The government detained a number of religious activists. The number of religious activists local human rights groups deemed to be political prisoners totaled 46, compared to 52 in 2014. These figures were estimates; there were no reliable figures on the number of religious activists detained or released during the year. 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 promote religious tolerance.
On November 3, according to press reports, Yasamal police severely beat Imam Taleh Bagirzade (also known as Taleh Bagirov), a leader of the independent Muslim Unity Movement (MUM). As reported in the press, Bagirzade was held for longer than the legally prescribed 24 hours, was not permitted access to his lawyer, and appeared to have been beaten again before his December 2 court date. Press reports also said Bagirzade appeared to have been tortured. On November 26, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ (MIA) regular and civil disorder police entered the village of Nardaran and arrested 14 people on charges of extremism, including Bagirzade. Five alleged extremists and two police were killed as a result of the initial raid. Over the next four days, MIA forces restricted land and sea access to the village and made house-to-house searches. According to media reports, the MIA detained approximately 38 additional people, most of whom were later released without being charged. Government statements said the actions were taken in response to national security threats from MUM; however, some democracy/human rights advocates stated the charges were fabricated. Local media also reported multiple arrests in Lankaran and Ganja of people the government charged with association with MUM.
Authorities had released Bagirzade on July 31, after he had served his full prison sentence for a conviction on drug and police-resistance charges. Local observers connected his arrest and conviction to a controversial 2013 sermon in which he criticized the government and the president. After his release, Bagirzade had announced he would continue his religious activities.
On February 17, authorities detained and later imprisoned two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko, charging them with illegal distribution of religious literature. In December the two were moved to the Ministry of Justice pretrial detention facility at Kurdakhani, and the prosecutor completed his investigation, charging the pair with illegal distribution of religious material. The prosecutor justified the charge by stating that, although the religious material in question had been authorized for import, it was not authorized for distribution.
On March 10, Shia Muslim theologian and translator Jeyhun Jafarov was arrested by the secret police on charges of treason. He had led pilgrimage groups to Mecca, conducted a series of television programs on religion, and translated two books by an Iranian ayatollah. At the end of the year, he remained in pretrial detention.
Originally arrested in 2014, religious scholar Elshan Mustafayev, a former department head at the CMB, remained in detention at the Ministry of National Security facility and charged with treason. At year’s end, his case had not been brought to trial.
After a trial that began in January, on February 18, Sumgait City Court sentenced Zohrab Shikhaliyev to a six-month prison sentence for having an illegal Sunni Muslim prayer room in his home. He had already spent three months in pretrial detention.
In July a court sentenced four of five Sunni Muslims arrested in 2014 on charges of selling illegal religious literature to six- to 15-month prison terms. One of them was the Imam of Baku's Ashur (formerly Lezghi) Mosque, Mubariz Garayev, who received a one-year sentence.
According to press and government reports, the government detained representatives of nontraditional religious groups, including 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. According to local media reports, authorities detained an unspecified number of Salafi members of the Lezghi, Garacukhur, and Mehdiabad community mosques on March 17, and they seized Salafi religious materials in a raid in Sumgayit on February 18.
Throughout the year, police conducted raids on suspected followers of Turkish Islamic cleric and theologian Fethullah Gulen and confiscated religious materials. Authorities deported Turkish nationals and arrested Azerbaijani citizens on suspicion of affiliation with Gulen. In October a court in Baku sentenced several citizens to two to five years in jail following charges of involvement in Nursist activities (based on the teachings of Gulen).
In June police raided the home of Sabuhi Mammadov, who was hosting a group of Muslims meeting to study the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. According to police, they confiscated books because “he [Mammadov] had not gathered people correctly.” A court fined Mammadov and 13 other Muslims present at the meeting. The court did not disclose the size of the fines. In a letter to Mammadov, Gunduz Ismayilov, a deputy chair of the SCWRA, wrote that distribution of works by Nursi was “not appropriate.”
On several occasions, police raided gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses and confiscated religious materials, but charges were either not filed or dismissed in court. For example, in July police raided a religious meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a member’s home. While they were not fined, the court gave the group an official warning and deported one member, a Georgian citizen. On February 2, following their detention by the police, a judge from Barda District Court warned two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rza Babayev and Ilham Hasanov, against violating legislation on holding religious meetings, other religious ceremonies, and marches. In January a court fined a Jehovah’s Witness an undisclosed amount for discussing his faith on the street.
Members of unregistered nontraditional religious groups, both Muslim and non-Muslim, said their groups 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, conducting sacraments, or advertising their locations to bring in new members. Some home church leaders stated registration attempts would bring unwanted attention.
Many religious communities said the government continued to act slowly on registration applications and returned some applications because of what the government said were technical or administrative problems with the information provided. Religious groups whose registration applications remained pending included some Islamic groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses outside of Baku, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Baku International Fellowship, a nondenominational Protestant church. Several of these communities were registered prior to a 2009 law requiring all previously registered religious communities to reregister and reported the SCWRA either rejected or did not adjudicate reregistration applications. Almost all religious groups awaiting registration, whether registered prior to the 2009 law or not, submitted their original registration applications by the January 2010 deadline.
According to the SCWRA, previously registered communities whose new registration applications were pending could still operate under their previous registration, and the SCWRA provided the communities with letters authorizing them to operate. Some religious communities who were unable to reregister, however, reported confusion within the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) about the validity of their preexisting registration. These communities said police did not accept SCWRA letters authorizing them to continue operations with their pre-2009 documents; police had instructed them that only communities listed on the SCWRA website as currently registered were allowed to operate.
Additionally, pre-2009 registration specifically applied to only the physical structures mentioned in the registration form. The SCWRA considered that any communities that expanded into additional facilities or relocated were not covered under their pre-2009 registration status. The SCWRA reported it had not denied any new registration applications from religious communities during the year; however, the SCWRA reportedly returned registration applications to communities as incomplete or failed to take action on some applications.
According to government officials, as of July 8, the total number of registered religious groups was 632, of which 21 were non-Muslim, including 12 Christian, six Jewish, two Bahai, and one Hare Krishna groups. The SCWRA also reported 2,000 registered mosques. The SCWRA did not provide specific information on how many religious communities registered or applied to register during the year or were awaiting a decision on registration applications from previous years.
In January, according to the news service of the Norwegian-based religious freedom NGO Forum 18, the SCWRA warned the leaders of a Sunni mosque in Gobustan near Baku that, if the leadership did not resign, hand back documents for the mosque, and allow its leadership to be replaced, the SCWRA would go to court to enforce its dissolution. Forum 18 reported the mosque leadership complied reluctantly and a new Shia-led leadership was installed. Police raided the mosque and confiscated religious literature after the enforced transfer.
Head coverings were allowed in most public places but not in official photographs. The government took no steps to implement an unofficial directive issued by the previous minister of education prohibiting girls from wearing the hijab in primary and secondary schools; the majority of school administrators throughout the country also did not implement it.
Many independent local religious experts reported local executive authorities continued to close mosques they said were in need of renovation or had safety issues. These experts attributed the closures to heavy-handed attempts by the government to counter extremism, especially in the Baku area. A number of the mosques, including some closed as far back as 2010, remained closed. Government officials said the Da’esh (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) threat in particular remained a serious concern.
In April the SCWRA temporarily closed the Ashur Mosque, in advance of the European Games, for what it said was part of a renovation project encompassing five mosques in the Old City in Baku. The news service of Forum 18 reported the SCWRA told Ashur Mosque leaders the mosque was too crowded, and that the sight of “bearded men” in such a location would frighten participants in the games. According to SCWRA, during the renovations worshippers could easily attend services at other mosques. The Ashur and other mosques reopened later in the year.
According to local media reports, in mid-April in Gobustan, SCWRA officials and police in the Garadagh District of Baku raided the Ashiq Rza Mosque, which the authorities described as an “illegal,” unregistered mosque, and placed its founder and leader under investigation. Although authorities closed the mosque, the founder was apparently not arrested or charged.
Government controls on activities by Islamic groups, including religious television broadcasts, the sale of religious literature, and confiscation of banned books, remained in effect, according to local religious experts.
In July the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Kamran Abdiyev, whom a court found guilty of distributing religious literature without prior government approval. In 2014 the government had fined Abdiyev 6,000 manat ($3,704) and confiscated hundreds of books from him because he did not have a SCWRA license to sell religious literature.
Several Muslim and Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, complained of censorship and of a lengthy and burdensome process to obtain permission to import religious literature. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, between January 2014 and August 2015, the SCWRA denied the importation of 31 Jehovah’s Witness publications and approved only nine.
Domestic human rights monitors criticized the government for not offering any form of alternative service to conscientious objectors to military service. The Supreme Court denied Jehovah's Witnesses’ appeals on the lack of alternatives. A Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objector lodged an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights on August 21. Government officials continued to argue that the conflict with Armenia precluded alternatives to compulsory service. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, conscientious objector Kamran Shikhaliyev, who was forcibly conscripted in Baku in October 2013 and then transferred to a military unit, and whose case had been ongoing in the courts, left the Jehovah’s Witnesses; the group was no longer following the case.
Prime Minister Artur Rasizada signed an amendment to a cabinet of ministers decree in April, which established a new requirement for organizers of religious tours abroad to obtain a license from the SCWRA.
In late June the government denied a Georgian Orthodox priest, a Georgian citizen, reentry to the country on grounds that the law only permits citizens to lead religious ceremonies. Subsequently, the local Georgian Orthodox community was unable to celebrate the liturgy or receive other sacraments. By the end of July, the government and the Georgian Orthodox Church resolved the issue and Georgian priests were again allowed to return to the country and lead religious ceremonies. As a longer term solution, the government said it had begun the process of granting citizenship to the Georgian clerics, an approach it previously adopted with foreign clerics of several other non-Muslim religious communities registered with the government.
The government allocated 3,385,000 AZN ($2.09 million) to Muslim communities, including three million AZN ($1.85 million) to the Caucasus Muslim Board, and 400,000 AZN ($247,000) to non-Muslim communities, both traditional and nontraditional, to use at their discretion. According to SCWRA officials, 2.5 million AZN ($1.54 million) was allocated to their budget for religious education programs.
At the beginning of the year, authorities inaugurated the newly constructed, government-funded grand mosque in the Binagadi District of Baku. Authorities also renovated 15 mosques, three churches, and one synagogue.
The SCWRA continued to hold conferences and public events on religion and state affairs. The SCWRA, together with the Eurasian Regional Center of Islamic Conference Youth Forum, an intergovernmental entity, sponsored regional training and seminars that brought together representatives of different faiths to discuss religious issues. In addition, the government established the Baku International Multicultural Center and the National Tolerance Center, both of which conducted seminars and training promoting religious tolerance.