Freedom of religion in Azerbaijan

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Azerbaijan is a multicultural and multi-religious country and a secular country.[1] People of many religions coexist in Azerbaijan.[2] The article 48 of The Constitution of Azerbaijan ensures the right to liberty and people of all faiths may choose and practice their religion without restriction. Article 18 of the Constitution of Azerbaijan states that religion acts separately from the state affairs and the government. People of all beliefs are equal before the law and the propaganda of any religion, including Islam, while majority of the population is Muslim,[3] is still prohibited strictly as a case of contradicting humanism.

Religious demography[edit]

The country has an area of 33,774 square miles (87,470 km2) and a population of 9.2 million (2012). There were no reliable statistics on membership in specific religious groups; however, according to official figures approximately 96 percent of the population is Muslim. The remainder of the population consists mostly of Russian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic (Almost all of which live in the break-away region of Nagorno-Karabakh), Jews, and nonbelievers. Among the Muslim majority, religious observance is relatively low, and Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity than religion. According to the State Committee on Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA), the Muslim population is approximately 85 percent Shi'a and 15 percent Sunni; traditionally, differences are not defined sharply. In a 2011 report, the U.S. Department of State puts the number as 65 percent Shia and 35 percent Sunni.

The vast majority of Christians are Russian Orthodox. According to the U.S. Department of State, their "identity, like that of Muslims, tends to be based as much on culture and ethnicity as religion". Christians were concentrated in the urban areas of Baku, which is the nation's capital, and Sumgayit, its third-largest city.

Of a total Jewish population of approximately 15,000, the vast majority live in Baku. Much smaller communities exist in Guba and elsewhere. There are five to six rabbis and six synagogues in the country.

Shi'a, Sunni, Russian Orthodox, and Jews are considered to be the country's "traditional" religious groups. Small congregations of Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Molokans (Old Believers), Seventh-day Adventists, and Baha'is have been present for over 100 years.

In the last decade, a number of religious groups considered foreign or "nontraditional" have established a presence, including "Wahhabi" and Salafist Muslims, Pentecostal and evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas.

There were significant expatriate Christian and Muslim communities in Baku; authorities generally permitted these groups to worship freely.

Status of religious freedom[edit]

Legal and policy framework[edit]

The Constitution provides that persons of all faiths may choose and practice their religion without restriction; however, there were some abuses and restrictions. Under the Constitution each person has the right to choose and change his or her own religious affiliation and belief (including atheism), to join or establish the religious group of his or her choice, and to practice his or her religion. The law on religious freedom expressly prohibits the Government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group; however, there are exceptions, including cases where the activity of a religious group "threatens public order and stability."

A number of legal provisions enable the Government to regulate religious groups, including a requirement in the law on religious freedom that religious organizations, including individual congregations of a denomination, be registered by the Government. Registration enables a religious organization to maintain a bank account, rent property, and generally act as a legal entity.

Since 2001 religious groups must register with the SCWRA. The SCWRA has broad powers over registration and the publication, import, and distribution of religious literature, and it may suspend the activities of religious groups who violate the law.

Registration is burdensome, and there were frequent, sometimes lengthy, delays in obtaining registration. Some groups characterized the seven-step application process as arbitrary and restrictive. Unregistered organizations are vulnerable to allegations that they are illegal and as a result subject to attacks and closures by local authorities; they found it difficult, but not impossible, to function.

According to the SCWRA, it registered 48 new groups from May 2006 through June 2007 and did not reject any applications. All of the newly registered groups were Muslim communities. The SCWRA reported 392 total registered religious communities in the country.

During the reporting period, several groups asserted that the SCWRA sometimes failed to rule on registration applications in a timely manner, and some groups complained that the SCWRA or local officials selectively made the application process difficult or impossible for "nontraditional" communities. Religious groups are permitted to appeal registration denials to the courts. However, some Christian groups contended that local judges often were biased against Christian churches and were unlikely to rule in a just manner.

Under the law on religious freedom, political parties cannot engage in religious activity, and religious leaders are forbidden from seeking public office. Religious facilities may not be used for political purposes.

The law on religious freedom, which the Government enforces, prohibits foreigners from proselytizing.

Registered Muslim organizations are subordinate to the Caucasian Muslim Board (CMB), a Soviet-era muftiate that appoints Muslim clerics to mosques, periodically monitors sermons, and organizes annual pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim religious groups must receive a letter of approval from the CMB before they can be registered by the SCWRA. Some Muslim religious leaders objected to interference from both the CMB and the SCWRA.

Religious instruction is not mandatory, and there is no religious curriculum for public elementary and high schools; however, there is no restriction on teaching religion in public schools.

Restrictions on religious freedom[edit]

During the reporting period the Government restricted some religious freedoms.

The SCWRA continued to delay or deny registration to a number of Protestant Christian groups. Local or SCWRA officials often raised particular obstacles to Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and members of Assemblies of God who attempted to register, worship, or perform alternative civilian service as conscientious objectors.

Of the five main Baptist churches, three have successfully registered; however, during the reporting period the SCWRA again rejected the applications of the Baptist churches in Aliabad (which has sought registration for 15 years) and Neftchala. Baptists stated the Aliabad notary refused to review the community's registration documents.

In December 2006 SCWRA officials reportedly told the Assembly of God community in Baku that it would have to give the SCWRA advance notice of meetings in order to be registered. The Assemblies of God reported that they tried to register their churches in Baku and Sumgayit several times—most recently in January 2007—but did not receive a response from the SCWRA. An Assembly of God representative met with SCWRA officials in May and June 2007 to advance the registration process, but the SCWRA said that it was still examining the application. In June police also interfered in one of the church's gatherings in Baku.

The Juma Mosque has remained closed since June 2004; the mosque's imam was still not allowed to travel abroad at the end of the reporting period.

In May 2007 SCWRA head Hidayat Orujov stated that only 9 of 49 mosques in Guba were registered. Local commentators reported that Salafists were particularly active in the country's northern regions of Guba and Kachmaz.

The law on religious freedom expressly prohibits religious proselytizing by foreigners, and the Government strictly enforced this. The Government was concerned about Islamic missionary groups (predominantly Iranian and Wahhabi) operating in the country and, as in previous years, restricted their activities.

Some Muslims complained about the SCWRA's allegedly indiscriminate use of the term "Wahhabi" to cast a shadow on devout Muslims. Local Protestant Christians also claimed that SCWRA Chairman Orujov derogatorily referred to their organizations as "sects."

In May 2007 a Baku court sentenced a journalist and the editor of the Sanat newspaper on charges of "inciting religious hatred." The journalist was given a 3-year prison term, and the editor was given a 4-year term. The journalist had written an article, published in November 2006, arguing Islamic values retarded the country's development.

The law permits the production and dissemination of religious literature with the approval of the SCWRA; however, authorities appeared to selectively restrict the import and distribution of religious materials. Obtaining permission to import religious literature remained burdensome, and both Islamic and Christian groups have complained about the lengthy process. However, the SCWRA has also facilitated the import of some literature, and the process appeared to be selectively improving.

During the reporting period, there were multiple episodes of police confiscating allegedly radical Islamic literature in several areas of the country.

The Government regulates travel for the purpose of religious training. Prospective travelers must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education to go abroad for religious studies.

No religious identification is required in passports or other identity documents. However, the Center for the Protection of Conscience and Religious Freedom reported that authorities prohibited Muslim women from wearing headscarves in passport photos and other official identity documents.

Some local officials continued to discourage Muslim women from wearing headscarves in schools.

The official website of Jehovah's Witnesses reported on March 23, 2015 that "religious intolerance is escalating in Azerbaijan as law-enforcement authorities impose heavy fines on Jehovah’s Witnesses and imprison them." It added: "Authorities are criminally prosecuting the Witnesses for meeting together for worship and for talking to others about their beliefs."[4][unreliable source?]

Press reports indicated that the Armenian Apostolic Church enjoyed a special status in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The largely Muslim, ethnic Azerbaijani population in Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven occupied territories had fled the region during the conflict with Armenia in the 1990s and remained unable to return to these areas.

During the reporting period, there were several incidents of police arresting Wahhabis and sometimes confiscating weapons and literature, particularly in the northern regions of Guba, Khachmaz, Gax, and Zaqatala, according to local contacts and the press. In April 2007, for example, police detained 16 alleged radical Salafists in Khachmaz.

Abuses of religious freedom[edit]

Sporadic violations of religious freedom continued. In many instances, abuses reflected the popular antipathy toward ethnic Azerbaijanis who convert to "nontraditional" religious groups such as evangelical Christian denominations or who adopt Salafist Islamic practices.

"Nontraditional" religious groups faced particularly acute problems operating in remote regions of the country, including the exclave of Nakhchivan. Unregistered religious groups continued to function, and there were fewer incidents than in previous years.


Antisemitism is one of the forms of national intolerance, expressed in a hostile attitude towards Jews as an ethnic or religious group.[5]. Anti-Semitism is not observed in Azerbaijan. Over the centuries, different ethnic and linguistic groups of Jews lived on the territory of Azerbaijan: Mountain Jews, Ashkenazi, Krymchaks, Kurdish Jews, Georgian Jews. In the 19th century majority of the Jewish population of Azerbaijan were mountain Jews, in the 20th century the majority were Ashkenazi. The main Jewish center was the city of Guba, where in 1835 were 5492 Jews (of whom 2718 people concentrated in the Jewish quarter); In 1866 in the city lived 6282 Jews. Comparatively large communities of Mountain Jews were also present in the villages of Vartashen and Mudji. In 1864, in the village of Vartashen (since 1990 - Oguz), the majority of the population were Jews. In 1886 there lived 1400 Jews, there were three prayer houses, two Talmud-Huns with 40 pupils. It is known that the total number of literate who can read the Torah, was 70 people, among them there were five Jews who were called rabbis. In 1917 the weekly "Kavkazer Vochenblat" (in Yiddish) was published in Baku, in 1917-1918 - the weekly "Caucasian Jewish Herald" with the application "Palestine". In 1919 the newspaper "Tobushi sabhi" (in the Hebrew-Tatar language) was issued for some time. With the final establishment of Soviet power (April 1920), the independent Jewish press ceased to exist. Since 1922, the newspaper Korsokh was published in the capital of Azerbaijan in the Hebrew-Tatar language - the organ of the Caucasian Committee of the Jewish Communist Party and its youth organization. In the 1990s, there were two synagogues in Baku (mountain Jews and Ashkenazi), as well as synagogues of mountain Jews in Guba and Oguz and a synagogue of gays in Privolnoye. In September 1993, a seminar of rabbis of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Dagestan was held in Baku. In 1994, a yeshiva was opened there. In 1997, a synagogue of Georgian Jews was opened in Baku. In the early 2000's. In the suburbs of Guba, the Red Sloboda, there were three synagogues of Mountain Jews, and the yeshiva operated. Since 1999, a religious Jewish high school has been working in Baku. According to 1994 data, Hebrew was taught at the university and in two high schools in the capital. Hebrew courses were conducted in Baku, Guba and Oguz. Representatives of the Jewish Agency and teachers from Israel provided great assistance in organizing classes; Among the students of the courses there were also non-Jews. In front of the audience were a Jewish ensemble of chamber music, a children's choir, a dance ensemble. Local radio and television regularly broadcast records of Israeli pop music. The leadership of Azerbaijan seeks to establish political and economic ties with Israel. Diplomatic relations were established in 1993. On 11 May 1994, the Charge d'Affaires of the State of Israel in Azerbaijan, Eliezer Yotvat, presented his credentials to President Heydar Aliyev [6]. In August 1999, the Israeli parliamentary delegation paid an official visit to Azerbaijan. The volume of exports from Israel to Azerbaijan in 1993 amounted to 545 thousand dollars, imports - twelve thousand; In 1994, exports and imports increased significantly.[7] , [8].

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom[edit]

Some religious groups in the country reported improvements in their ability to function freely. Several churches indicated that they received or expected to receive their registration, were able to import religious literature, and met without government interference.

When minority religious communities outside of Baku reported that local authorities illegally denied them registration, the SCWRA sometimes intervened on their behalf. In previous years the SCWRA took a strict approach to registration and failed to prevent local authorities from banning such communities.

During the reporting period, the Government promoted interfaith understanding. The SCWRA convened leaders of various religious communities on several occasions to resolve disputes in private and provided forums for visiting officials to discuss religious issues with religious figures. During the reporting period, the SCWRA organized several seminars, conferences, and regional meetings on religious freedom and tolerance. In April 2007 the Government cohosted with the Organization of the Islamic Conference a major international conference on the role of the media in promoting tolerance.

In May 2007 construction began on a new Jewish educational complex. Authorities also reserved one wing of a Baku school for secular and religious classes for 200 Jewish students.

Societal abuses and discrimination[edit]

There were some reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice. There was popular prejudice against Muslims who convert to other faiths and hostility toward groups that proselytize, particularly evangelical Christian and other missionary groups. This was accentuated by the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Hostility between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, intensified by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, remained strong. In those areas of the country controlled by Armenians, all ethnic Azerbaijanis have fled, and the mosques that had not been destroyed remained inactive. Animosity toward ethnic Armenians elsewhere in the country forced most of them to flee between 1988 and 1990, and all Armenian churches, many of which were damaged in ethnic riots that took place more than a decade ago, remained closed. As a consequence, the estimated 10,000 to 30,000 ethnic Armenians who briefly remained were unable to attend services in their traditional places of worship and had to hide their identity. Due to the lack of physical safety, almost all of the remaining Armenians also later fled.

At the end of the reporting period, Jehovah's Witnesses in Baku reported being unable to use a building they had rented for the purpose of religious meetings since signing a rental agreement in September 2006. According to Jehovah's Witnesses, local residents hired private security guards to prevent their access to the property on September 21, 2006, and local police informed the group on September 24 that they would not be able to hold meetings in the space due to residents' complaints. On April 17, 2007, four men reportedly broke into the building and attacked two Jehovah's Witnesses and property inside. The group reported that local police refused to investigate the incident despite the attackers being identified.

As in previous reporting periods, newspapers and television broadcasts depicted "nontraditional" religious groups as threats to the identity of the nation and as undermining the country's traditions of interfaith harmony, which led to local harassment.

During the reporting period, articles critical of Wahhabism and of Christian missionaries appeared in newspapers, and one television channel aired "exposes" of Christian church services.

Hostility also existed toward foreign (mostly Iranian and Wahhabi) Muslim missionary activity, which many viewed as attempts to spread political Islam, and therefore as a threat to stability and peace. The media targeted some Muslim communities that the Government claimed were involved in illegal activities.

On April 11, 2007, unidentified individuals threw a burning object through the window of a newly constructed Roman Catholic church in Baku. The church's priest publicly stated that the incident was almost certainly criminal and thanked local authorities for investigating the matter.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Religion in Azerbaijan" (PDF). Azerbaijan is a secular country, in article 48 of its Constitution ensures the liberty of worship to everyone. Everyone has a right to choose any faith, to adopt any religion or to not practice any religion, to express one's view on the religion and to spread it. According to paragraphs 1-3 of Article 18 of the Constitution the religion acts separately from the government, each religion is equal before the law and the propaganda of religions, abating human personality and contradicting to the principles of humanism is prohibited. At the same time the state system of education is also secular. The law of the Republic of Azerbaijan (1992) "On freedom of faith" ensures the right of any human being to determine and express his view on religion and to execute this right. 
  2. ^ "Tolerance in Azerbaijan" (PDF). All religious confessions are equal before the law and have the same status in frames of the model of state-religion relations of present-day Azerbaijan. Along with ensuring the rights of Muslims constituting the majority of the country citizens, the government of Azerbaijan takes care of other religions spread in the country as well. Thus, the building of the head church Djen Mironosets, shutdown in 1920 was delivered to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1991. All-Russia and Moscow patriarch Alexei the second, staying on visit in Azerbaijan, declared this temple holy and attached the status of the cathedral church to it on May 27, 2001. 
  3. ^ "Religion in Azerbaijan" (PDF). Approximately 95% of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim. The rest of the population adheres to other faiths or are non-religious, although they are not officially represented. Among the Muslim majority, religious observance varies and Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity rather than religion. The Muslim population is approximately 85% Shi'a and 15% Sunni; differences traditionally have not been defined sharply. Other traditional religions or beliefs that are followed by many in the country are the orthodox Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, and various Christian sects. Traditionally villages around Baku and Lenkoran region are considered stronghold of Shi'ism. In some northern regions, populated by Sunni people 
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