Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The government continued to detain religious activists who local human rights groups deemed to be political prisoners. There were no reliable figures on the number of religious activists detained or released during the year, although the estimated total detained as of the end of the year was 86, compared to 46 in 2015, according to data collected by the Working Group for the Unified List of Political Prisoners and other NGOs. The registration process restricted the activities of religious groups the government considered nontraditional, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, and some Islamic religious organizations. Authorities continued to close mosques and interrupt religious services of unregistered communities. The government also imposed limits on the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The government took some steps to promote religious tolerance.
According to the international NGO Forum 18, Inqilab Ehadli, a Shia Muslim, was arrested in January and transferred to the secret police Investigation Prison for allegedly supporting the Muslim Unity Movement. A human rights activist reportedly told Forum 18 Ehadli had been in poor health when arrested and as of April was in critical condition in a prison hospital. No further information on his case was available.
According to press and government reports, the government continued to detain representatives of minority religious groups, including Salafis and Baptists, in various parts of the country.
Throughout the year, but particularly after the attempted coup in Turkey in July, police conducted raids on, and confiscated religious materials from, purported followers of Turkish Islamic cleric and theologian Fethullah Gulen on charges of religious hatred and discrimination.
On March 23, police raided a gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Gakh, briefly detained 56 people, and confiscated religious materials that had not been authorized by the government. The court later imposed 1,500 AZN ($820) fines on 34 individuals on charges of participating in an illegal religious gathering.
According to the World Watch Monitor, a Christian NGO, two home church leaders in the southern village of Aliabad were fined 1,500 AZN ($820), after police raided a prayer meeting at their home and initially arrested all 30 participants before releasing them. At a December 12 court hearing, the two leaders were reportedly warned not to hold any further meetings unless they first sought official registration and permission, or there would be “more serious consequences.” National television reports described their arrest as based on “illegal religious activities” and “spreading illegal religious doctrines.”
During the year, the government continued the trials of 17 imprisoned Nardaran settlement residents, as well as theologian and chairman of the Muslim Unity Movement Taleh Baghirov (also known as Taleh Baghirzade), all of whom had been arrested in 2015 on charges of religious extremism. The trial was ongoing at year’s end. Police officers reportedly stood outside every mosque in Nardaran in an effort to intimidate villagers at the end of Ramadan. A human rights activist reported an “undeclared state of emergency” had been in effect in Nardaran since the November 2015 police action.
The Baku City Court of Grave Crimes in July began hearing the case of religious scholar Elshan Mustafayev (also known as Mustafaoghlu), a former department head at the CMB originally arrested in 2014 for treason. During the court hearings, Mustafayev stated he was subjected to physical abuse by the police in efforts to coerce his testimony against Muslim community leader Sheykhulislam Allahshukur Pashazade. Mustafayev also stated authorities did not permit visits from his family and appealed to the Prosecutor General and Ombudswoman to investigate his mistreatment. Authorities did not respond to his allegations. On December 30, Mustafayev was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
On April 19, the Baku Court of Appeals released Nurju followers Ravan Sabzaliyev, Zakariyya Mammadov, and Shahin Hasanov, who had been arrested in 2013 on charges of producing and distributing illegal religious materials and committing civil rights violations under the guise of performing religious rituals. The court also reduced the sentences of Eldaniz Hajiyev and Ismayil Mammadov, arrested for the same reasons, from five to three years in prison.
On September 30, authorities released theologian Jeyhun Jafarov from prison, reducing his sentence to house arrest. Security services had arrested Jafarov in March 2015 on charges of treason, after searching the offices of his translation center and confiscating computers and mobile phones.
On January 28, the Pirallahi District Court in Baku released two imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses, Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko, after 11 months in prison for illegal distribution of religious literature.
Members of unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups, which the government considered to be nontraditional, continued to report they had difficulty functioning, and the government continued to levy fines against them for gathering as unregistered religious groups. A number of Protestant leaders continued to report that registration problems prevented them from openly worshiping, conducting sacraments, or advertising their locations to bring in new members. Home church leaders reported they continued to keep their activities discreet after past registration attempts had brought them what they said was unwanted attention from the authorities.
According to many religious communities, the government continued to delay the registration application process and returned some applications because of what the government said were technical or administrative problems with the information provided. Seventh-day Adventists, however, reported some progress with their application to register their Baku church, although it was still not registered as of the end of the year. Religious groups whose registration applications remained pending included minority Muslim groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses outside of Baku, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists in Ganja, and the Baku International Fellowship, a nondenominational Protestant church. Many communities that had been registered prior to the 2009 law requiring all registered religious communities to reregister continued to report the SCWRA either rejected or did not adjudicate reregistration applications. Almost all religious groups awaiting registration, whether registered prior to the 2009 law or not, had submitted their original registration applications by the original January 2010 deadline and reported they had been involved in the process of making minor corrections to their applications since then as required by the government.
According to the SCWRA, previously registered communities whose new registration applications were pending were able to operate under their previous registration, and the SCWRA continued to provide the communities with letters authorizing them to operate. Some religious communities that were unable to reregister continued to report confusion within the Ministry of Justice about the validity of their preexisting registration. According to these communities, police continued to reject SCWRA letters authorizing them to continue operations with their pre-2009 documents; they said police had told them only communities listed on the SCWRA website as currently registered were allowed to operate.
The SCWRA reported it had approved the registration of 75 religious communities during the year, while 22 communities had dissolved themselves for unspecified reasons. The SCWRA continued to report it had not denied any new registration applications from religious communities during the year; however, the SCWRA reportedly returned registration applications to communities as incomplete or failed to take action on some applications. In addition, the SCWRA continued to consider pre-2009 registration status for such communities to apply only to the physical structures mentioned in their pre-2009 registration form. The SCWRA stated any religious activities of these communities in additional facilities or new locations acquired since 2009 were not covered under their pre-2009 registration status.
According to government officials, the 75 new registrations brought the total number of registered religious groups to 707, of which 25 were non-Muslim – 16 Christian, six Jewish, two Bahai, and one ISKON group. The SCWRA also reported there were 2,054 registered mosques.
In September according to the news service of Forum 18, authorities closed a Sunni mosque in Gobustan for operating without registration. Subsequently, the court found community leader Ahmad Simirov guilty of violating religious registration requirements and ordered him to pay a 1,500 AZN ($820) fine.
Local religious experts continued to report local authorities closed mosques, stating they were in need of renovation or had safety issues. Some mosques closed as long ago as 2010 remained closed. According to these experts, the closures were attempts by the government to counter extremism, especially in the Baku area. Government officials stated, in particular, the threat posed by ISIS remained a serious concern.
In July authorities closed the Ashurbey Mosque in the Old City of Baku for renovation. Some civil society activists stated the closure was related to the use of the mosque by Salafi Muslims. According to press and government reports, authorities confiscated religious materials and replaced community leaders and imams in other mosques suspected of being Salafi gathering places. Although Salafis were allowed to attend these mosques, they were prohibited from holding positions of leadership, leading prayers, or delivering sermons.
In January according to Forum 18, police closed a Sunni home mosque in Shirvan that had functioned for 20 years for operating without registration. No further information about the case was available as of the end of the year.
In May authorities and the police demolished a Shia seminary in Nardaran reportedly in order to widen a street that residents said could not be widened. Community members filed a complaint with the judicial authorities. No further information was available about this case as of the end of the year.
On February 22, according to an independent news agency, police stopped a religious ceremony devoted to the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed at a mosque in Nardaran, because they had not received prior notification of the ceremony.
According to Forum 18, some Muslim groups not part of the CMB, particularly Sunni groups, objected to the imposition of a calendar by the state stipulating when they were allowed to pray and celebrate Islamic festivals. They reportedly said they feared arrest if they prayed according to the calendar they believed to be correct.
The government continued to allow head coverings in most public places but not in photographs for official identity documents. According to local observers, the government and the majority of school administrators throughout the country also continued to allow girls to wear the hijab in primary and secondary schools, despite a prior directive not to do so.
The government continued its controls on activities by Muslim groups, including on the content of religious television broadcasts and the sale of religious literature. According to local religious experts, the authorities continued to confiscate banned books.
Several Muslim and Christian groups continued to complain of censorship and of a lengthy and burdensome process to obtain permission to import religious literature. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although the SCWRA allowed the importation of Jehovah’s Witness publications, the government allegedly ran out of the stamps necessary to mark the publications as approved so the group was unable to use or distribute the publications.
Domestic human rights monitors continued to criticize the government for not offering any form of alternative service to conscientious objectors in place of military service. Government officials stated the reason for this situation was the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The supreme court continued to deny Jehovah’s Witnesses’ appeals on the lack of alternative services despite the government’s July 14 statement to the UN Human Rights Council saying alternative service was an option provided by the law. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the State Service for Mobilization and Conscription (SSMC) threatened Jehovah’s Witness Daniel Khutsishivili with criminal prosecution for requesting conscientious objector status to military service. When Khutsishivili requested alternative service, the SSMC reportedly informed him no provision of law existed to implement conscientious objector status, even though the constitution allowed it.
The government allocated 1 million AZN ($543,000) to the Caucasus Muslim Board for the needs of Muslim communities, and 800,000 AZN($435,000) to non-Muslim communities, both traditional and nontraditional, to use at their discretion. According to SCWRA officials, 2.5 million AZN ($1.4 million) was allocated to their budget for religious education programs.
In February President Ilham Aliyev participated in the opening ceremony of the Shia Imamzade religious center in Ganja after its extensive renovation. Authorities also renovated 12 mosques, two churches, and one synagogue during the year.
The SCWRA held 14 regional conferences during the year on multiculturalism, tolerance, and combating religious radicalism as part of its annual work aimed at increasing religious tolerance and coexistence. The conferences, as well as training sessions and seminars, cosponsored by the Eurasian Regional Center of Islamic Conference Youth Forum, brought together representatives of different faiths to discuss religion and state affairs.
The government hosted the 7th Global Forum of the UN Alliance of Civilizations in April. The meeting focused on developing inclusive societies and issued a declaration rejecting the advocacy of religious hatred as a means of inciting discrimination, hostility, or violence.