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USCIRF Concerned Proposed Amendments in Azerbaijan Will Repress Religious Freedom Further

June 29, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Newly proposed legal changes in Azerbaijan would curtail the religious freedom of the country's Muslim community, said the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today. Recent restrictive amendments to Azerbaijan's religion law went into effect on May 31 (see Commission press release issued on May 19, 2009, "Pending Amendments in Azerbaijan Concern USCIRF.”) On June 30, Azerbaijan's parliament will consider two additional amendments to the same religion law. These proposals would restrict the conduct of Islamic rituals to Azerbaijani citizens who received Islamic education in Azerbaijan. They also would require that those who lead such rituals receive prior government approval.

"Azerbaijan would be moving even further in the wrong direction with regard to religious freedom if these additional proposed amendments become law. Criminalizing such actions would but further damage Azerbaijan"s reputation regarding its adherence to international standards on the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief,” said Michael Cromartie, USCIRF vice co-chair. "The Commission urges Azerbaijan to reject these amendments promptly and to reconsider its recently adopted amendments to the religion law.”

Senior officials from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party of President Ilham Aliev have backed the proposed changes, according to the non-governmental organization Forum 18. Deputy Ali Huseynov, the parliamentary deputy who chairs the Milli Mejlis Legal Policy and State Building Committee, reportedly told the local APA news agency that the proposed amendments would also add some new penalties to the Code of Administrative Offences, but he did not specify if they would apply to those who violate the proposed new provisions of the Religion Law.

The proposed amendments to the NGO Law would ban the activity of unregistered NGOs, including several religious rights groups, such as Devamm, a Muslim rights organization, and the Azerbaijan branch of the International Religious Liberty Association.

The new amendments to the religion law are scheduled to be considered during the same parliamentary session as proposed amendments to the Media Law, the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Law, the Grants Law, the State Fees Law, and the Code of Administrative Offences.

Reportedly, the government of Azerbaijan has not requested reviews of the amendments to the religion law from expert legal groups within the Council of Europe or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), although the country is a member of both organizations.

Azerbaijan"s current religion law prohibits mosques which operate outside the state-sponsored Caucasus Muslim Board. In recent months, two mosques were demolished and several others were closed by government order, according to Forum 18. Furthermore, the Azeri government"s "temporary” ban on praying outside mosques and prohibitions on the reopening of some Georgian Orthodox and Baptist churches, issued in August 2008, are still in effect.

"As in the case of many countries, the Azeri government does face challenges in addressing extremism that claims a religious linkage, while also protecting freedom of religion or belief. However, overly repressive laws that would affect many peaceful Muslims risk the very result that is sought to be avoided-exacerbating radicalism,” said Mr. Cromartie.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF"s principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, contact Tom Carter, Communications Director at tcarter@uscirf.gov, or (202) 523-3257.