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Special Report by ICC
02/12/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – As Azerbaijan’s authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev seeks to secure his re-election to a third consecutive term, religious and civil liberties for Christians and others are likely to suffer even further at the hands of one of the world’s most corrupt and autonomous rulers.
The Greater Grace Protestant Church in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku lost its final appeal against closure on Jan. 9. In a hearing that lasted just eight minutes without any church representative in court, their appeal was rejected and the church has no further legal options left to challenge the canceled registration. It now faces prosecution and punishment if it continues to meet for what would be an “unregistered religious gathering.”
According to Forum 18 News service, raids on religious communities in Azerbaijan are frequent and religious literature is often seized in such raids. In a recent case, two Baptist-owned homes were raided by police in Aliabad in north-western Zakatala Region in November 2012. Religious literature was confiscated from them and the police have still not returned the books.
Administrative fines for unregistered religious activity were massively increased in December 2010, some of them up to 20 times more than the previous penalties. In May 2012, police raided a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Gynaja, interrogated church members and children, and imposed heavy fines on a congregant without going to a court, Forum 18 reported.
It is said that the increased fines and other domestic restrictions on religious freedom are part of a measure to curb the rise of Islamic extremism in the largely Muslim-populated nation. But evidence suggests that the terror rhetoric is simply being used as a pretext to “legally” harass religious groups, along with civil and political activists.
Of the roughly nine million people in the country, Operation World estimates that only about 263,000 are Christian.
In 2003, after a sham election marked by serious irregularities, Ilham Aliyev became the “self-appointed” President of Azerbaijan. In his second presidential term, he removed the two-term limit for the presidency and paved the way for his re-election campaign this year, which is feared to be marked by gross violations of religious and civil liberties to suppress and intimidate any sign of opposition.
As with all authoritarian regimes, freedom of the press and minority religious gatherings are targeted by the state as a threat to be neutered. As part of its political self-preservation program, non-traditional religious minorities – Protestant Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, minority sects of Islam – who do not have a long historical presence in the country have been victimized by random fines, arrests without trial, detention without charge, illegal raids, and confiscation of religious literature in the name of censorship; along with unreasonable restrictions on their legal status, rights and protection.
All religious communities, including non-traditional Protestant churches, are subject to a burdensome registration process that is used as leverage for controlling and monitoring religious minorities, who are more tolerated than accepted by the authoritarian state.
During his effectively uncontested rule, President Aliyev has earned the reputation of operating like a mafia crime boss: employing a systemic effort to manipulate elections, controlling the opposition, silencing the voice of the press, suppressing religious minorities, and amassing great personal wealth.
In 2010, the parliamentary elections conveniently fell in favor of the President without a single candidate from the main opposition parties being elected – an unprecedented event in the nation’s political history. As a result, in its Democracy Index, The Economist Magazine put Azerbaijan in the 140th place out of 167 countries, recognizing it as an authoritarian regime.
The Economist’s report also noted the nation’s sharp decline in the freedom of the press. Since 2009, the government and its agents have heightened crackdowns on journalists and bloggers, arresting them under criminal provisions of defamation, terrorism and inciting hate. Many have been attacked with total impunity.
During a speech in November 2012, Aliyev hailed Azerbaijan as a nation that is becoming a center of the world and serves as a role model on democracy and human rights for the Western countries. But his claims are overstated to the point of near lunacy, particularly in the face of the state’s autocratic rule, systemic corruption, limitations on civil liberties, manipulation of the press, tainted judicial system, and increasing restrictions on religious freedom.
As the next presidential elections get closer, the cost of his re-election campaign could prove too expensive for religious minorities, political opponents and outspoken members of the press. As long as he remains in power, religious and civil liberties in Azerbaijan will be a luxury that Christians, and other religious minorities, will not be able to afford.