Amendments to both the Religion Law and the Administrative Code of Azerbaijan will bar churches from appointing leaders without state approval.
The amendments, signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev on 16 June, require the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations to approve the appointment of all non-Islamic religious leaders in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, as well as overseeing the appointment of Islamic clerics.
Churches – along with other places of worship – must also have a state-recognised “religious centre” or headquarters (as distinct from a local place of worship) in order to apply for permission to appoint foreign-born ministers, or even invite foreign-born persons to lead religious services.
The amendments do not make clear how churches may apply for the state recognition of a named religious centre.
This creates potential problems for, in particular, smaller churches – for example, independent Protestant congregations – which, even if officially registered as local places of worship, may not be able to gain recognition as religious centres.
Neither do the amendments state what will happen to churches or congregations without a religious centre who already have foreign-born pastors or ministers.
The approval of the State Committee is also now required for churches to hold “mass events” anywhere other than state-registered places of worship.
This provision will affect churches which have not been unable to secure state registration, some of which meet in private homes, especially as the amendments do not give a proper definition of what constitutes a mass event.
In April 2021 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) added Azerbaijan to its special watch list (SWL) for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom”.
As well as war crimes against Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh, USCIRF cited the precarious legal situation of churches and other places of worship which had been unable to gain official registration and the unwillingness of the relevant authorities in Azerbaijan to allow such registration.