04/13/2011, 00.00
AZERBAIJAN

Baku: "unregistered" Christians forbidden to pray together

The new religious freedom law prohibits any activity of unregistered religious groups. Many groups have sought registration, but is slow in coming. Meanwhile, the police arrest the "offenders". But President Ilham Aliev congratulates himself on his promotion of religious freedom.

Baku (AsiaNews/F18) - The authorities have prohibited three religious from coming together to pray in Gyanja, the second largest city of Azerbaijan. Forum 18 news agency says that Christians, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, confirmed the repeated threat of police to arrest those who continued to meet for Sunday service.

Recently at least two van loads of police arrived near the places where the faithful of the Eastern Star Pentecostal Church meet, ready to intervene. The source reports that the authorities want to target groups without state authorization.

Firdovsi Kerimov, the representative for the Department of State Gyanja registration committee, which oversees the authorization of religious communities, on March 29 told media they have warned the Pentecostal Church Star of the East, the New Apostolic Church and a Baptist group that they can not meet without permission, even to pray. He explained that two of these groups have sought permission, but can not meet in the meantime, while the process is underway.

"Now the faithful are really scared - says the anonymous source - the police check that you meet, even to pray together.

F18 found that the request for authorization of more than 300 religious communities are waiting to be examined. The reform of December 2010 on religious freedom states that all activities of unregistered groups is illegal, even to meet to pray. The legislation was presented as a useful tool against Islamic terrorism, but in fact various Protestant groups, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and others, pending approval, are subject to police raids and arrests for short periods for their "illegal" religious activity (see AsiaNews 10/01/2011, Higher fines for people who meet to pray or read religious texts). The Star of the East was already authorized in Baku, but under the new law, was told that it had to submit a new application: it did and is waiting for the decision.

The New Apostolic Church had permission for the Baku group and explained to authorities that this permission has a value for the faithful of Gyanja and other cities. But it also had to request a new registration, under the new law, and is still waiting for a response. F18 denounces that in Gyanja many religious groups have been subjected to threats and prohibitions by the authorities. The only Sunni Muslim mosque in the city was closed. Jehovah's Witnesses are forbidden to meet and are hit with fines and arrests.

But many mosques across the country were closed by force, as in Qobustan (Maraz) March 4. In Yevlakh since January, the young people of school age are forbidden to participate in Friday prayers in the Juma mosque, the only one of the city.

Meanwhile, President Ilham Aliev on April 7, opening the work of a global forum for intercultural dialogue in Baku, was congratulated himself on "Azerbaijan having a high level of ethnic and religious tolerance, that is the source of our strength" . "Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience exist in Azerbaijan."

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