By Joseph DeCaro, BosNewsLife International Crrespondent
BAKU/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– A congregation of protestant Christians in the Azerbajani capital Baku potentially faced its last public Sunday worship service April 22, as authorities have threatened to “liquidate” the church, rights activists said.
A court in Baku will decide next week whether Greater Grace Protestant Church – which has been registered with the state for 19 years – should end its operations, said the advocacy grouo Forum 18, which investigated the case.
The State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations launched legal steps to liquidate Greater Grace last December in what Forum 18 said was “the first such suit lodged against any religious community since the introduction of strict religous legislation in 2009.
Under the Religion Law all religious communities in the former Sobiet republic require re-registration with authorities.
If the court upholds the liquidation suit by the State Committee, any public communal activity by Greater Grace will become illegal, Christians said.
Judge Tahira Asadova and the State Committee representative reportedly claimed that Greater Grace can only operate “privately in its own office” since the church isn’t an “organization,” but a “religious group”.
Greater Grace countered that the court can only liquidate it if it violated the Religion Law.
Some church members have complained that Judge Asadova has already decided to liquidate Greater Grace and “is just looking for a rationale for her premature decision.”
The State Committee reportedly argued that Greater Grace had to be liquidated as it had not undergone compulsory re-registration. However Forum 18 claimed the Committee hasn’t registered hundreds of religious communities that have applied for the required re-registration.
“In defiance of its international human rights commitments, Azerbaijan’s Religion Law has banned the exercise of religion and belief without state permission by imposing heavy penalties for any perceived violations,” Forum 18 commented.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has been ruled by Ilham Aliyev who took over as president from his father, Heydar, in 2003.
Opposition groups have expressed concerns over a reported crackdown on dissidents and others his government doesn’t like, including devoted Christians. (With additional reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos in Budapest).