AZERBAIJAN: Baptist Church Threatened with Demolition.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 8 November 2002

An Interior Ministry colonel has threatened an unregistered Baptist church in the north east of the capital Baku with demolition if the church refuses to register with the authorities, Keston News Service has learnt. "If you don't register we'll close the church and knock it down," Pastor Ivan Orlov, leader of the Baku church, quoted Colonel Aliev as having told the Baptists verbally when he came to the church last month. Colonel Aliev of the national Interior Ministry - who did not specify which department of the Ministry he was from - also threatened to have church members sacked from their work.

Keston contacted the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in Baku on 8 November to ask why the church was being threatened with demolition and why the congregation was being pressured to register when Azerbaijani law does not require religious groups to register in order to be allowed to function. However, an official said only Namik Allahverdiev, deputy to committee chairman Rafik Aliev, could speak on the subject. However, Allahverdiev's telephone went unanswered.

The Baptists report that Colonel Aliev's threat followed strong pressure to register. "He said that the law required registration and claimed that 112 churches have already been registered," the Sumgait-based Baptist pastor Pavel Byakov told Keston on 8 November. "Our people told him firmly that we are not going to register any of our congregations."

The Baku church belongs to the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejects registration in all the former Soviet republics where it operates, believing this leads to unacceptable government interference. (Azerbaijan has Baptist Union congregations as well, some of which have managed to register with the State Committee.)

Pastor Byakov was not too concerned by the demolition threat. "It was more in the nature of intimidation," he told Keston. "We're used to such threats." He said that "of course" the church still meets for worship and is determined to continue doing so. "There is no day when it doesn't meet."

Colonel Aliev's visit to the church followed an earlier call at home to Pastor Orlov and came as pressure mounted on the Baku congregation in October. On two separate occasions earlier in the month, an officer from the local police station had arrived at the church during a service warning the church to register and warning that it would be prevented from meeting unless it registered. A statement from the church on 6 November, received by Keston, expressed concern about this pressure and the demolition threat and called on fellow believers to support the congregation in prayer and in appeals to the authorities.

Branislav Solovic, human rights officer at the Baku office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told Keston on 8 November that he was not aware of the threats to the Baptist church, but pointed out that neither international human rights standards nor OSCE commitments limit the right to freedom of religion only to officially registered communities. (END)