Azerbaijan has a new, harsher religion law and new penalties for producing, selling, circulating, importing and exporting religious literature without state permission, reports Felix Corley of Forum 18
When two Azeris crossed a remote border crossing from Azerbaijan into Georgia in early January carrying Azeri-language Christian books, they were committing no crime. Yet — bizarrely –– Azerbaijani customs officers confiscated the literature they were carrying and the two were lucky not to face further harassment. No law or regulation Forum 18 could find banned the export of religious literature.
No longer. Since a new religion law and amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences were signed by President Ilham Aliev and came into force on 31 May, exporting religious literature without state permission has been added to the long list of religious literature-related “crimes” written into formal law. Religious censorship is back with a vengeance.
Permission is now also needed to set up a shop selling religious literature, the new religion law declares. It does not explain whether general bookshops will be able to get such permission to sell religious literature — and this means, in the way of thinking of local officials, that this probably will not be allowed in practice. Any bookshop, individual or religious community that sells — or even gives away — religious literature without such permission from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations will face fines. Individuals who violate the religious censorship rules face new fines of between 180 and 350 euros, while organisations face fines ten times the size — plus, of course, confiscation of the religious literature. Foreigners found guilty of violating these censorship rules also face deportation, previously a punishment reserved for distributing “religious propaganda”.
As existing religious “offences” under the Code of Administrative Offences have already led to fines and deportations, it is highly likely that these Administrative Code articles will be used to punish those who want to exercise their right to acquire and distribute religious books and magazines.
But the knock-on effect on religious organisations could be severe. Those found guilty of producing, circulating, selling, importing or exporting religious literature without specific state authorisation could have their state registration revoked under the terms of the new religion law: officials can then say that the organisation is violating the law and is thus eligible to have registration stripped from it through the courts. This penalty will be crucial: for disfavoured religious communities (such as independent Muslim, Protestant and Jehovah’s Witness communities) registration is already almost impossible to get. And the new religion law appears to ban unregistered religious activity, with punishments handed down under the Code of Administrative Offences. Any registered religious organisation now has more reason to fear offending officials.
In August 1998 the current president’s late father, President Heidar Aliev, issued a presidential decree formally banning state censorship. Aliev senior issued the decree after heavy international pressure over the government’s censorship.
Yet religious censorship never went away. Indeed, when the religion law was last heavily amended in 2001, production, importation and distribution of religious literature required state approval. And the same Heidar Aliev signed the decree establishing the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, instructing it “to take control of the production, import and distribution of religious literature” and assigning “experts” to oversee this prior compulsory approval. If the late president had read his own decree he signed less than two years earlier, he would have seen the contradiction, something that has become a bitter irony for Azerbaijan’s citizens.
In recent years religious literature has particularly been targeted for confiscation by police and secret police when they raid the homes of known religious believers.
It is easy to feel sorry for or ridicule the “expert analysis” department at the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, overburdened with books, pamphlets and leaflets on all aspects of religion by all kinds of religious organisations in various languages. Forum 18 once put to the then head of the department the scornful remark by a local Jew as to how the department could expect to read and approve religious books it could not understand, in Hebrew or German for example. The official calmly responded that Azerbaijan has a wealth of knowledgeable scholars the committee can call on.
Asked to justify this religious censorship, officials (when they are prepared to respond to such direct questions) bristle at the suggestion. They talk earnestly about the radical and dangerous religious books out there. But they don’t seem to understand that the international experience is that it is far better to take action under a just, open and accountable legal system against specific works — whether religious or not — which actively incite crime or violence, and only after publication. The state’s demand that it exercise blanket, prior, compulsory approval has a deadening effect on frank and open discussion of the merits and demerits of religious views — and this facilitates the growth of the extremism officials claim to oppose.
Moreover — and perhaps intentionally — the system is designed not to facilitate access to religious literature but to restrict it. Hand in a copy of a religious book to the state committee for approval and you will be lucky to get a prompt response (several months if not a year might go by). The answer is likely to be negative, but if it is positive the fallback position kicks in: the number of copies you have asked for will be drastically reduced on various pretexts (“your community does not have that number of adherents, so why do you need so many copies?”).
Receiving religious books by post is already difficult. Wherever you live in the country — even if it is a ten-hour bus or train journey away from the capital — you have to go in person to the international sorting office in Baku where all religious literature sent by post to recipients in Azerbaijan is held until it has been specifically authorised for release to the would-be recipient. Then — in person — you have to take a copy of the book you’ve been sent to the state committee. If the state committee gives you permission (often several months or a year later), you then have to — in person — collect a letter from the state committee and take it to the Baku post office, to hopefully receive the literature.
The former head of the state committee told Forum 18 point blank that censorship of religious literature does not apply to the sacred books of the various religions. Oh no? Forum 18 has seen copies of the Bible piled up in the international sorting office while the would-be recipients sought the required permission. Postal workers cheerfully told Forum 18 that Bibles and “so much” Muslim literature had already been sent back to the senders.
Just as postal workers will hunt ever more earnestly through arriving parcels of religious literature, so customs officers at Baku’s international airport and on Azerbaijan’s land borders are likely to step up their seizures. And police, who often raid peaceful religious meetings in private homes, are likely to hunt more assiduously for religious literature. But why have the authorities decided that peaceful Azeris with such literature are so dangerous?
Felix Corley is editor of Forum 18 News Service , which covers religious freedom issues