Published: 12:01 GMT Daylight Time - Wednesday 01 August 2012
Appeal court upholds church closure ruling in Azerbaijan
Country/Region: Azerbaijan, Central Asia
The highest appeal court in Azerbaijan has upheld the decision to close Greater Grace Church in an important test case for religious freedom in the country.
Greater Grace in the capital, Baku, appealed against the liquidation order issued on 25 April that stripped the church of its registration. It was the first religious community to be liquidated by a court since the country’s harsh new religion law came into force in 2009.
The appeal was due to take place on 17 July but was adjourned until 31 July. After a 20-minute hearing, the court decided to uphold the closure order, which also applied to the international Christian organisation that runs Greater Grace. The church now has the right to take the case to the Supreme Court. Greater Grace members had earlier said that they would go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary.
The church has provided a place for Christian worship and teaching for almost 20 years, and with a congregation of nearly 500 people, is one of the larger Protestant churches in the country.
It has held legal registration in Azerbaijan since 1993, but the 2009 amendments to the religion law required all religious organisations to re-register.
In bringing the case against Greater Grace, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations (SCWRO), the government body that is in charge of registration, argued that the church should be stripped of its registration because it had failed to re-register with them.
The SCWRO has denied permits to many groups; hundreds that submitted applications are still waiting for a response.
Greater Grace is emphatic that it has never broken the law, but the SCWRO told the first court hearing that it had “secret documents” revealing violations. The committee did not however produce these documents.
Azerbaijan is around 90 per cent Muslim, and the government gives preferential treatment to religions considered “traditional” (Islam, Russian Orthodox Christianity and Judaism).