Azerbaijan Gov't Hassles Unregistered Evangelical Church

An evangelical megachurch in the former Soviet Union state of Azerbaijan has been kept from meeting for worship since January because of a string of bureaucratic obstacles.

The Cathedral of Praise church in the capital city of Baku could not re-register with the state by the Jan. 1, 2010, deadline and was barred from renting facilities, including from other churches, for worship, reported religious freedom watchdog Forum 18.

The church had submitted all the required documents for re-registration on time, but the State Committee for Work with Religious Organization – known for its harsh restrictions on religious communities – rejected the application. The committee justified its decision by saying some of the names of the founders of the church had changed.

Notably, it took five years for the church to register the first time.

Another obstacle for the church has been a religious law that says a church can only meet at its registered address.

The problem for Cathedral Praise is that the large tent that they were meeting under on church-owned land was burned by arsonists in a fire on Jan. 9. The Protestant church was meeting in a tent because its worship building was confiscated in 2008 during a legal dispute.

And since the government body overseeing religious communities does not allow a church to register or even meet without a building, there's not much the 1,000-member Cathedral Praise can do. The church cannot even rent worship space because it is not registered.

According to the Kiev, Ukraine-based Institute of Religious Freedom, the procedure of state registration for religious communities is the "biggest obstacle to religious freedom" in Azerbaijan. The IRF said the law is "overly cumbersome" with more requirements for the founders of the religious communities than ever before.

Besides registration, the Azerbaijani government also denied a visa application in 2005 for the Cathedral Praise's Swedish pastor. He had to leave the country within two weeks and was barred from returning.

Azerbaijan's population is predominantly Muslim (93.4 percent) with small religious communities of Russian Orthodox (2.5 percent) and Armenian Orthodox (2.3 percent).

According to Forum 18, there are 450 registered religious communities in Azerbaijan as of Sept. 1. These registered communities include 433 Muslim, six Jewish, nine Christian, one Baha'i, and one Hare Krishna.