There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including religious prisoners and detainees. The government also raided religious communities and confiscated religious literature. The government often targeted religious groups it considers “nontraditional” religions, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and unsanctioned Muslim religious organizations, which the government claims politicize Islam. In practice, some groups were vulnerable to government raids for worshiping without registration.
The government took no legal steps to implement the minister of education’s directive prohibiting the right of girls to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in primary and secondary schools, and the majority of school administrators throughout the country did not implement the minister’s directive.
On May 6 a group of people gathered in front of the Ministry of Education to protest the minister’s directive on wearing hijabs at primary and secondary schools. A large police force dispersed the protesters and it was reported that authorities released forty detainees the next morning, but jailed the remaining five for 12 to15 days on administrative charges of hooliganism, resisting arrest, and disturbing public order.
Domestic human rights monitors continued to criticize the government’s failure to develop a civilian alternative option to non-combat military service, and Jehovah’s Witnesses argued that the country, as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, is obliged to develop one. The government continued to charge and imprison conscientious objectors for refusing to serve in the military. A court convicted Farid Mammadov, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in 2010 for refusal to perform military service in peacetime and sentenced him to nine months’ imprisonment. Authorities freed him from prison on June 8.
Several religious groups remained unregistered. In 2010 the government required all religious groups to re-register with the SCWRA. Although it registered numerous Muslim and several non-Muslim groups, at year’s end the SCWRA either refused or did not adjudicate the re-registration of at least 12 groups of various religions. Despite a requirement that registration applications be acted on within 30 days of receipt, religious organizations observed that nontransparent registration procedures prolonged this process.
Throughout the year, legal proceedings by Jehovah’s Witnesses against various authorities started, continued, or were completed. At issue was the SCWRA’s refusal to grant re-registration and censor the content and number of publications the Jehovah’s Witnesses wanted to import. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also appealed several convictions and fines of its members. For example, authorities in Ganja on June 12 detained, then released, convicted, and fined four Jehovah’s Witness believers from 500 to 1500 manat ($633 to $1,898) for allegedly participating in an illegal religious meeting in Ganja. The Ganja Court of Appeals issued a final decision on July 11 to dismiss the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ appeal of these convictions.
Religious organizations continued to report incidents of authorities raiding and confiscating religious materials. In May police disrupted a Cathedral of Praise service taking place at a restaurant in Sumgait, recorded the names of those present, and took several members of the group to a police station for questioning. Two members received fines of 149 manat ($190) for the administrative offense of attending church at a location other than its registered address. In another incident in May, approximately 20 police officers and officials from the state committee raided the private home of a South Korean citizen, seizing 60 Bibles and other Christian books.
Media outlets continued to report sporadic confrontations between religious communities (mainly Muslim) and law enforcement agencies. In such incidents, the authorities reportedly pushed, detained for a few days, forcefully questioned, or warned Muslims, often prior to or during major Muslim holidays. For example, in December, police reportedly met and talked with a few Shia leaders in Ganja prior to Ashura, warning the Shia community of the need to maintain order during their religious ceremony.
On July 18 the Azerbaijan Public Association for Security and Defense (MilAz) reported three officers of the National Army were reduced in rank for performing namaz (Muslim prayers). The Ministry of Defense denied this allegation, claiming the officers were moved to other military units and demoted for inefficiency.
Unconfirmed allegations were made by an NGO that the government continued to ban the placement of religious icons and literature in some offices of government employees.
The law permits the production and dissemination of religious literature with the approval of the SCWRA; however, authorities appeared to be selective in their approval of religious materials, especially with religions without a long historical presence, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Obtaining permission to import religious literature remained burdensome, and Muslim and Christian groups complained of the lengthy process and increased censorship.
Controls on a variety of Islamic activity, including religious television broadcasts and sale of religious literature at metro stations, remained in effect.
Additional restrictions included property disputes, such as with the Cathedral of Praise, and alleged bans on the call to prayer in some areas.
Authorities continued to limit activities of “nontraditional” Muslim communities through closing mosques and prayer houses. There were some reports of closures of Muslim prayer houses in the greater Baku area and northern regions. The government claimed these prayer houses used the premises of different organizations without permission and had failed to properly register. For example, in December, Yasamal District authorities in Baku closed the Huseyniyya prayer house. The SCWRA explained that this was done on the basis of illegal use of premises belonging to other agencies and failure to register.
A number of mosques closed by authorities in 2010 remained closed. Some were closed by local executive authorities on the grounds that they were in need of renovations, or for safety reasons, such as the Shahidlar Mosque. The Sunni Juma mosque in Ganja was closed for failing to follow registration requirements. There have been no further developments regarding these cases.
The construction of the Fatima Zahra Shia mosque in the Yeni Guneshli settlement of the Surakhani District of Baku remained stalled in 2011 as the community’s registration request remained unresolved.
The Cathedral of Praise’s long-standing property and registration disputes with the authorities continued and remained with the courts. On May 25 the Supreme Court overthrew the Court of Appeals’ previous decision dismissing the Cathedral of Praise’s lawsuit which had claimed church property was illegally confiscated, and the case was sent back for reconsideration. However, the community reported that it was offered land in a different location as compensation.
During the year, an NGO reported one incident of possible forced beard shaving. On July 26 police in the Zagatala region allegedly beat and forcibly shaved a 51-year-old man who refused to shave his beard in order to be photographed for his identity card. However, the Ministry of Internal Affairs disputed the report, claiming the man was given the option of applying for a completely new identity card or shaving his beard to match the photo in his old identity card, and that he departed without any physical altercation.
Unlike in prior years, there were no reports of arrests of individuals who observed the Islamic holiday of Ashura through self-flagellation. The CMB publicly recommended blood donations instead of self-flagellation.
On December 13 Trend news agency reported that local authorities detained an unknown number of Seventh-Day Adventists and confiscated religious literature. Authorities detained one foreign citizen during this raid.
Several news outlets reported that on October 31 government officials detained four Baptists for a five-day period subsequent to a raid on a private home at which approximately 80 persons had gathered for a harvest festival.
The requirement for re-registration in 2010 of all religious groups, regardless of the previous status of their registration, was easily fulfilled by some groups. However, the government denied the registration of other groups and left others waiting in limbo. For example, the government denied the registration of some communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, the Fatima Zahra mosque, the Baku International Fellowship, and the Baptist Church in Aliabad. According to Human Rights Without Frontiers, the government also denied the registration of the Nehemiah and Pentecostal churches. Groups that were denied registration sat in a legal gray area; they could not congregate legally and could be subjected to harassment by law-enforcement officials.
As of December 31 the government had registered a total of 570 religious communities, of which 550 were Islamic and 20 were non-Islamic.
Organizations that chose to practice without official registration continued to be vulnerable to being declared illegal and closed or subjected to selective harassment by local authorities. As a result, these groups found it difficult, or in some cases impossible, to function.
The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Religious groups and NGOs, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Forum 18, reported that they faced some restrictions and abuses in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In December Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nagorno-Karabakh reported one of their members, Karen Ogandjanyan, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for refusing military service.