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Bible Society registered in Azerbaijan, but may not be allowed to print Bibles

BIBLE SOCIETY NEWS | World Watch Monitor

Wednesday 5 October 2016

The recent registration of a Bible Society in Azerbaijan, after a 20-year fight, has brought fresh optimism to the country’s minority Christians, but there remains some confusion about the types of books it will be allowed to print, with even Bibles potentially falling foul of the country’s strict regulations.

Terje Hartberg from United Bible Societies called it “a great development, which will start a new chapter in Bible ministry for all Christians in Azerbaijan”.

However, all literature either printed or imported by the Bible Society will remain subject to approval by the government – with every publication labelled with an official sticker – and its distribution permitted only at state-approved venues.

“[The Bible] can only be distributed in a state-approved venue with a sticker from the State Committee. It appears these stickers have not been available since April. As for the Old Testament, that appears to have been on a police list.”

Those who distribute any religious literature outside these strict limitations face administrative or criminal punishment, reports Forum 18, a news agency focused on religious freedom in Central Asia.

The Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, meanwhile, remain amongst the list of “banned” books: text from these parts of the Bible have been confiscated in police raids, according to Forum 18.

Asked whether the prohibition of the Old Testament in effect bans the Bible too, Forum 18’s Felix Corley told World Watch Monitor by email: “Well, you can’t publish, print, import or distribute any religious publication without prior permission from the State Committee, which will also set numbers allowed. So nothing is approved until it is approved.

“Then it can only be distributed in a state-approved venue with a sticker from the State Committee. It appears these stickers have not been available since April. As for the Old Testament, that appears to have been on a police list. So who knows?”

President seeks constitutional change

As a new chapter opens for the Bible Society in Azerbaijan, the country itself may be entering a new, more restrictive period. President Ilham Aliyev, following the example of his counterparts in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, is seeking to change the constitution to allow for longer terms in office and no age boundaries.

Aliyev, 54, has been President since 2003, when he succeeded his ailing father. Critics suggest the referendum, held on 26 Sep., was an attempt by Aliyev to secure the rule in perpetuity of his family.

“The regime is already known for strictly surveilling religious activities in Azerbaijan.” – Rolf Zeegers, Open Doors

“Democracy is something that Azerbaijan has never known,” according to Rolf Zeegers, analyst at the World Watch Research unit of Open Doors, which monitors treatment of Christians worldwide. “The regime in Baku is just another post-Communist authoritarian bunch of rulers that are only after consolidating their position.

“They are in perfect line with the different regimes in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

However, Zeegers said he didn’t believe the proposed changes would have “serious consequences” for the Church.

“The regime is already known for strictly surveilling religious activities in Azerbaijan,” he said. “They will remain in power, and even more solidly than before. But it will not mean a change in attitude towards [Christians].”

Other regional developments

Tajikistan, which, like Turkmenistan, has already approved constitutional amendments to allow for longer Presidential terms, has closed its last madrasa (a college for Islamic instruction) for 16-18-year-olds, in line with the strict rules introduced in the 2009 Religion Law.

And while the impact on Christians is indirect, Open Doors’ Zeegers still said the overall “climate” is changing.

The focus of the government against youth work has affected summer camps, a traditional church activity that brings young Christians together during the summer holidays. This can no longer be done openly, as the camps will be raided by the police.

“Tajikistan used to be rather relaxed towards religion until 2009,” he said. “The fact that the largest religious group in the country (Muslims) were able to openly and officially run religious schools is a very good indication for this. Since 2009, the regime in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, has become much more authoritarian: all political opposition has been banned and legislation has become more restrictive. In August 2011, more laws were passed that prohibit any [ministry to] youth.

“Christians have also experienced the change of climate. The focus of the government against youth work has affected summer camps, a traditional church activity that brings young Christians together during the summer holidays. This can no longer be done openly, as the camps will be raided by the police. And it goes much further: since August 2011 any youth work is prohibited. And youth form about 50 per cent also of the [Christians], so it has big consequences. In curtailing the biggest religious group, the regime shows it is serious. Christians are warned.”

Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has called for the establishment of a Ministry for Religious and Civil Affairs. According to the website of the Kazakh Presidency, the Ministry will vouchsafe freedom of religion.

Zeegers said the announcement is “remarkable” but also “possibly dangerous”.

“Remarkable, because Kazakhstan is a secular country in which state and religion have been strictly separated,” he said. “[And] if there is a strict separation between state and religion, why form a special ministry for religious affairs?

“Dangerous because this could be the first step towards much tighter control over religion in Kazakhstan. So far, the country was relatively mild in its treatment of [Christians] – much milder than, e.g. Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. These developments mean we need to keep our eyes open about what is going on in Kazakhstan.”

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