State Department Exposes Azerbaijan’s False Image of ‘Religious Tolerance’

The Azerbaijani flag flying in Baku (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The government of Azerbaijan spends a large fortune each year to convince the world that Azerbaijan is  a tolerant nation, which respect the human rights of all minorities living in the country.

However, no matter how many fake ecumenical services Azerbaijan’s lobbyists in Europe and the United States organize by bribing Christian and Jewish leaders, the truth about Azeri intolerance is impossible to cover up.

Azerbaijan’s 10 million population is 96 percent Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews live in Baku, while there are hardly any Armenians left after they were massacred or deported during the Artsakh war.

The U.S. State Department’s latest annual report (2017) on International Religious Freedom around the world indicates that Azerbaijan discriminates against certain religious groups, even though its laws prohibit the government from interfering in their activities.

Azerbaijan’s laws specify that “the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that ‘degrades human dignity;’ and hinder secular education….” The State Department reports that “local human rights groups and others stated that the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. The reported total incarcerated at the end of the year was 80…. In January and December, courts sentenced leaders of the Muslim Unity Movement and others arrested in a 2015 police operation in Nardaran to long prison terms on charges many activists considered fabricated, including inciting religious hatred and terrorism. In July authorities sentenced a theologian to three years in prison for performing a religious ceremony after studying Islam abroad. Authorities detained, fined, or warned numerous individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings. According to religious groups, the government continued to deny or delay registration to minority religious groups it considered ‘nontraditional,’ disrupting their religious services and fining participants. Groups previously registered but which authorities required to re-register continued to face obstacles in doing so. Authorities permitted some of these groups to operate freely, but others reported difficulties in trying to practice their faith.”

Furthermore, according to the State Department, “local religious experts stated the government continued to close mosques on the pretext of repairing them but said the actual reason was government concerns the mosques served as places for the propagation of extremist views. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The courts fined numerous individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials, although some individuals had their fines revoked on appeal. The government sponsored training sessions throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism.”

The State Department also reported that “the punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from $2,900 to $4,100 or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of $4,100 to $5,300 or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses.”

Despite the fact that Azerbaijan’s constitution “allows alternative service ‘in some cases’ when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds, and refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription,” according to the State Department.

“On Sept. 30, authorities detained 30 men who, in violation of local edict, were marching towards the Imamzadeh Mosque in Ganja to commemorate Ashura. Police charged four individuals with hooliganism and for resisting the police and placed them in pretrial detention. Human rights lawyers reported the police severely beat many of the detainees in custody,” the State Department reported.

There were also reports of illegal and bizarre actions by the Azeri government against opposition groups and individuals perceived to be radical Muslims. For example, on May 31, 2017, “the Sheki Court of Appeals upheld a fine of $880 imposed on Sunni Muslim Shahin Ahmadov for holding an ‘illegal’ religious meeting. Police had detained him for reading aloud from the works of theologian Said Nursi to three friends while picnicking on April 18,” as reported by the State Department.

Finally, “local religious experts stated the government continued to close mosques under the pretext of repairing or renovating them; they said the government’s real motivation was countering perceived religious extremism. Once closed, they said, the mosques remained closed. For example, after the Ashurbey Mosque in the Old City of Baku became popular with Salafis as a place of worship, authorities announced it needed renovation and closed it in July 2016.” The mosque was still closed by the end of 2017, according to the State Department.

The much-publicized “tolerant” Azerbaijan turns out to be not so tolerant after all. Its “lenient” laws remain on paper and are often ignored by the police and the judges.

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Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the United Armenian Fund, a coalition of the seven largest Armenian-American organizations. He has been decorated by the president and prime minister of the Republic of Armenia, and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

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