The government detained several religious activists, including three who were considered by local observers to be political prisoners, bringing the total number of religious activists deemed to be political prisoners to 52. The government also placed religious activists into custody for short periods after raiding religious gatherings, including those of unregistered groups, such as readers of texts by Islamic theologian Said Nursi. The registration process restricted the activities of religious groups the government considered nontraditional, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Islamic religious organizations. The government also imposed limits on the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The government took some steps to improve religious tolerance. Jewish community representatives said the government provided support for their activities.
On April 12, police disrupted a Nursi gathering in Baku, arresting 41 people and confiscating religious materials. Police released most of the detainees after reportedly holding several incommunicado for hours. On April 14, a district court fined nine of these individuals 1,500 AZN ($1,875) each, charging them with participating in an illegal religious gathering. The Ministry of National Security (MNS) initially held two of the detainees, Eldaniz Hajiyev and Ismayil Mammadov, for two months on charges of conducting illegal religious activities. A district court later extended their detention. Authorities detained a third participant in the Nursi gathering, Revan Sabzaliyev, on May 23 and sentenced him to prolonged detention. In September authorities replaced the detention measures with house arrest until the conclusion of the case, which was ongoing at year’s end. Local observers considered these three activists to be political prisoners.
The same court in April fined a Shia theologian who had been teaching his faith in the same district.
In November authorities detained Salafi community activist Zohrab Shikhaliyev in Jorat, accusing him of illegal possession of weapons. Other members of the Salafi community said the weapons had been planted on Shikhaliyev by law enforcement officials, who had arrested and detained another nine Salafi adherents, later releasing them after police reportedly had humiliated and abused them. Shikhaliyev reportedly had rejected religious radicalism and violence and had opened a chapel in his yard because there was no Sunni mosque in Sumgait.
On December 17, the MNS detained well known religious scholar Elshan Mustafayev. Two days later, a district court sentenced him to four months’ pretrial detention on charges of treason.
According to local observers, the government sometimes incarcerated religious activists on spurious charges because of their political activism.
The government reportedly detained Salafis in various parts of the country, confiscated religious materials, and replaced community leaders and imams in mosques suspected of being Salafi gathering places. Although Salafis could attend these mosques, they were prohibited from holding positions of leadership, leading prayers, or delivering sermons.
Police conducted raids on suspected followers of Islamic Turkish cleric and theologian Fethullah Gulen and confiscated religious materials. Authorities deported some Turkish nationals and arrested some Azerbaijani citizens on suspicion of Gulen affiliation. Two government officials were removed from their positions due to suspected ties with the Gulen movement, and authorities forced changes in leadership in 11 high schools, 13 university exam preparation centers, and a private university believed to be linked to the Gulen movement.
On several occasions, police raided gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses and confiscated religious materials, but charges were either not filed or dismissed in court.
Nontraditional religious groups that lacked official registration, both Muslim and non-Muslim, said they continued to have difficulties functioning and on occasion were fined by the government for administrative violations. A number of Protestant leaders cited registration problems that prevented them from openly worshiping, performing sacraments, or advertising their locations to bring in new members. Home church leaders stated registration attempts would bring unwanted attention.
Many religious communities said the government was slow to act on registration applications (despite a requirement that authorities act on applications within 30 days of receipt) and returned some applications because of alleged technical or administrative problems with the information provided. Several Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported the SCWRA either rejected or did not adjudicate reregistration applications, which were required following a 2010 decision that all religious communities must reregister even if they were registered before 2010. Additionally, groups reported confusion within the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) about the validity of the pre-existing registration of some religious groups as nongovernment entities. For example, the Greater Grace Protestant Church resubmitted parts of its registration application to the SCWRA following a Baku court’s April 2012 decision to revoke the church’s MOJ registration on the basis of its alleged refusal to comply with the requirement to reregister with the SCWRA. By year’s end, the church reported minor progress on the renewal of its registration.
According to government officials, as of December 19, the total number of registered religious groups was 597, of which 21 were non-Muslim, including 12 Christian, six Jewish, two Bahai, and one Hare Krishna. Religious groups whose registration was left in limbo during the year included some Islamic groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Baku International Fellowship, a non-denominational Protestant church.
According to a September 17 public statement by SCWRA Chairman Mubariz Gurbanli, only recognized clergy of registered religious communities had permission to hold religious ceremonies.
Controls on a variety of activities by Islamic groups, including religious television broadcasts and the sale of religious literature at metro stations, remained in effect. The government continued to pre-approve television shows, and religious experts noted a tendency to allow only Shia television broadcasts. The police reportedly maintained a list of books banned by the SCWRA, which authorities used when confiscating publications from religious groups.
Head coverings were allowed in most public places but not in official photographs. An unofficial directive from the then-minister of education prohibited girls from wearing the hijab in primary and secondary schools. The government took no legal steps to implement this directive, and the majority of school administrators throughout the country did not implement it.
Several Muslim and Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, complained of censorship and a lengthy and burdensome process to obtain permission to import religious literature.
On May 5, state-affiliated media reported that law enforcement officials confiscated books promoting a variety of religious groups and movements during operations conducted against religious movements perceived as dangerous to national security. Officials stated the books had been banned by the SCWRA, and their importation was prohibited.
Domestic human rights monitors criticized the government for not offering any form of alternative service to conscientious objectors who refused compulsory military service. On July 16, an appeals court upheld a decision prescribing a year of service in a military disciplinary unit for Jehovah’s Witness Kamran Shikhaliyev, who was conscripted against his will in October 2013.
Local executive authorities continued to close mosques they said were in need of renovation or had safety issues. A number of mosques closed by authorities on this basis in 2010 remained closed. Many local religious experts said these closures indicated a government attempt to counter extremism, especially in the Baku area.
During the year, according to government officials, authorities constructed two mosques and continued the construction of a grand mosque in the Binagadi District of Baku. Authorities also renovated 14 mosques, three churches, and one synagogue.
The government allocated 2.5 million AZN ($3.1 million) to Muslim communities and 400,000 AZN ($500,000) to non-Muslim communities, both traditional and non-traditional, to use at their discretion.
The SCWRA continued to hold conferences and public events on religion and state affairs. During the year, the SCWRA, together with the Eurasian Regional Center of Islamic Conference Youth Forum, sponsored regional training and seminars promoting tolerance that brought together representatives of different faiths to discuss religious issues. In addition, the government established the Baku International Multiculturalism Center and the National Tolerance Center to conduct seminars and training on diversity issues and promote tolerance.
On November 16, the government organized a conference on “State and Religion: Contemporary Challenges and Tolerance,” featuring discussions on religious freedom, tolerance, and efforts to combat radicalism.
On November 17-18, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Project Coordinator’s Office in Baku, in conjunction with the CMB, organized an international conference on “Strengthening Religious Tolerance: Azerbaijan’s Model and Challenges in the OSCE Area and Beyond.” Government, diplomatic corps, and religious community representatives participated, along with international experts.
Jewish community representatives reported authorities continued to support their activities and allow the duty-free importation of religious items.