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Pastor facing criminal charges following church raid in Azerbaijan

Country/Region: Azerbaijan, Central Asia

A pastor has been threatened with criminal proceedings following a raid on his church as further measures to restrict religious freedom in the country come into force.

Pastor Telman Aliev’s church in Neftechala was raided during a Sunday service on 11 December. Those present were questioned and then told that the church, which has been unable to re-register with the state for over a decade, was closed; the officials took the keys and sealed the building, though it was later re-opened.

The-Azerbaijani-Parliament-4X3
The Azerbaijani Parliament (Milli Majlis) building
CC BY-ND 2.0 / Salvatore Freni Jr

One official said:

Without registration you can’t pray. We close any place of worship that isn’t registered.

They seized around 200 items of literature, including Bibles and magazines, as well as audio and video recordings, for vetting by the state committee that carries out Azerbaijan’s compulsory censorship of all religious literature. 

On 23 December, the pastor, his wife and all church members were summoned for police questioning. The pastor had earlier been told that “a criminal case had been launched over religious literature arousing incitement over other faiths”.

He had previously been pressured by the authorities to leave Neftechala and now lives in the capital Baku, travelling down each week to lead church services.

New laws impose harsh penalties

Amendments to the country’s Criminal and Administrative Codes that create new penalties or increase the severity of existing punishments for a range of religious activities came into force on 12 December.

These include the introduction of a prison term of up to five years for those who produce or distribute religious literature that has not been vetted by the state.

They were passed by the Azerbaijani parliament on 15 November before being signed into law by the president.

One member of parliament, Ganira Pashaeva, said:

Today in Azerbaijan various religious sects and movements are increasing their propaganda. It is necessary to harshen the measures being adopted to put a halt to this.

The measures have been criticised by Baku’s Media Rights Institute as “a violation of the right to freedom of expression protected by law.”

They are the latest in a long series of laws that have increasingly restricted religious freedom in Azerbaijan.

Religious groups have been forced to re-register five times since 1992. Many of their applications, including Pastor Aliev’s church, which lost its registration in 1999, have been met with no response.  

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