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Forum18 – Azerbaijani religious communities who wish to invite foreign citizens for religious work are still being selectively obstructed, Forum 18 News Service has found. Most dramatically, the Swedish pastor of the Cathedral of Praise charismatic church in the capital Baku, Mats-Jan Söderberg, had his visa denied in June and was given two weeks to leave Azerbaijan, where he had lived for more than a decade. He told Forum 18 from Sweden on 24 October that he has learnt that he has been blacklisted and cannot return to minister to the congregation he still supervises.

Other Azerbaijani religious communities insisted to Forum 18 they should have the right to invite foreign citizens, if they wish to, and that these foreign citizens should have the right to lead religious communities if the community wants this, something the authorities insist is illegal at present.

Söderberg told Forum 18 the June visa denial “came very suddenly and was a surprise for us of course”. He said that after thoroughly researching the issue “we realised I had been declared persona non-grata in Azerbaijan , even though the Foreign Ministry and the Religious Affairs Committee denied it”.

He said that after the visa denial, he was allowed to stay on until July, but was then denied exit from the country and failed to make his flight. He was then allowed to leave the following day. In August the government’s Committee for Work with Religious Organisations allowed him and his family to make a brief return visit to say goodbye to his congregation and pack his property, but after learning that he has been blacklisted his wife and three of their children went without him. However, they were denied entry at Baku airport, held for 28 hours and then expelled.

Söderberg pointed out the irony of being barred from Azerbaijan , as he and his family had already decided to return to Sweden , as he believed the church was ready to be handed over to local leadership. “We will continue to work with our visa issues and as soon the door opens again I will travel to Baku of course,” he told Forum 18, noting that he still has oversight responsibilities over the Baku church.

Another religious community with a foreign pastor is Baku ‘s Evangelical Lutheran parish, which is part of ELKRAS (the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Russia , Ukraine , Kazakhstan and Middle Asia), which has its headquarters in St Petersburg . Church secretary Natasha Gaidarova complains that the current law does not allow ELKRAS – or the diocese to which her congregation belongs, which is based in the Georgian capital Tbilisi – to play a formal role in choosing the pastor. “We are part of ELKRAS and it is not only we, but ELKRAS, that chooses our pastor,” she told Forum 18 in Baku on 18 October.

The Lutheran congregation has been led by a German pastor, Wolfgang Hering, since March 2005 and he is due to stay until the end of the year. “He gained his visa without problem – but he was given it as a favour,” she said. “The congregation should have the right to invite the pastor it chooses.”…[Go To Full Story]