Azerbaijan has unleashed a wave of repression to consolidate control over Muslims and other churches and religions, reported the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in a statement received Tuesday, Aug. 24. The commission said it was "deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation for religious freedom in Azerbaijan," adding that the incidents were "part of a pattern over the past few years of tightening government control on Islamic practice and restrictions on the activities of minority religious communities.
The Azeri government is clearly moving in the wrong direction with respect to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief in, Commission Chair Pretta Bansal told the Agence France Presse.
While church registration is not required under Azerbaijani law, several incidences have been reported of churches being ordered closed or destroyed for not registering. For example, the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) reported that in one incident, a Baptist church in Baku was threatened with destruction by an Interior Ministry colonel if they do not register. In another instance, a court ordered a Baptist church in the Baku closed after government officials accused the pastor of "insulting Islam several times." The church had previously been licensed by the government and was in the process of reapplying. In several locations throughout Azerbaijan, local authorities have threatened, fined, detained and beaten believers. According to a March 2002 report from Keston, the leading "black spot" for persecution is the second largest city of Gyanja.
VOM reported that Christians are forbidden to engage in religious propaganda and there are severe restrictions on distribution of literature for non traditional religious groups. The government must approve all religious literature for content and the number to be distributed, but approval is rarely granted and thousands of religious books have been destroyed. Christians have frequently faced expulsion or threats of expulsion from the country.
Also, because the Christian population in Azerbaijan is almost entirely ethnic Armenian and Russian, elements of racial discrimination have reportedly affected religious freedoms.
On the Open Doors World Watch List, released earlier this year, Azerbaijan was listed No. 20 among the top 50 countries where Christians suffer the most.