A church in Azerbaijan has become the first religious community to be liquidated by a court since the country’s harsh new religion law came into force in 2009.
Greater Grace Protestant Church in the capital, Baku, was stripped of its registration at a 15-minute hearing on 25 April. The decision, which was made in the absence of any church representatives, makes any activity by the church illegal and subject to punishment.
Church members say that they intend to challenge the ruling:
We had no faith in getting a just and legal decision from the start, so we decided to appeal through all the local courts and take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary.
Greater Grace has held legal registration in Azerbaijan since 1993, but the 2009 amendments to the religion law required all religious organizations to re-register.
The State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO), the government body that is in charge of registration, argued that Greater Grace should be stripped of its registration because it had failed to re-register with them.
The SCWRO has denied permits to many groups; hundreds that submitted applications are still waiting for a response.
The church has insisted that it has never broken the law, but the SCWRO told the court that it had “secret documents” revealing violations. The committee did not however produce these documents.
The court’s decision will be enforced a month after the written verdict is issued, which has to happen within ten days, unless Greater Grace lodges an appeal. It has one month to do so once it receives the written verdict.
Leaders and members face hefty fines if they carry out any church-related activities such as holding meetings. An individual member could be fined between 1,500 and 2,000 Manats (£1,180-£1,570), a church officer between 7,000 and 8,000 Manats (£5,480-£6,270). The minimum monthly wage in Azerbaijan is 93.50 Manats (£73.20).
Azerbaijan is around 90 per cent Muslim and the government gives preferential treatment to religions considered “traditional” (Islam, Russian Orthodox Christianity and Judaism).
The vast majority of religious communities to have gained state registration – 550 of 570 – are Muslim. Of the other 20, eleven are Christian, six Jewish, two Baha’i and one Hindu.
Source: Barnabas Aid