(June 16, 2009) A new Law on Religious Organizations and related amendments to Azerbaijan's Criminal Code and Code of Administrative Violations entered into force on May 31, 2009, after the President of the Republic signed the Law passed by the Milli Mejlis (legislature). The Law revises the definition of a religious organization, with the purpose of fighting religious fundamentalism. It adds a prohibition against “spreading religious propaganda with violence, or the threat of violence, or in order to create racial, national, religious, or social enmity and hostility.” The Law also prohibits propagating religion “against the principles of humanity and human dignity.” Stating that the defense of individual freedom is one of the main goals of the Azerbaijani state, the Law introduces an amendment to the Criminal Code that prescribes punishment of two years of imprisonment for persons convicted of forcing individuals, including children, to take part in religious activities or religious education.
Stricter measures of government control introduced by the new Law expand the authority of the State Committee on Religious Organizations, a government agency in charge of monitoring religious affairs, and provide for the re-registration of all existing religious organizations by January 1, 2010. The measures also require that religious activities only be conducted at the legal address where a religious organization is officially registered, restrict distribution or sale of religious materials and literature outside of approved venues, and establish special licensing procedures for religious education.
The Law's new article 4, in particular, has been criticized by human rights groups. It prohibits “refusing or declining to fulfill obligations determined by law because of one's religious beliefs.” According to human rights defenders, the provision may be aimed at barring conscientious objection to military service. (Felix Corley, Azerbaijan: Repressive New Religion Law and New Punishments Enter into Force, FORUM 18 NEWS SERVICE, June 3, 2009, available at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1305.)