affect their physical and mental health”; the provision was challenged by civil society as a vague one that could lead to abuse and the limitation of freedom of religion.  A representative of the CMB said the amendment would not apply to the “traditional” religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but only to “certain religious movements whose participation in rituals and religious conversations is not considered appropriate by the state,” such as “satanic currents.”

According to Forum 18, registered religious communities, including Jews, Georgian Orthodox, Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans and other Protestants, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and International Society of Krishna Consciousness Krishna devotees (who are considered religious communities) seemed unlikely to gain the status of a religious center under existing laws.  The government considered only the CMB, the Russian Orthodox diocese of Baku and Azerbaijan, and the Roman Catholic Apostolic Prefecture to be religious centers.

he government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.

In a judgment issued on June 10, the ECHR ruled the government had violated the rights of seven appellants, followers of the late Turkish religious scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, after what the court ruled was their unlawful detention and their subsequent fines in June 2015.  The appellants, Emin Alakbarov, Javanshir Ismayilov, Elmir Jabrayilov, Sabuhi Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Rovshan Gasimov, and Parvin Yunusov, were followers of Said Nursi’s teachings of Islam.  They were gathered at the private home of one of the appellants in the city of Gadabay when several police officers raided the premises, taking the group to the Gadabay District Police Department and detaining them for 14 hours.  Six were subsequently fined for violating public order and the man hosting the gathering was fined for violating the legislative rules on organizing and holding religious meetings.  The ECHR found that the applicants’ deprivation of liberty was unjustified, arbitrary, and unnecessary, and it ruled that the government had violated the right to liberty and security contained in the European Convention on Human Rights.  The ECHR awarded compensation of 3,000 euros ($3,400) to each of the seven, plus costs of 1,000 euros ($1,100) for all the cases jointly, to be paid to their main lawyer, Rustam Mustafazade.  The ECHR rejected the complaint of unlawful interference by the domestic authorities with the right to freedom of religion because the appellants failed to exhaust domestic remedies.  According to Forum 18, Asabali Mustafayev, a Baku lawyer who also worked on the cases, said all involved were “a little dissatisfied” with the ECHR judgments, as the court had not looked at all aspects of the violations included in the cases.  He described the 3,000 euros ($3,400) awarded to each individual as “a highly miserly sum,” especially as it included recompense for the fines that each had paid.  He also described the sum awarded for legal costs as “very little, given that it covered legal costs for seven cases.”

On May 20, the ECHR adopted a judgment in favor of Afruza Maharramova and Sadaya Huseynova, who founded the NGO Religion and Women’s Rights.  National authorities had rejected their application for state registration, thus denying their organization legal status.  The two women, from the southern town of Masalli, applied in 2011 to the Justice Ministry for registration of the NGO.  The ministry twice in 2011 and twice in 2012 sent the application back, citing what it said were irregularities in the documentation.  The NGO challenged the denial through the courts, finally losing in the Supreme Court in November 2013.  Maharramova and Huseynova filed a case with the ECHR in April 2014.  According to Forum 18, the ECHR examined the case, together with 11 others involving NGOs in which the government had denied legal status, and awarded compensation of 4,500 euros ($5,100) jointly to Maharramova and Huseynova, plus costs of 6,000 euros ($6,800) for all the cases together, to be paid to their lawyer, Intigam Aliyev.

On May 27, the ECHR ruled that the case of Protestant Christian Rahim Akhundov was inadmissible on grounds of his failing to comply with timelines for filing court proceedings.  Akhundov had filed a case before the ECHR concerning his dismissal from his job as a parliamentary staffer in Baku in 2018.  He stated that after he met friends and relatives at his Baku home for Christian worship, study, and discussion, he was dismissed from his job at the Milli Majlis (national assembly) on the orders of the State Security Service.  Akhundov lost his final appeal in 2020 before the Supreme Court.

On April 26, the United Nations Human Rights Committee published a report that found the government had violated the rights of six Jehovah’s Witnesses in Aliabad in the northern Zagatala District in 2013.  The six were detained in a police raid, taken to a police station, had religious literature seized, and were then fined (or in one case, given an official warning).  The committee found that “by arresting, detaining, convicting, and fining [six Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2013] for possessing religious literature and holding a peaceful religious service in a private home, the State party [Azerbaijan] violated their rights under article 18 (1) [“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”] of the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].”  The committee defined an “effective remedy” for each (including reimbursement of the 1,500 manat ($880) fines handed down on five of them and any court fees) and called on the government to amend laws and practice to avoid future violations.  According to Forum 18, Jehovah’s Witnesses from the country have six other freedom of religion or belief cases pending with the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Throughout the year, national courts continued reviewing appeals and held a trial for the final 10 individuals detained after a 2018 assault on Elmar Valiyev, the then head of the Ganja City Executive Committee, and a related demonstration against local government authorities.  In response to the 2018 events, police killed five persons and detained 77 others during special operations in Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku.  The government said the convicted individuals were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country.  Civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated.  The Union for Freedom for Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan identified as political prisoners 47 individuals in prison at year’s end who were connected to the events in Ganja.  Human rights groups reported that three persons imprisoned in connection with the Ganja case were released by presidential pardon in March.  The sentences of several others were reduced, and/or some charges dropped during appeals hearings during the year.  The final trial connected to the Ganja events ended in August.  According to the judgment, nine persons considered political prisoners received sentences ranging from 18 to 20 years.

Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered group MUM.  Authorities maintained the movement mixed religious and political ideology and said they were concerned about its ties to Iran.  As in prior years, human rights advocates and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity.  According to data collected by human rights advocates, at year’s end, the estimated number of political prisoners who were members of religious groups was 21 (not including the 47 who were arrested in Ganja), compared with 41 to 48 in 2020.  According to human rights defenders, the decrease in the number of those defined by human rights groups as “religious activists” in detention was largely due to a Presidential decree adopted in March that pardoned 38 political prisoners overall, including 30 individuals arrested during 2015 raids in Nardaran that targeted individuals whom the government said were fundamentalist, had external support, and wanted to establish an Islamic state.

On May 24, the Agjabadi court placed MUM member Vugar Hajiyev in pretrial detention for a four-month period after he was arrested on drug-related charges on May 21.  MUM said the drug charges were baseless and called his arrest politically motivated.  Following his arrest, MUM issued a statement blaming the government for “going back to its Islamophobic attitudes” and demanding the release of Hajiyev.  Another MUM member, Razi Humbatov, was arrested on June 7, and on June 9, he was placed in pretrial detention on drug-related charges.  He told his family that he had been tortured and had signed a confession under duress.  Human rights groups said they considered both Hajiyev and Humbatov to be political prisoners.

MUM member Elvin Murvatoglu, who was arrested in March 2020 for illegal possession of weapons and sentenced to two years and three months in prison, was released on September 13 before the completion of his prison sentence.  According to MUM, Murvatoglu was known as an activist and was also the author of many poems and songs about Tale Bagirzade, the chairman of the MUM.  Human rights groups included him in their list of political prisoners and linked his arrest to his songs in praise of Bagirzade.

On October 19, law enforcement detained several Shia clerics, including Ilgar Ibrahimoglu and theologian Sardar Babayev.  Ibrahimoglu was released; Babayev was criminally charged for treason under the criminal code.  Babayev rejected the treason charges, saying they were politically motivated.  The court ruled to place him in pretrial detention for four months pending trial.

Some Christian communities again stated that the SCWRA had made efforts to create more favorable conditions for their activities than in prior years, such as by becoming more responsive to their requests and concerns and establishing closer communication with them.  In the past, Jehovah’s Witnesses were among those targeted by the police and other state officials.  “At the moment we don’t have any problems with the police or the State Committee,” a community member from Baku told Forum 18 on June 15.  He said, “Even before the pandemic, the State Committee’s representatives were very cooperative if we had problems with the police or other state agencies.”

The government again did not implement a civilian alternative to mandatory military service for conscientious objectors, despite being required to do so by the constitution.  On October 7, the ECHR adopted a judgement in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov, who were convicted in 2018 and received one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service.  The ECHR accepted the government’s admission that it had violated the human rights of both men and ordered that they be paid compensation and costs in the amount of 3,500 euros ($4,000) for each defendant.  The ECHR’s October decision brought to seven the number of conscientious objectors from the country whose human rights had been violated by the government according to the court, and to whom the government had to pay compensation.

During the year, the government articulated its potential readiness to change its policy towards conscientious objectors.  The head of the SCWRA, Mubariz Gurbanli, who had previously opposed such accommodation, said after the country’s victory in the 2020 conflict with Armenia that the time had come for the country to adopt a religious exemption to military conscription.  He expressed his willingness to promote this idea to members of parliament.  Later in the year, however, a representative of the Presidential Administration stated that alternative service was not under discussion.

At year’s end, the SCWRA registered 16 new religious communities (all Muslim), compared with 14 religious communities registered in 2020 (12 Muslim and two Christian).  There were a total 971 registered communities at the end of the year, of which 37 were non-Muslim – 26 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one International Society of Krishna Consciousness.  The SCWRA also said 2,253 mosques, 16 churches, seven synagogues, and 11 religious education institutions were registered.  There were 23 Christian prayer houses (worship spaces that did not have the status of a church), one Baha’i house of worship, and one Krishna Consciousness house of worship in the country at year’s end.

The SCWRA said it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registrations.  While the SCWRA maintained its prohibition on these communities’ religious activities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.

The government said the inability of some groups to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members and that the government did not take administrative action against unregistered religious communities.  The government said reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would invite religious extremist groups supported by Iran and would cause security concerns.  Religious communities continued to state frustration with government registration requirements, particularly the 50-member minimum.  However, the government did allow small religious communities to band together under one organization’s umbrella, even if they were based in different cities, which facilitated the successful registration of some groups.  A Baptist minister visiting the country said he met with several small, unregistered Baptist groups that were able to hold services based on the registration of another Baptist community.  Jehovah’s Witnesses remained registered only in Baku.  Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated they were unable to obtain legal registration, although they stated they were able to worship openly despite being unregistered.  Some Protestant and home-based church leaders stated their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities quiet for fear of government repercussions.

The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials.  Some smaller non-Muslim communities reported no difficulty in importing religious literature and described continuing improvement in relations with the government.

During the year, Kamala Rovshan, a student, launched a social media campaign advocating for women and girls to be able to submit passport photos while wearing a headscarf.  In March, Commissioner for Human Rights Sabina Aliyeva stated her support for lifting the restriction and permitting the wearing of a headscarf in passport photos.

The government continued to allocate funds to “traditional” religious groups.  On July 8, President Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1.18 million) to the CMB for Muslim communities and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews, the same amounts as in 2020.  The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,200) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku, and 100,000 manat ($58,800) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, the same amounts as in 2020.  The Moral Values Promotion Foundation used the funds to support some smaller non-Muslim religious communities.

In a resolution on “Humanitarian consequences of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan / Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” adopted on September 27, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) stated, “The long running conflict has had a catastrophic impact on the cultural heritage and property of the region, for which both Armenia and Azerbaijan have a responsibility.”  PACE condemned the damage “deliberately caused to cultural heritage during the 6-week war, and what appeared to be the deliberate shelling of the [Holy Savior Cathedral] in Shusha and the destruction or damage of other churches and cemeteries during and after the conflict.”  The resolution also stated PACE remained “concerned, in the light of past destruction, about the future of the many Armenian churches, monasteries, including the Dadivank monastery, and cross-stones and other forms of cultural heritage which have returned under Azerbaijani control.”  The resolution expressed “concern about a developing narrative in Azerbaijan promoting a ‘Caucasian Albanian’ heritage to replace what is seen as an ‘Armenian’ cultural heritage.”  There were numerous reports during the year of vandalism and destruction of Armenian cultural and religious sites, as well as deliberate actions by the government to sever and distort the connection of religious sites to their Armenian heritage.  Government actions and rhetoric stating churches were “Caucasian Albanian” prompted international observers, Armenian officials, civil society representatives, and the Armenian Apostolic Church to express grave concerns about the preservation of Armenian ties to historical and religious sites now under Azerbaijani control.

For example, on May 4, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the Azerbaijani-funded reconstruction of the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha was “in accordance with the original architectural style in order to restore the historical image of Shusha” and attributed renovations of the site to reflect “Caucasian Albanian” heritage.  Armenian officials said such statements attempted to conceal the church’s Armenian roots and structure, including the original spire.  In a letter to UNESCO, Armenia’s acting Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports Vahram Dumanyan accused Azerbaijan of actively implementing “a policy of falsification of historical facts” by calling the sites of Armenian cultural heritage in newly returned territory “Caucasian-Albanian.”  On September 27, Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) reported the Azerbaijani government embarked on an extensive campaign after the November 2020 ceasefire to claim Armenian heritage sites either do not exist or have “Caucasian Albanian” origins.

Following the November 2020 ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kealbajar.  The government initially allowed Armenian pilgrims to visit the church, but access became increasingly difficult throughout the year.  According to media reports and Armenian Apostolic Church authorities, two groups of pilgrims were denied access to the monastery in February and April; Forum 18 reported in July that no Armenian pilgrims had been able to visit the monastery since May 2.  Azerbaijani authorities cited COVID-19, flooding, and road damage as reasons for denying access to groups of pilgrims who were ready with Russian peacekeeper escorts to visit the monastery, according to the Armenian Apostolic Church.  By year’s end, in addition to the monastery, no Armenian pilgrims had been permitted visits to any religious site in Azerbaijani-controlled territory (where no Russian peacekeepers were present) since May 2.

CHW’s June and September reports identified other religious and historical sites under the government’s control that were destroyed, damaged, or under the threat of destruction due to proximate construction.  CHW reported the complete destruction of Mets Tagher Cemetery, an inscribed stone of Holy Savior Cathedral, and the Sghnakh Cemetery.  CHW also reported damage to the Holy Savior Cathedral, St. John the Baptist Church (Kanach Zham), Surb Meghretsots Church, and Shushi Northern Cemetery.  According to CHW, the following religious sites were threatened by nearby large-scale construction projects:  Saint Astvatatsin Church, Vankasar Church, and Amenaprkich Church.  In addition, CHW reported the destruction of the 18th century Aygek Mosque as a result of the construction of the Khudafarin-Gubadli-Lachin road along the Hakari/Aghavno River valley, following the November ceasefire.

CHW said it was concerned about the government’s reconstruction of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha.  Footage after the November 2020 ceasefire showed partial destruction of the dome and bell tower of the church.  According to a CHW analysis, the church previously had two cupolas; the analysis cited a February image taken from Google Earth showing a portion of the eastern cupola was still standing at that time.  CHW said that based on satellite imagery from April 10, the eastern cupola had been destroyed.

On May 26, BBC reported the removal of a cross atop St. Yeghishe Armenian Church in Sugovushan (Mataghis).  A video reposted in March by Armenia’s ombudsman Armen Tatoyan on social media had shown soldiers wearing Azerbaijani and Turkish insignia desecrating the church.

In June, The Art Newspaper published a report using satellite images that detailed the destruction of medieval Armenian churches in Agulis, Nakhchivan.  The churches were seen in 1977 images but were missing in images from 2016 and 2019.  The destruction included Surb Stepanos (Saint Stephen), likely founded in the 12th to 13th centuries, the medieval Surb Tovma (Saint Thomas), Surb Kristapor (Saint Christopher), Surb Hovhannes Mkrtich (Saint John the Baptist), and other ancient churches, such as Mets Anapat Surb Astvatasatsin (Greater Hermitage Holy Mother of God) and Surb Hakob Hayrapet (Saint Jacob of Nisibis).  The Art Newspaper also chronicled the destruction of Armenian heritage throughout Nakhchivan, which once included 89 churches, 5,840 cross-stones, and more than 22,000 tombstones, according to documentation from 1964-87 collected by independent researcher Argam Ayvazyan.  Because religion and ethnicity are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

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