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Stop government sanctioned suppression of religious freedom in Azerbaijan

To the 112th United States Congress

President of the Senate Joe Biden
President Pro Tempore of the Senate Daniel Inouye
Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner
Honorable Members of the Congress


We, the undersigned, petition the Congress to act urgently to stop government-sanctioned suppression of religious freedom and freedom of association of Protestant Christians in Azerbaijan.

There is overwhelming evidence that the institutions of the state of Azerbaijan are being used to perpetrate injustice and suppress a peaceful religious minority, which does no harm to the daily life of the nation.

While the capital city of Azerbaijan, Baku, is hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in May, a showcase to improve its Government’s international image, suppression of and discrimination against a small minority of Protestant Christians is going unheeded. Such suppression persists in many forms, including laws and judicial decisions which, in their conception or enforcement, are neither general nor neutral. Numerous court cases have demonstrated that the Azerbaijani courts have allowed themselves to be used as tools of the Government in its repression of the media, opposition and civic society.

Despite Azerbaijan being an officially secular country (with a Muslim cultural character), religion continues to be one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity and meaning of life of the peaceful minority of Protestant Christians. The lengths to which many of them are prepared to go in order to be able to lead their lives in accordance with their religious belief is evidenced by a string of cases which have reached the European Court of Human Rights.

You are fully aware of a strong correlation between government-sanctioned persecution, which is carried on with impunity, and civil strife. In countries where governments place legal restrictions on religious freedom and limit the activities of “unwanted” religious perspectives, these actions promote a societal belief that violence against these marginalized groups is not only permitted by society, but legitimized by law. We are determined to stop this happening to Protestant Christians in Azerbaijan and we hope the Congress will support our effort. 

On 25 April 2012, a Court in Azerbaijan ordered closure of the Greater Grace Protestant Church in Baku. The Court’s decision was based on the allegation that the Church failed to re-register its license, despite the fact that all necessary papers were submitted by the Church in good time. The decision of the Court means that any activity the Church engages in would be illegal and subject to severe punishment. This forced liquidation of a religious group in the country came as a result of the harsh new Religion Law which was passed in 2009.

The last UN Human Rights Committee report on Azerbaijan (CCPR/C/AZE/CO/3) stressed a serious concern that “religious communities [in Azerbaijan] are requested to register and obtain legal personality in order to be able to function freely, as the lack of legal personality may prevent such communities from the enjoyment of a large number of rights”.

Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, also reported (CommDH(2010)21) following his visit to Azerbaijan from 1 to 5 March 2010 that “difficulties have reportedly been faced by some religious communities in obtaining re-registration”. The report continues saying that the Commissioner “expressed concerns about recent legislative changes which could limit the freedom of association in Azerbaijan”. The report gives a clear picture of various state-constructed legal obstacles being used by the Government of Azerbaijan to limit religious freedom of minorities. Specifically, the legal requirement of re-registration as currently used by the authorities to suppress Protestant Churches and eliminate them from the public life of the nation.

The method of dealing with “unwanted” groups through the process of re-registration has been used by the Government of Azerbaijan on many occasions. The delays in registration of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have given rise to several applications against the Government. Thus, in Ramazanov and Others v Azerbaijan  (No. 44363/02) 1/2/07, Ismayilov v Azerbaijan (No. 4439/04) 17/1/08 and  Nasibova v Azerbaijan (No. 4307/04) 18/10/07 the significant delays in the registration of NGOs were found to violate the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the Government of Azerbaijan is continuing using this legal tool to suppress Protestant Christian churches.

On 13 August 1992, Azerbaijan ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights containing binding commitments to safeguard religious rights “without distinction of any kind”. The decision of the Court goes contrary to these commitments.

On 12 November 1995, Azerbaijan adopted its Constitution (amended on 24 August 2002), which, according to its Article 147, carries the highest legal force in the country. Articles 18, 25, 47 and 48 of the Constitution safeguard rights of peaceful religious minorities, including Protestant Christians. The decision of the Court goes contrary to these provisions.

On 25 January 2001, Azerbaijan signed the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which includes Articles 9 and 14 safeguarding the rights to freedom of conscience and religion and their free manifestation. The decision of the Court goes contrary to this commitment.

While taking legal action against the Church, the Government authorities have also committed serious breaches of procedural law of the state. The decision of the Court was made despite these breaches.

The decision means there will be no freedom of religion in Azerbaijan without state authorization. The first minority already affected is Protestant Christians and it means that all religious activities by Greater Grace Protestant Church members and other churches will be deemed illegal in the future.

We, the undersigned, call on the Congress to demand from the Government of Azerbaijan to implement the principles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, bring the country’s laws into compliance with the Declaration and allow Protestant Churches and their members to continue peaceful existence and free practice of their faith:

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