Conversions in Azerbaijan
by Huseyin Bagirov
- 1. Introduction
- 2. What is religious conversion?
- 3. Religious conversion in Azerbaijan, causes and possible consequences
- 4. Results and suggestions
Religion and approaches towards it, the religious position, play an important role in people's self-awareness and identification, as well as in the formation of their outlook. Religious identification is promoted and shaped from an early age by parents or custodians as part of their upbringing. This process goes in two ways: compulsory and voluntary.
In both cases, the person accepts religion spontaneously, regardless of his will, because he is not mature enough in terms of analysis and criticism, independent thinking. As you grow older and your thinking ability develops, that is, throughout the process of becoming an individual, the person begins to question his or her identity, environment, and perspective, and one of the key identifying factors in this process is religion. The outcome of this process is determined in two situations:
1) The individual remains stable in his original religious position.
2) Changes religious position.
In this article, we will examine the reasons why individuals in Azerbaijan have changed their religious positions and what problems they face at this next stage.
2. What is religious conversion?
According to some sources, a religious change is only a change in a person's religious view, which includes the transition from one religion or denomination to another.  We consider it important to clarify one basic concept in this regard in advance: for us, religious change is not limited to the transition from one religion to another. A religious change includes any change in one's religious position during the identification process.
Religion is a system of beliefs that combines religious, social, philosophical and ideological ideas, and an individual's attitude to this system, his beliefs are his religious position. This means that a person's attitude towards religion can change as he loses faith in it or takes the opposite position. This kind of change in a person's beliefs is considered a change in his religious position. From this point of view, the transition to such positions as Atheism, Deism, Agnosticism is also considered a religious change.
2.1. States perceived as religious change:
Thus, religious change takes three forms:
- Transition from one religion to another
- Transition from one denomination to another within a religion
- Weakening and disappearance of faith and belief in religion in a changing way
2.2. Common reasons for religious conversion
As a general result of social researches on the grounds of religious conversion, the main reasons are:
- At a young age, people's positions are more changeable and resilient, and their psychology becomes unstable to influential elements, especially propaganda.
- The fact that people in poor developing countries are more uneducated and poorer makes them vulnerable to missionary religious claims and charitable propaganda.
- The growing fear of death in a sickbed and the sensitivity of thoughts about the afterlife sometimes lead to questioning and, consequently, to a change of religion.
- Depression caused by problems and losses, as well as deprivation, weakens people's religious beliefs and leads them to reconsider their religion by questioning and seeking a more appropriate religious position.
The process of changing people's religious beliefs occurs in two main cases:
- a) A person voluntarily questions his religious identity.
As noted earlier, since an individual's religious identity is formed in the early years of childhood and in youth, in many cases the religious position is re-considered, questioned, and determined in the process of identity and identification. Regardless of the presence of driving forces such as propaganda, encouragement and obstruction, a change in an individual's religious position based on free choice is a voluntary religious change.
In general, the questioning of his or her religious position depends entirely on the liberal and conservative levels of an individual`s mentality. The more liberal or open-minded a person is, the more inquisitive and defining he will be about his religious position. Conservatism, on the other hand, emphasizes spontaneity in relation to religious beliefs and prevents identification. This rule also applies to those who are propagandists or obstructers of other subjects of the process of religious conversion. Whether the activities of these individuals in the process are based on coercive or voluntary principles depends more on the degree of liberalism of their thinking than on the level of their religiosity. We questioned the validity of this thesis and conducted public opinion polls with representatives of most religious communities and the people of Azerbaijan. The general results of the polls confirmed the validity of the thesis.
- b) A person accepts a religious change under the coercive influence of external forces.
Just as there are factors that hinder religious change, there are also factors that hinder religious stability and force religious change.
In the distant past, the leading forces of secular religions carried out religious expansion along with the occupation, and in the recent past, countries such as the USSR carried out coercive atheist propaganda against religions. Institutions in this type of society, especially the family institutions, have a high level of conservatism, and high-ranking members of the society carry out religious propaganda with coercive measures and behaviours against other members of the family and society, family in childhood and the spouse in adulthood have a direct impact on changes in people's religious attitudes.
Religious conversions due to marriage are also often coercive. Due to differences in religious beliefs, one person is forced to switch to another's religious position. However, this does not happen in all cases. If one of the parties is religious, the probability increases.
Coercive religious change is neither legally legitimate nor morally ethical and does not comply with the basic criteria of religion. In modern times, human rights conventions are adopted to prevent such processes, and these conventions are reflected in international law. The most important of these is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 18 that people have the right to freely change their religious beliefs. Another document is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Article 18 of the ICCPR protects both religious and non-religious views like atheism. As UN Human Rights Committee states in General Comment no 22, right to change religion is enshrined in freedom of religion.
 Thomas Swan, Owlcation, 26 mart, 2018- https://owlcation.com/humanities/Why-Do-People-Convert-to-Religion
 Saba Imtiaz and Sameer Mandhro, Mass conversions: For Matli’s poor Hindus, ‘lakshmi’ lies in another religion, January 20, 2012, The Express Tribune, https://tribune.com.pk/story/324799/mass-conversions-for-matlis-poor-hindus-lakshmi-lies-in-another-religion
 Dan Barker, What Is a Freethinker?, Foundation Freedom for Religon, https://ffrf.org/faq/feeds/item/18391-what-is-a-freethinker
 General survey with different communities, Baku, Yasamal district, May 3-16.
 The simple reason why people really change churches, switch faiths, or leave religion altogether,
A 2009 survey in the United States found that 40 percent of those who changed their religion had done it under the influence of their spouse. Pew Research Center, Faith in Flux, 27.04.2009, See : https://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux/
 CCPR General Comment no 22 Adopted at the Forty-eighth Session of the Human Rights Committee, on 30 July 1993 CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, para.5.
3. Religious conversion in Azerbaijan, causes and possible consequences
First of all, it should be noted that the culture of tolerance is high in Azerbaijan. The first reason for this is that the country has historically always been multi-confessional, there is no strict religiosity, and the second reason is that it is a secular state. In Azerbaijan, religion is separate from the state, and no religion takes precedence over other religions in the law. The fact that Azerbaijan is a post-Soviet state has also led it to stay out of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East and no religion or confessional force in the country have formed as a major force. The factor of ensuring full freedom of conscience in Azerbaijan is reflected in the fact that there is no need to keep official statistics on religious positions and even religious changes in the country. This can be seen in the interviews of the deputy chairmen of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations in 2015 and 2017. 
However, no matter how tolerant the attitude of different religions and denominations in Azerbaijan to the system of beliefs and values, people's attitudes to religious change are not always unequivocal.
The main reason for this is that the tolerant attitude of religions towards each other is limited to the expansion of one religion against another. The conversion of a person from one religion to another during a conversion is often seen as an expansion of the second religion against the first religion, as it is the result of the propaganda of the second one. In this case, the reaction to the expansion is expressed over the person who made the religious change and, if any, those who drove him or her to this path.
 Sayyad Aran, 2015, https://qaynarxett.az/index.php?newsid=3930
 Mübariz Qurbanlı, 2017, http://operativ.tv/dini-komit-azrbaycanda-dinini-dyisnlrin-sayini-aciqladi.html
3.1. Problems faced by those who change their religion in Azerbaijan
There are several main reasons affecting religious conversion in Azerbaijan:
- a) Restrictions on religious propaganda and community registration in the country
Although Azerbaijani law regulates freedom of conscience and religion, some domestic restrictive norms and laws regarding religion do not coincide with international law. In particular, there are some legal gaps in the regulation of religious propaganda (proselytism) that are part of religious devotions. Under international law, religious proselytism can be restricted in two main cases: if the propaganda process involves incitement to violence and coercion.
The main purpose of international human rights law in practice is to protect the religious freedom of believers, as well as religious minorities, and to protect them from oppression.
However, the restrictive norms of religious proselytism in Azerbaijan are an obstacle. The government is trying to prevent the rise of foreign religious denominations within the country, and this approach is not limited to non-Islamic religious communities. For example, the propaganda of members of the Jehovah's Witnesses is still under pressure, despite the fact that the problems caused by these laws have been repeatedly brought before the European Court and the members of the sect have won.   After having interviews with members of the sect, it became clear that in addition to propaganda, they also create severe obstacles to their joint worship.
In addition, the increase in the requirements for the registration of religious communities is one of the factors hindering the worship of religious minorities, most of whom have changed their religious beliefs.
These barriers to propaganda and worship are aimed at preventing the strengthening of the social position of religious denominations, and this process is slowing down the process of religious change in these communities. This opaque policy can cover not only religious denominations and religious minorities coming from abroad but also other large religious communities such as Islam. This problem hinders the religious activities of those who make changes to religious minorities and slows down the process of religious conversion.
- b) Conservative family values aimed at preventing religious conversion
Conservative values were one of the obstacles to the process of religious change in Azerbaijan. The religious position of most Azerbaijanis is spontaneous and at the primary level. In general, the identification of individuals in most families is not based on free choice. The main problem facing the vast majority of Azerbaijani youth is their attempts to break free from the conservative chains of the family when they reach the proper age. As long as they depend on these chains, the identification process is slow. Also, high-ranking members of the family have a great influence on the questioning of the initial religious position of young people when determining their religious position. And the conservatism of these high-status figures is the main obstacle to the formation of a skeptical view of the religious identification of young people and to liberal thinking. The coercive force of conservative families forces the individual to remain in his or her original religious position or, if changed, to return to his or her previous religious position. Although there is no Islamic radicalism in Azerbaijan, the spontaneity created by conservative values maintains the strong position of Islam in Azerbaijan. It should not be forgotten that in Islam, the punishment for apostasy is very severe, and this tradition remains influential in religious families. This hinders the propagation of other religions and the spread of liberal-independent thinking in the process of religious change. Anyone who has been able to change or question their religion in Azerbaijan is someone who has been able to break free from the chains of a conservative family, become independent, and complete the identification process on the basis of their free choice. All the people we interviewed said that they faced this problem and went through this process when changing their religion.
- c) Public condemnation of conservative values after the religious conversion
Problems with religious conversion do not end with getting rid of conservative family values and completing a conversion of religion. After the conversion, this process was marked by public condemnation. As mentioned earlier, many Azerbaijanis do not have a liberal mindset, and although they are tolerant of other religions, their attitude toward those who have switched to another religion is ambiguous and in some cases, they spontaneously condemn and oppress them. However, the K.N. we interviewed stated that he had changed 3-4 different religions and had never been criticized by his family or friends. He explained that his family and friends were not religious and did not belong to any religion. However, he noted that he was seriously alienated and estranged by the religious group/community of which he was a previous member. Children who have always been brought up in schools with a combination of beliefs and fears about God and religion cannot accept and understand when they see an Azerbaijani who has converted to another religion or is identified with a denial such as atheism or deism, and as a result, they manifest blame, discrimination, and mobbing. Sometimes it is seen that even teachers and other educators join the process along with students.
These pressures affect the education and psychological well-being of young people who have converted. Some school-age children are forced to return to their original religious position because of pressure or discrimination, or because of psychological problems and trauma, including depression.
Public criticism is not limited to minors at school. If he is able to continue his education successfully, people around him often try to influence a person's religious position throughout higher education and working life.
The influence of Islam and public condemnation of religious conversion in Azerbaijan is so strong that even influential figures and public figures are reluctant to take a stand on religious change, even if some of them change their religious views.
- d) Reaction of religious communities
Religious communities themselves react harshly to those who have converted and separated from them.
In particular, while studying the positions of religious communities on proselytism and struggle and the position of outsiders through surveys and interviews, we found that the struggle against conversion within religion was often tougher and more extensive than the struggle against external change and expansion.    We have come to the conclusion that the struggle between religions is more intense than the struggle between atheist positions and those who believe in religion. Also, the struggle and hatred between the different sects and denominations of one religion are more than the confrontation and hatred between the members of two religions.
For example, in one of our interviews on this subject, a dialogue with a person who has changed his religion several times can be considered a strong fact for this argument. According to our interviewee, his conversion from Sunni to Shiite denomination within Islam was more aggressive than the conversion from Islam to atheism. Against the background of these processes, the struggle and solidarity of religions continue over the people who have changed their religion, and they are severely sanctioned and restricted. When we met with the head of one of the communities that propagate Islam, we asked him about the propaganda process, he said that the propaganda circles did not cover those who had already left Islam and were not willing to return. Or in an interview with members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, they said that they had cut off all contact with those who had once left their community. The Jewish community is even tougher on this issue. Those who have left their religion cannot return.
Thus, each religious community, in its own way, obstructs the process of religious change by trying to oppress and punish those who have changed their religion and seeks to prevent other members of their communities from changing their views on religious change.
 ECtHR, Case of Kokinnakis v Greece.
«Yəhova şahidləri» dini təriqətinin 22 üzvü saxlanılıb,
 Case of Nasirov and others v. Azerbaijan, 20.06.2020
 Promoters of Jehova Witnesses were arrested, https://m.modern.az/az/news/61176/
 14 May 2021, Interview with Z.Q, A.S, O.A(E)., S.Z in Yasamal district
 Ilgar Ibrahimoglu: Should apostates from Islam be sentenced to death? Faktxeber internet newspaper, 05.09.2009, http://www.faktxeber.com/News_h5098.html
 Survey with people who have changed their religious beliefs, Baku, Yasamal, Sumgayit, Garayev, May 3-16
 Excerpt from an online interview with KN on 19 June 2021.
 Interview with TK who converted to Christianity, Baku, Academy of Sciences, May 6, 2021
 Interview with Arzu Baylarova, a psychologist who has worked with people who have changed their religious beliefs, Baku, Academy of Sciences, May 14, 2021
 Interview with public activist Allahverdi Hasanov, May 11, 2021, Baku, Academy of Sciences
 Interview with a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, May 14, 2021, Baku, Narimanov district.
 Interview with a representative of one of the Muslim-Shiite communities, May 15, 2021, Baku, Yasamal district.
 Interview with a Baha'i representative, 16 May 2021, Baku, Narimanov district.
 Public survey among people, 11-23 May 2021, Baku.
 Interview with Islamic Shiite propagandist Ziya Baliyev, May 15, Baku, Yasamal district
 Interview with Ziya Baliyev, May 15, 2021, Baku, Yasamal district
 Interview with a member of the Jewish religious community, 13 May 2021, Baku, Nizami
3.2. Legislative regulation
The rights of persons who have changed their religion are also regulated by the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan on Freedom of Religious Belief (LFRB). Although the LFRB does not explicitly state the right to religious conversion, it is clear from the interpretation of Article 1 of the Law that everyone has the right to remain in any religion, to renounce it, to change their religious beliefs, to protect them and to express them freely. It should also be noted that according to Article 12-1, paragraph 7, preventing a person from leaving a religious organization by illegal actions is prohibited by law and is the basis for the dissolution of that institution. So, according to the law, any person can leave the religious institution to which he belongs at any time.
In addition, according to Article 4 of the Law, everyone is equal before the law and the courts, regardless of religion. Indication of a person's religious affiliation in official documents is allowed only at his request.
The Constitution, labour law, and civil service law prohibit discrimination on religious grounds. This prohibition also applies to the treatment of people in terms of changing their religion.
In other words, according to the law, because of the secular nature of the state, the state does not prefer any religion, nor does it show any attitude to stay or leave any religion, but applies the principle of equality in this matter as well.
According to Articles 2 and 31 of the LFRB, ratified international conventions are the part of the national legislation. Thus, UN Human Rights Committee in its interpretation to the Article 18 of the 1966 Convention states that “the freedom to “have or to adopt” a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one’s current religion or belief with another”. Thus it is not disputed that conversion is permitted, what means that State has a positive obligation to protect those who were converted or left their previous beliefs.
 Law on Freedom of Religion of the Republic of Azerbaijan
4. Results and suggestions
Thus, our conclusion in our study is that the weakness of liberal thinking on religious conversion in Azerbaijan makes obstacles for those who go through this process, both at the state level and in society. In general, these barriers are dual in nature. It puts pressure on those who have made the conversion and tries to prevent their propaganda, as well as to prevent other individuals from joining the process. However, over time, the weakening of conservative values in Azerbaijani society and the fact that the relatively more liberal-minded young generation has a say makes it possible to solve this problem in the future.
It is also important to take some measures to speed up the solution of these problems, which hinder the process of identification of individuals in religious positions. As can be seen, first of all, the restrictions and bias in the laws must be eliminated, and the meaning of the laws must be clearer. Conditions for community registration should be eased, and communities should be allowed to conduct free propaganda in accordance with the principles of international law. The principle of proportionality should be applied in the administrative interference of the state in religion.
Special social programs should be adopted to reduce discrimination and pressure in society, and most importantly, seminars should be organized in social environments, starting from schools. In accordance with the current officially announced policy of multiculturalism, values such as secularism and religious equality should be widely used in curricula.
 CCPR General Comment no 22, para 8.