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Religious Intolerance
in Azerbaijan

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  • "All people in Azerbaijan, regardless of whether they are Jews, Christians or Muslims, live comfortably." Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Orthodox Christian church, 2003-APR. 1
  • "Under an authoritarian regime, which has continued many of the old communist mechanisms of control but with a highly-developed and corrupt cult of personality around the president, Azerbaijan has yet to introduce an open, democratic society where religious freedom can flourish." Forum 18 News. 1


The Azerbaijan Republic is a country in South-west Asia bordering the Caspian Sea. Its main neighbors are Iran and Russia. with a population of about 8.4 million. It was invaded and conquered by Russia in the early 19th century. It was a republic within the USSR from 1922 until it declared independence in 1991. Under Russian control, a major program of secularization was implemented. The government is basically a dictatorship, with some democratic trappings. The judiciary exhibits little independence from the government. According to Forum 18 News Service, the government is hostile "to the idea of religious freedom, which appears to derive from officials' fear of social forces they cannot control and dislike of" religious diversity. 1

The vast majority, 93%, of the citizens of the Azerbaijan Republic identify themselves as Muslims. The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report 2002 states that: "Among the Muslim majority, religious observance is relatively low, and Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity than religion. However, in recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in interest in Islam, as well as other faiths. The Muslim population is approximately 60 percent Shi'a and 40 percent Sunni; differences traditionally have not been defined sharply, but there has been a growing trend towards segregation in recent years." 2 However, being in the vast majority brings problems. Muslims are the main religious victims of the government, probably because they are seen as potential future rivals in political power. About 5% of the population are Orthodox Christian; they are divided almost equally between Russian Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches. 3 Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, Russinan Orthodox and Jewish faith groups are considered as traditional religious groups. There is a strong link among the public between those groups, and national identity. The smaller and newer groups are often viewed as heresies which undermine national identity and security. A strong commitment to religious freedom and diversity is lacking in the country. 4

Evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas form small religious minorities. Only tiny religious groups, like the Molokans -- an ancient Russian Protestant faith group -- and Georgian Orthodox and the Baha'i Faith seem to escape persecution. The religious makeup has not changed significantly in the past five years.

Like many states in the region, Azerbaijan has essentially no separation between religion and government or religious freedom for its citizens. Their constitution guarantees that citizens can choose and change their religion, form faith groups, and practice their faith. They made guarantees of religious freedom for their citizens when they joined the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They have largely ignored these commitments. Groups and individuals are persecuted wherever they "threaten public order and stability," -- a phrase that they interpret very broadly. Foreigners are not allowed to proselytize. All religious literature must be submitted to government censorship before being imported, published or distributed. Various religious laws suggest that faith groups register with the government and be recognized. Without registration, they cannot open a bank account, own property, rent property, or act as a religious body. Police and local authorities have interpreted the law as if registration is compulsory. Unfortunately, the government has been known to either refuse to review applications from some groups, or return them endlessly for "corrections." Only about 580 religious communities have registered out of an estimated 2,000 in the country. 1

The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report noted a slight improvement in religious freedom during 2003. 5


  1. "Azerbaijan: Religious freedom survey," Forum 18 News, 2003-JUN-25. Online at: http://www.forum18.org/
  2. "Azerbaijan," International Religious Freedom Report 2002, 2002-OCT, U.S. Department of State, at: http://www.state.gov/
  3. "The World Almanac and book of facts, 2004," World Almanac Books, (2003-DEC) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Hikmet Hadjy-Zadeh, "Human rights and religious freedom in Azerbaijan," (1996). A presentation to the Religion, Human Rights and Religious Freedom Program at the Human Rights Center in Columbia University. See: http://www-scf.usc.edu/
  5. "Azerbaijan," International Religious Freedom Report 2003, 2003-DEC, U.S. Department of State, at: http://www.state.gov/

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Copyright © 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-JAN-30
Latest update: 2004-JAN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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