Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I rise today to highlight a disturbing incident involving governmental harassment of religious believers in Azerbaijan. We have received reports of religious liberty violations perpetrated by governmental authorities. As a participating State of the OSCE, Azerbaijan has committed to insuring the freedom of individuals to profess and practice their religion. These recent governmental actions are a clear violation of Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitment to the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.
On September 5th, government officials in Baku forced their way into a legally-registered church, Baku Baptist Church, and arrested sixty members of the religious group. The pastors of the church as well as a dozen foreigners were among those arrested and interrogated. The arrested Azeri religious believers were detained and asked to sign a statement affirming that they had attended an “illegal meeting” and promising not to attend the religious meetings in the future. Ultimately, two leaders of the church were sentenced to 15 days in prison on charges relating to resisting police. Likewise, then other foreign members of the religious group were charged with “engaging in religious propaganda” and “propagating against the Muslim faith,” in violation of an Azeri law that forbids such activity. On September 8th, all ten foreigners were deported and more deportations are likely. These events are alarming, Mr. Speaker.
While there had been reports of governmental harassment in the past, especially of unregistered religious minority groups, these current events are especially problematic because the target of these actions was a legally registered religious group. Mr. Speaker, these actions are in direct violation to Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitments, including section 16 of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document, which explicitly delineates the wide scope of activities protected, including the right to establish and maintain places of worship and granting them status under law to both profess and practice their faith. In the 1990 Copenhagen Concluding Document Article 9.1, Azerbaijan has reaffirmed “that everyone will have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to communication. This right will include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” The actions by Azerbaijani officials clearly violate these commitments.
I truly hope that these government actions are merely an aberration and will be dealt with accordingly and are not the signal of even more repression of religious believers in Azerbaijan. I would like to commend to my colleagues the work of our Embassy in Baku on religious liberty. Embassy personnel have taken this recent incident very seriously and have followed the situation from the start. I urge those of my colleagues who interact with Azerbaijani Government officials to raise religious liberty issues in their discussions, stressing the essential role that religious liberty–and indeed human rights in general, play in maintaining a free, stable, and democratic civil society.