Rules of proselytism and religious agitation – who, where and how?

1. The role of the proselytism in the freedom of religion

The spread of their religion by believers is a common method for all religions. The spread of religion usually requires the dogmas of that religion, and the main reason for this is the rebuke, which is often repeated in the holy books, "inviting people to the path of truth."

The propaganda and dissemination actions of religion, which we will use as an "invitation" for the growth of religions and the increase of the number of its partners; is a very effective and important factor in the solidarity of believers among themselves.

The right to spread the religion which you believe in has also been reflected in international conventions. Both the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights state that everyone has the freedom of religion right within the framework of freedom of religion.

In international human rights law, there are two main restrictions on the "inviting to religion" activity. The first is a ban on invitations to violent manners, and the other is to invite people to religion in non-voluntary, damaging, addictive conditions.[1]

The legislation of our country is more complex and more limiting in terms of invitations to religion. However, it should be noted that Article 31 of the Law on Freedom of Religion states that if the domestic legislation on freedom of religion contains rules different from the international treaty to which the Republic of Azerbaijan is a party, then the rules of the international treaty apply. For this reason, it is necessary to know the framework of international law on religious freedom. We hope that over time, such contradictory provisions in the legislation will be corrected.


[1] ECtHR, Larissis and Kokinakis cases.

2. The main objectives of the legislation

To understand the national legislation, let's first have a look at what the official religion policy is for the spread of religion. In any case, the government of Azerbaijan pays attention to two main points in the religion policy.

The first priority of this policy is the inadmissibility of the spread of any religious denomination related to foreign powers due to the lack of freedom of religion in the USSR and, therefore, the lack of independent and strong local religious denominations formed in the country for years.

Another priority of official religious policy is the spread of a religious denomination outside the authority of the state, without its control. In addition, although religious policy recognizes the existence of different denominations in the country, it does not want any of them to grow up to influence public opinion or government policy.

These noted points are not legal positions, but political reasons that are not written in the law. We are not defending or criticizing by displaying them. However, it will be clear from the following explanations that the provisions of the legislation are in fact aimed at protecting these priorities.

However, with the exception of Judaism, in Islam, various denominations of Christianity, Buddhism, Krishnaism, Baha'iism, and Jehovah's Witnesses, the invitation is the most important part of religious activity; it is even more important than worship rituals. Because the hours allotted for worship are often less than the hours allotted for invitations. We do not want to touch on the question of whether the invitation to religion is a form of worship.

The issue of religious invitation is regulated by the Law on Freedom of Religion in Azerbaijan too. Article 1 of the law regulates the invitation to religion, ie propaganda, in a very broad way. According to this article, religious proselytism and religious lifestyles by force or threat of use of force, as well as for the purpose of inciting racial, national, religious, social hatred and enmity are not allowed. The spread and propagation of religions (religious movements) that degrade human dignity or contradict the principles of humanity are prohibited. Let's take a look at the restrictions set out in Article 1 of the law.

  1. a) The use of force or threat of use of force,
  2. b) The purpose of inciting racial, national, religious, social hatred,
  3. c) Religious currents that degrade human dignity,
  4. d) Beliefs contrary to the principles of humanity,
  5. e) Spread of religious beliefs by foreign citizens - These types of propaganda are not allowed.[1]

In general, restrictions on freedom of religion, including "freedom of invitation to religion", may be restricted by law only in the interests of public safety, public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, if required by law and necessary in a democratic society. Although the criteria set out here are in line with the criteria set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, practically, the issue of their realization is less ambiguous. Thus, in the case of "Nasirov and others v. Azerbaijan", we can see that the terms of the Convention practically have not been followed. We will touch on this issue later.[2]

Although the above-mentioned propaganda is prohibited, its range may not always be clear. For example, the concepts of "degrading human dignity" and "contrary to the principle of humanity" can be interpreted differently in various cases in the field of religious freedom.

The law also considered the activity of spreading religion as a professional religious activity, and in this regard, the persons who are professionally engaged in a religious activity as religious figures; are in turn, have higher or secondary religious education (Article 4-1).

There are different types of religious proselytism. Religious education, the teaching of the holy books, the teaching of worship such as prayer, the teaching of the lives of the prophets - all of these are included in religious proselytism. These are regulated separately by the law.

The law states that all types of religious organizations can engage in propaganda, ie invitation to religion. What is more interesting for us are religious communities.

According to Article 7 of the law, 4 types of religious organizations exist in our country - religious centers and departments, religious educational institutions and religious communities, as well as their associations are considered religious organizations.


[1] Violation of the rules of religious propaganda by foreigners is punishable up to 2 years of imprisonment, and in some cases up to 5 years of imprisonment.

[2] Case of “Nasirov and others v. Azerbaijan”, 20.06.2020.

3. Religious education and propaganda

In fact, religious education can be considered a form of propaganda. However, in the legislation, religious education is treated distinctly and differently in the sense of propaganda, and the main difference from propaganda is that religious education provides relevant higher and secondary degrees in theology.

Only religious educational institutions may be engaged in religious education. Teaching religious books is available to all religious groups through organising courses, provided that the religious centres and institutions to which they are subordinate allow this.[1] Religious educational institutions can be organised only by religious centres and departments; that is, an average religious community can initiate a Qur'an or Bible course, but no religious educational institution can.


[1] This regulation in the last paragraph of Article 6 of the law does not deprive religious communities that no longer have a religious center and administration, because small religious denominations can be subordinated to centers abroad.

4. Who can engage in religious invitations?

Is there a degree in religion required for those who are invited to a religion? It should be noted that while such a degree is required for those who provide religious education, it is not necessary to have any religious education to engage in the invitation to religion. The religious community itself, or any member of the religious community, may be engaged in such an invitation. However, we must touch on an important point here: a religious organization cannot function without registration, as its members cannot engage in propaganda and invitation work on behalf of the community under the law.

An interesting question arises from the point of view of citizens who are not members of any community. Can such citizens carry out religious proselytism? The above-mentioned law does not clearly regulate the right of a citizen to invite (propagandize) a religion. However, it should be noted that "Everything which is not forbidden is allowed," that is, taking into account the principle of freedom of action, a citizen who is not affiliated with any community has the right to religious proselytism. Moreover, Article 31 of the Law, to which we have referred earlier, makes this clear. But let's not forget that if a citizen conducts propaganda with the same people, for example, to his neighbours in the neighbourhood, it will be possible to claim that a de facto community has been formed here. For example, in the southern village of Aliabad, during a ritual held at the homes of two church leaders, police raided those homes and fined them AZN 1,500. 30 people attending the gathering were initially arrested and later released. Following the December 12 court hearing, both leaders were warned not to hold any meetings without official registration and permission, threatening "more serious consequences."[1]

It should be noted that the opportunity of citizens to freely engage in religious rites, ceremonies and worship held in their homes is clearly stated in the second paragraph of Article 21 of the relevant Law.

The law also imposes some restrictions on the citizen's religious proselytism.

Thus, propaganda is practically carried out in the form of distribution of both religious materials and booklets, and this is a very common method. Article 22 of the Law on Religious Belief stipulates that religious books and material, which is the control mark of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, may be freely distributed only to religious communities and other legal entities and individuals. In short, if a citizen with religious material wants to distribute them, he must apply to the state body with the relevant literature and get a control mark for it after checking the religious books. Unregistered religious materials are generally confiscated and those who distributed them are fined.[2] It should be noted that the relevant article of the law was changed in 2013, and before that, the consent of the SCWRA must be obtained for the distribution of religious books; now it is only necessary to obtain a control mark for the relevant books. For example, in 2010, Jehovah's Witnesses were detained by police as they travelled from house to house distributing religious books that were allowed to be imported, and they later filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.[3]

Finally, there is a ban on foreigners engaging in religious proselytism. Thus, according to Article 1 of the relevant law, religious proselytism by foreigners and stateless persons is prohibited, except for religious figures invited by the religious centre.


[1] International report on the state of religious freedom in 2016, available at:


[2] Ibidem

[3] European Court of Human Rights, Case of Nasirov and Others v. Azerbaijan, 20.06.2020, para.7-12.

5. Permissible types of religious agitation (proselytism), conditions of their implementation

There are different types of proselytism. We touched on some types of propaganda, such as education, Quran and hadith courses, and the distribution of religious materials. In fact, propaganda may exist in different ways. For example, worshipping in public and performing religious rites is a kind of propaganda.

It is possible to engage in various forms of propaganda. For example, it is possible to carry out propaganda by visiting people at home, talking to people on the street, distributing booklets, initiating religious courses, having enlightening and religious conversations in the media.

The Law on Freedom of Religion regulates only a part of the above. We must evaluate methods of propaganda that are not regulated by law in the light of two principles of law - analogy, and the principles of freedom of action.

In terms of courses offered to teach the Holy Books or hadith, religious communities must come to an agreement with the religious centre to which they belong. These courses can only be held at a place where the religious community is registered or at a religious place.

There is no legal regulation or restriction on the teaching of the Qur'an or the Bible by any citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan without belonging to any community.

Let's talk about the fact that the activity that reaches the level of professional religious activity must be carried out by religious figures with secondary or higher education. According to Article 4-1 of the Law on Freedom of Religion, in order to engage in professional religious activity, one must be a cleric. Professional religious activity is defined as "activity aimed at religious upbringing and religious education, meeting the religious needs of believers, the spread of religions, the performance of religious rites, the reading of sermons, the administrative and organizational management of a religious institution."

Volunteering: An important element of religious propaganda is volunteering, and this volunteering applies to the party being preached and invited. That is, the person who is exposed to propaganda must be exposed to it voluntarily. In conversation, he or she must remain in the congregation voluntarily; he must be able to leave the gathering immediately when he or she wants to leave.

Volunteering does not happen in this case: if there is a relationship of dependence on the division of responsibilities, there is no voluntariness in relationships that are materially dependent, except for family relationships.[1]

Teaching prayer and other acts of worship can also be accepted as propaganda. However, people do not start praying and other acts of worship all of a sudden, they must be invited to believe in God, and therefore to worship, by being exposed to another propaganda beforehand. For this reason, when religious communities are invited to believe and worship God, they will only be able to do so at their registered address. However, since it is not possible to invite people to the community church or centre at once, people must first be invited to the community office/church on the appropriate platform - anywhere. During this invitation, people should be informed about where and why they are invited.

What I am stating refers to religious communities. The law does not provide for regulation for citizens. Since such an arrangement is openly intended only for the distribution of religious materials, we can say that from the point of view of citizens, the legislature deliberately did not envisage other regulations. Therefore, the violation of Article 515.0.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, which we will examine below, “violation of the rules established by law for the organization and conduct of religious meetings, religious gatherings and other religious ceremonies” cannot be applied to an individual propagandist who has not actually formed a community. Because the legislation does not regulate non-professional religious activity in a separate way.

In general, the main propaganda activity of registered religious communities is permissible only at the address where they are registered, or at the church indicated. Without registration, a religious community cannot carry out any activity.

One of the believers we spoke to said that he had been teaching Qur'an and hadith in the backyard of his house and had postponed them due to a pandemic. He was not a member of any community. Another said that he taught Qur'an to children in a room in the yard, and as the number of children was 5-6, he continued with them and did not interrupt due to a pandemic.

Another gap in the legislation from the point of view of religious communities is that if a group of 30 people wants to carry out a joint religious activity, the law does not allow it. In the previous version of the Law on Religious Beliefs, instead of 50 people, 10  were required to form a religious community, and it was more convenient to find 10 people in a village or neighbourhood. The current legislation requires at least 50 people that it will not be legally possible for 20-30 believers to read a joint sermon or attend a propaganda meeting.

Although such a restriction is intended as a means of combating radical religious groups, it should be noted that it is far from meeting international human rights standards. This issue has been criticized in some international reports.[2]

It is useful to talk about the online version of the propaganda.

All churches in the country are currently closed due to the pandemic, and there is no doubt that the pandemic will last a long time. Two Orthodox churches in Baku, which we visited, said they did not hold ceremonies on Sundays. To overcome these difficulties, it is possible and completely free to conduct propaganda on the Internet just for this period. Propaganda on the Internet is possible both in a pandemic situation and in other propaganda activities for the above-mentioned stable groups, which are not enough to form a religious community, as well as for those who want to teach religious texts in an individual way. The Internet is a virtual platform, both religious communities and individuals can convey to the public all kinds of religious propaganda that do not call for the content of violence and do not infringe on human dignity. We can often come across such videos on YouTube and Facebook.

Platforms such as Zoom and Jitsi Meet, which became popular during the pandemic, can also be used for free propaganda and religious conversations. It simply has to be done either on behalf of a registered religious community or by an unstable, indivisible group of people who do not act as a religious community.


[1] Kokkinakis v. Greece, 25.05.1993, para.48; Larissis v. Greece, 24.02.1992, paragraph 51

[2] Tony Perkin, Gayle Manchin, Nadine Maenza, Gary L.Bauer and others, 2020 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, p.52

6. Legislative sanctions for violation of the rules of proselytism

If religious materials published in the form of propaganda, booklets, calendars, CDs do not have a control mark, this case will be considered a violation according to Article 451 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. If these materials are sold for money, the material will be confiscated and a fine of two to four times the income may be imposed. If the materials are distributed free of charge, no penalty will be imposed under CAO 451, but the material will be confiscated.

Also, according to the Article 167-2 of the Criminal Code, the same action constitutes a crime punishable from 5000 to 7000 Azerbaijani manats or 2 years of imprisonment. With aggravating conditions the same actions are punishable up to 5 years of imprisonment. 

If religious organizations conduct propaganda outside the legal address, this will create liability under Article 515.0.4 of the CAO (1,500 to 2,000 manats for community members, 7,000 to 8,000 manats for the leader). However, we mentioned earlier that community members will also need to have some conversations with people in order to be able to invite them to their legal addresses. Such an invitation may also be in the form of a written booklet.

7. Conclusion

As you can see, although our legislation usually gives freedom to propaganda, on the

other hand, there are certain restrictions and gaps in the law. However, since the law also recognizes the supremacy of international standards as a principle, courts must take into account the decisions of international tribunals and conventions while interpreting contradictions and gaps in the law. The main difficulty for devotees in matters of propaganda is related to the registration of religious communities; because a group or any of its members that can be seen as an unregistered community, will not be able to engage in propaganda. Today the case of registration of religious communities is used as the main legal tool to fight the religious denominations that are suspected of violating public order and engaging in extremism. It is useful to note that there is no comfortable and free religious propaganda environment in the country and the administrative interference is serious. Religions must be humanistic, humane and non-violent; and religion must be separate from the state. Although there are such legitimate national security goals, it is useful to note that administrative intervention is inadequate and redundant.