COUNTRY PROFILE: AZERBAIJAN
Updated November 2015
Population: 9.7 million
Government: Republic but with authoritarian presidential rule
Religion: Muslim 87.5%; Non-religious 9.5%; Christian 2.7%; Other 0.3%
HISTORY and SOCIETY
Azerbaijan is still defining itself as a nation after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, which marked the end of a long history of suppression.
This Central Asian state, which borders Iran, Georgia, Armenia and Russia, had been ruled by Arabs, Mongols, Persians and Turks before it was absorbed into the Soviet Union for 70 years.
Independence did not, however, bring peace. For years, Azerbaijan was dogged by internal coups and a war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia had begun in 1988: each stated a claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, which was then part of Azerbaijan but populated mainly by Armenians. The end of the Soviet Union prompted Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to announce that they wanted to secede – upon which the two nations went to war.
A ceasefire signed in 1994 left about one-seventh of Azerbaijan territory in Armenian control, including Nagorno-Karabakh. Even today, Azerbaijan has an estimated 624,000 refugees and internally displaced people. Since 1994, there have been periodic clashes between the two sides, most notably in 2014.
This political turmoil contributes to the irony that a country with large oil and gas reserves is also very poor. Endemic corruption and authoritarian rule mean that ordinary citizens and the national economy have failed to benefit significantly from the nation’s oil wealth.
The Government is widely accused of being authoritarian: the current president Ilham Aliev is the son of the previous president, Heidar Aliev, who first came to power in 1969. The result of a 2009 referendum means there is now no limit on the presidential term. President Aliev came to power in 2003 and was re-elected in 2008 and in 2013.
President Aliev declared in December 2014: ‘All the freedoms, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, are guaranteed in Azerbaijan. All religious freedoms are fully provided.’ Yet, the reality on the ground falls far short of this pronouncement.
Religious liberties are in fact severely restricted in Azerbaijan, as the Government tries to ward off the influence of ‘foreign’ religions and Islamic extremism, particularly from neighbouring Iran.
The country’s small Christian population, who are largely ethnic Armenian or Russian but who include around 10,000 native Azeri Evangelicals, are treated with suspicion by officials and society at large: Christians say they have difficulty finding and keeping jobs. More than 90 per cent of Azerbaijan’s population are ethnic Azeris, most of whom are Shi’a Muslims.
All religious groups must be officially registered – a process which can take years. Some are routinely denied official status, including several Christian ones. Police and security forces frequently raid unregistered groups – even those which are in the process of registering – and some venues have been forcibly closed.
In May 2014, three women in southern Azerbaijan were convicted of meeting for religious purposes without state permission: two were heavily fined and police confiscated Bibles and other Christian literature. In another case in the same month, police detained two women and a 14-year old girl for talking about their faith to others in northern Azerbaijan; though no charges were brought, police confiscated what they described as ‘the banned book the Old Testament’.
Legal restrictions on religious liberties are steadily increasing. The Religion Law was amended 14 times between 1992 and 2011, with ever-tighter restrictions enforced. The 2009 amendment requires all religious communities to re-register – and some, including the Baptist Union, have found that re-registration has led to de-registration. Almost all Protestant denominations are now without legal status. Many re-registration applications have been left unanswered.
Religious organisations are tightly controlled in other ways too. Christian groups say they are not free to print or import religious literature. There are also increasingly tight laws regarding religious education: Article 167-1 of the Criminal Code, for example, bans ‘forcing’ individuals, including children, to take part in religious education or activities – without specifying the meaning of ‘forcing’. Violations carry stiff fines or even jail terms.
In 2012, Greater Grace Church in Baku began a legal battle against the authorities’ attempt to liquidate the church on the ground that it had failed to re-register. It lost one appeal in July 2012. Then, in January 2013, the Supreme Court took just eight minutes to hear and reject the church’s appeal. Greater Grace said it would take its appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Despite these pressures, the church in Azerbaijan is growing. Before 1991, the church barely existed beyond the Orthodox.
Current and recent projects include:
Support for 22 Christian workers and their ministries
Organising visits for people who can encourage and pastor these workers and other Christians in the region
Support for an organisation providing legal aid and advice to churches and individuals facing legal action due to their faith or Christian activities
Sources: Amnesty International; BBC; International Christian Concern; Forum 18; Operation World; Release International; The World Factbook 2015; VOM Canada.
Updated November 2015