Restrictions in Azerbaijani Law on Freedom of Religious Belief and their compliance with international standards

1. Introduction

One of the natural human rights is the freedom to believe in any religion. Today, religious life and faith play an important role in the lives of many people, and the lack of religious life makes their lives be incomplete. On the other hand, there are people who do not believe in any religion, and it would be very difficult and unacceptable for them to be exposed to religious customs and rules. It is also unacceptable to force a believer to practice another religion. All this proves that freedom of religion is a freedom that everyone needs and guarantees.

However, freedom of religion may be restricted in some cases, and the aim is to ensure that different religions coexist peacefully. Restrictions on religious freedom can be observed in national legislation and international instruments. However, it should be noted that national regulations do not always meet international standards. This is often due to the fact that the regulator functions for political reasons, such as public order and national security.

On the other hand, the restrictions should be clear and unambiguous. National legislation, which plays a key role (foundation) in restricting the expression of religious beliefs, must be accessible. The European Court emphasizes that, as the basis of the law, written rules protect people against arbitrariness and do not give the authorities excessive discretionary powers. Another condition of the law is that the outcome of the law is predictable: each individual must be able to anticipate the consequences of expressing his or her religious beliefs and to regulate his or her behavior respectively.[1]

This article will examine the scope of religious freedom, the main sources, international standards, Azerbaijani legislation on religious freedom and its restrictions.


[1] ECHR, Case of Mammadov v.Azerbaijan, (Application No. 7308/12), para.30

2. Scope of freedom of religion

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereinafter referred to as the UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948, states the following about freedom of religion and conscience: «Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; This right includes the freedom to change their religion and beliefs, and the freedom to practice their religion and beliefs, either solely or in association with others, in public and in private, during education, prayer and religious rites.» A similar definition can be found in both Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1966 and Article 9.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). However, none of the three international documents we have mentioned provides a definition of "religion" or "freedom of religion/belief."

 The European Court of Human Rights does not directly and strictly define these concepts. However, the Court notes the following about the freedom of religion:

“Freedom of religion is one of the vital elements that determine the identity of believers and their perception of life, but it is also very valuable for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and non-believers. Pluralism, which is inseparable from a democratic society that has been formed at the cost of sacrifices for centuries, depends on it.[1]

It should be noted that the ECtHR underlines the following in its approach and considers it important:

  1. identifies individuals who hold such beliefs;
  2. Traditional and non-traditional religions, as well as non-religious ideas are included in this concept,
  3. These beliefs should be treated equally,
  4. Different faiths must be tolerated and they must tolerate each other.

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission also notes that there is no definition of freedom of religion or belief in international law. According to the "Guidelines for Legislative Reviews of Laws Affecting Religion or Belief" adopted by the Venice Commission at the 59th Plenary Session on June 18-19, 2004, as there are various uncertainties about what religion and religious beliefs are, many states have difficulty defining these concepts. A common misconception is many people think that "belief in God" is a condition in the definition of religion, whereas, in classical Buddhism or Hinduism, the belief in more than one god or in many gods, there is no such thing as "Belief in God." [2] According to the ECtHR, pacifism is also a matter of faith.[3]

It can be seen that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is not as broad-minded on some issues as the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), and seeks a systematic and serious approach to accepting religious beliefs. According to the ECtHR, freedom of conscience and religion includes recognizing and defending beliefs that reflect deep-rooted faiths and strong feelings. However, in order to protect some beliefs with freedom of conscience and religion, these beliefs must meet certain standards. In this sense, "belief" does not mean the beliefs of any person, but "views that reach a certain level of faith, seriousness, integrity and importance." Such views should be related to important aspects of life. According to the ECtHR, the fact that a particular movement is motivated by certain beliefs is not yet sufficient for the movement to exercise its freedom of conscience and religion. The act must be an important part of a person's religious beliefs or a particular religious belief.

Freedom of religion also includes freedom to disbelieve in any religion, which is why it is also called freedom of religion.[4]

In paragraph 2 of General Commentary on Freedom of Religion No. 22 the UN Human Rights Committee states that “Article 18 does not apply only to traditional religions or to religions with institutional features or practices. For this reason, even if they represent a religious minority that is hostile to a newly formed or major religious denomination, the Committee observes any tradition of discrimination against any religion or belief for any reason with concern.”[5]

Article 18 of the ICCPR distinguishes between inner religious freedom and external or public religious freedom, which express (manifest) a person's religion. The second is also called "expressing one`s religion" (manifest). "While the first of these is absolute, the second one is subject to the restrictions set out in the Article. According to Article 18.3, any restriction (1) on the expression of religion or belief must be provided for by law, (2) must be necessary for one of the listed purposes (public safety, order, health or morals or fundamental rights and freedoms of others) and (3) to achieve the stated goal.[6] The same approach, that is, the division of religious freedom into "inner freedom" and "external freedom", can be observed in the Venice Commission's Opinion No. 271/2004 of 11.06.2004.[7]

The division of freedom of religion into inner and external freedoms can also be seen in Article 1 of the ECHR. The first two sentences of the second part of this article regulate freedom of religion, and the last two sentences regulate freedom of religion.


[1] Serif v. Greece, no. 38178/97, § 49, ECHR 1999-IX, and the Kokkinakis v. Greece, Judgment of 25 May 1993, Series A no. 260-A, pp. 17-18, §§ 31 and 33

[2] “Guidelines for Legislative Reviews of Laws affecting Religion or Belief”, adopted by the Venice Commission at its 59th plenary session (Venice, 11 June 2004, CDL-AD(2004)028), §.2.

[3] Case of Arrowsmith v. the UK (12.10.1978)

[4] UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment no 22, §.2

[5] UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment no 22, §.2.

[6] Karen Musalo, Claims for Protection Based on Religion or Belief: Analysis and proposed conclusions, in: Legal and Protection Policy Series, December 2002, UNHCR Publications, p.8

[7] Part B.1 of the above-mentioned consideration, page 7.See:

3. International standards of freedom of religion

The ECHR regulates this right in Article 9. According to that article:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change one's religion or belief, the freedom to practice one's religion or beliefs solely or in association with others, and the freedom to perform one's worship, teachings, religious or ceremonial rites in public or in private.
  2. Freedom of religion or belief may be subject to restrictions only for the interests of public order, in order to protect public order, health or morality, or to protect the rights and freedoms of others, as required by law and in a democratic society.

As can be seen, the ECHR also implies that this right may be restricted. In fact, part 3 of Article 1 of the LFRB is quite similar to the ECHR 9/2. Although Article 18 of the ICCPR also sets out restrictive conditions, they bear similarities with the ECHR. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission, in its opinion on freedom of religion, refers primarily to the standards set out in Article 9 of the ECHR and Article 18 of the ICCPR; however, the Commission itself has set certain standards.

We will not dwell on the relevant international standards in this section but will touch on them when examining Azerbaijani legislation.

4. Azerbaijani legislation on freedom of religion

The basis of the legislation of Azerbaijan on freedom of religion is the Law on Freedom of Religious Beliefs, which we will call later LFRB. Although there are administrative and normative regulations (such as the Regulation of the SCWRA) in this sector as in other fields, the main legislative document is the LFRB. Although Article 48 of the Constitution also regulates freedom of religion, this regulation is general and abstract. In many cases, there is no indication of how the Constitution will be applied. Detailed regulation is reflected in the LFRB. The relevant law was adopted during the Elchibey government but has undergone significant amendments multiple times.

In fact, according to Article 151 of the Constitution, if there is a contradiction between the normative legal acts included in the legislative system of the country (Except for the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan and acts adopted by referendum) and the international agreements to which the state is a party, those international agreements prevailed. It should also 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. This provision is reinforced by Article 2 of the same law: According to this article, international treaties to which the State is a party, together with the LFRB, constitute the legislation on religion. For this reason, it is necessary to take into account the framework of international law on religious freedom. In other words, international law is also part of the country's legislation. However, we will examine international standards in another section of the article. It should not be forgotten that the standards of international law, of which a State is not a party, may also create certain obligations for that State according to international human rights.

5. Law on "Freedom of Religious Belief" and its main features

Freedom of religion must be regulated by formal (or statutory) law, as it is one of the fundamental freedoms. Freedom of religion and religious belief is seen as less restrictable freedom in international law too. For example, the ECHR and ICCPR do not allow restrictions on religious freedom under the pretext of national security.[1] However, Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention provide for this possibility. Although the preamble of the LFRB states that the purpose of the law is to implement the Constitution or ratified international treaties, a systematic analysis of the articles of the law reveals that the purpose of the law is different than of international treaties. Though international norms are intended to be applied in the event of a conflict (Article 31), since the lower courts applied the statutory law in the first place, in real life, religious beliefs will be governed primarily by the norms we will discuss below. For this reason, it is important for the interpretation of the law to understand what the official religious policy is. The government of Azerbaijan has two priorities in its religious policy, especially with the amendments to the law.


Although the LFRB was adopted in 1992, it has undergone more than 20 changes.

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 many years. For example, the stipulation of "further confirmation of the degree of religious education received in the foreign country" serves this priority.

Another priority of religious policy is to prevent the spread of a religious denomination beyond the control of the State. Prohibitions on religious communities from operating without registration also serve this priority. In addition, as any religion can have a significant impact on its followers, the government is wary of religious groups influencing public opinion and does not want any of them to influence public opinion or government policy as it grows.

These are not legal positions, but political reasons that are not written in the law. In addition, the State does not interfere in individual worship and marginalized denominations, although it wants to strictly control the activities of groups that are likely to grow. By doing this, the government seeks to maintain secularism on the one hand and control over society on the other.

The LFRB regulates it by applying it to all types of religious organizations. These include temples, religious schools, religious communities, religious institutions, and even individual religious practices.[2] Actions and attitudes arising from non-religious beliefs are almost not regulated by this law. On the other hand, it is unclear whether beliefs, ideologies, and behaviors (such as Satanism) that are not considered or considered to be religious in nature are regulated by the LFRB because they do not provide a definition of religion and religious belief. Although it is accepted in Azerbaijan that religion is separate from the state, it is possible to say that the LFRB has given a special place to the Caucasian Muslims Office. The reason for this can be explained by the fact that the main religious denomination in the country is Islam. It should be noted that such an approach, when a State gives a special place to a certain church, exists even in European countries.[3] Such a special status position generally goes beyond the general possibilities associated with legal entity status and may include practical benefits such as tax exemptions, financial subsidies, or membership in public broadcasting agencies. However, international and investigative bodies/tribunals point out that the state's preference for some religious denominations over others is a violation of the prohibition on discrimination.[4]


[1] Venice Commission, Opinion 271/2004, Section III.G, Page.14

[2] ECtHR, Case of Izzettin Dogan vs. Turkey, application 62649/10, Judgement of 26.04.2016, §60 (a)

[3] Ibid, §60 (b)

[4] Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of 22 December 2011, §.59-61, The UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment no 22, § 9.

6. Restrictions established by the Law

It should be noted from the beginning that although the law was amended in different years, some of them were technical in nature, while others were aimed at reducing the influence of foreign religious institutions in the country, which does not contradict the regulations of international treaties (for example, as the amendment to Article 9 in 1996). However, it can be alleged that a number of provisions may contradict the norms of international treaties to which Azerbaijan is a party. This section will examine these contradictions.

It is possible to observe that Article 1 of the Law, imposes serious restrictions in other sections while containing conventional norms in the first 3 paragraphs. Part 4 of this article, with reference to Article 21 of the law, generally prohibits foreigners and stateless persons from conducting religious propaganda, religious rites and ceremonies in the country. Article 168-1.2 of the Criminal Code provides for imprisonment for up to 5 years for such illegal proselytizm.

While any state can freely decide whether or not to allow foreigners and stateless persons into the country, it is obliged to act in accordance with the norms of the international treaty to which it is a party to the rights of foreigners allowed to enter or reside in the country. Article 16 of the ECHR, which regulates the restriction of the political rights of foreigners, does not allow foreigners to restrict their religious freedom for this reason. Such a restriction would also be contrary to Article 26 of the ICCPR. For this reason, if the rights of non-citizens to perform rituals and ceremonies are restricted, this should be justified in accordance with Article 9-2 of the ECHR and Article 18-3 of the ICCPR, stating that the steps taken by the state are relevant, proportionate and necessary in a democratic society.

Another restriction provided for in Article 1 relates to the rights of parents to the religious beliefs and upbringing of their children. Thus, part 5 of Article 1 may provide that, in accordance with Article 2 of Article 1 of the ECHR Protocol and the Article 18 of the ICCPR[1], parents may bring up their children in accordance with their religious beliefs and attitudes by mutual consent, however, the following sentence prohibits the compulsion of children to practice religion and implies that their religious upbringing should not adversely affect their physical and mental health. While such a change is in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is open to abuse and may lead to the restriction of parental rights for political reasons. However, the UN Human Rights Committee's (HRC) Comment No. 22 on Freedom of Religion of 1993 stated that the right of parents to raise their children in the religious background of their choice is guaranteed by Article 18.4 of the ICCPR.[2] Therefore, the way to reconcile this with the Convention on the Rights of the Child is to ensure the right of parents to be educated in matters of faith, other than religious practices such as violence and extremism.

The approach of the Venice Commission on the parents who want to give their children the religious upbringing and education as they want is slightly different. The Venice Commission, referring to Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, stated in its 2004 Opinion that a child cannot be forced to follow any religion if he or she reaches a certain age.[3]


[1] CCPR General Comment No. 22: Article 18 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience or Religion), Adopted at the Forty-eighth Session of the Human Rights Committee, on 30 July 1993 CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, (General Comments), para. 6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Opinion 271/2004, Section B.6, p.9

6.1. Religious upbringing, education, propaganda, the performance of rituals belong only to a religious clerics (persons with higher and secondary religious education)

The law links the systematic and professional exercise of these rights, which are available to everyone, to a special condition. Thus, according to Article 4-1 of the Law, only persons who have received religious higher and secondary education and are considered religious clerks can engage in this activity. It should also not be forgotten that to perform a function, such as educating or leading a religious community, a cleric has to be appointed administratively.[1] If there is no cleric, no community can be established. As for islamic communities, the community needs a cleric with at least a secondary religious education In order to be established and to function. Otherwise, a religious community will not be established; In this case, believers will be deprived of the freedom to "express their religious beliefs with others", what is contrary to the requirements of the “external” freedom of religion. [2]


[1] According to Article 8 of the law, clergies are appointed by the religious center and department and certified every 5 years. Non-religious denominations require the consent of the SCWRA

[2] Venice Commission Guidelines, Section B.2.

6.2. The relationship of religion with education

Prior to the latest amendments, the law provided for the possibility of including religious subjects in the curricula of public educational institutions, but now Article 6.1 of the law directly states that education in Azerbaijan is essentially secular.

Article 6.2 states that citizens may study religion and receive religious education individually and (or) together with others. However, the study and acquisition of religious education here are limited to citizens, and this education does not cover systematic, professional education, but only involves citizens engaging in religious education by coming together and teaching each other. It is also possible to understand that the education provided here should not take the form of “professional religious education” (Article 4-1). On the other hand, given Article 6.4 of the law, it is clear that when the teaching process of the Holy Books is carried out by a religious community, the community will not be able to experience the freedom recognized in Article 6.2 of the LFRB. We believe that such a restriction would not meet the standard of necessity in a democratic society provided for in Article 9, paragraph 2, of the ECHR. The UN Human Rights Committee said in statement No. 22 that restrictions on religious education would violate Article 18 of the 1966 Convention.[1]

LFRB sets strict restrictions on the establishment of religious educational institutions in Article 6.3. Thus, religious educational institutions can be established only by a religious center in coordination with the body determined by the relevant executive authority (hereinafter REA). The legislation provides for the establishment of only one higher religious educational institution by a religious center and subjects the activities of higher religious education and religious secondary special educational institutions to a license issued in accordance with the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan on Licenses and Permits. (Article 6.5)

According to the new amendments, Article 6.4 is envisaged that religious organizations will establish courses (groups) for the study of holy books with the consent of the religious centers (departments) to which they are subject in accordance with the charters of those religious organizations and the condition for informing the relevant body (organization) about this has also been determined.

Another serious restriction considered by Article 1 of the law is related to those who can pass the basics of religious education. Training related to religious education and propaganda can be carried out only by clerics appointed by law in coordination with the SCWRA. Although the regulation in the law applies to mass religious worship, rites and ceremonies, the regular religious community is also engaged in mass religious worship, rites and ceremonies; The fact that the rights of proselytism and education, which can be experienced by everyone, belong only to clerics under state control, is a restriction contrary to the norms of international treaties.

The opinion of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission (VC) on this issue is that the state can bring the condition of certification for religious teachers. However, the VC does not welcome the fact that religious educational institutions can be established only by registered religious organizations, especially if the state creates discriminatory barriers to the registration of religious organizations. For this reason, according to the VC, what is important is that the laws are neutral and do not cause discrimination.[2]


[1] CCPR General Comment No. 22, para. 5.

[2] Opinion 271/2004, Section C.3.4, s. 11.

6.3. Religious organizations

According to Article 7 of the law, religious organizations are represented by their centers (departments). This article shows the tendency of religious policy in Azerbaijan to regulate more radical and ancient religious denominations. Since this article does not refer to decentralized religious communities in Azerbaijan, the identity of those religious communities remains controversial. This will hamper the activities of relatively new religious communities in particular.

6.4. Organization of mass religious worship, rites and ceremonies

With the 2021 amendment, the LFRB has severely restricted freedom of religion. Thus, mass religious worship can be held only in a specific place - a place of worship or a shrine, which is indicated as the registration centre of a religious organization. These places can be the mosque itself or the courtyard, the church, the synagogue, the legal address indicated in the registration of the religious community. This means that Ashura ceremonies, which used to take place in the streets we used to see, can no longer be held in the streets. Similar street rites exist in Krishnas, Buddhists, and other religious denominations, and the LFRB prohibits them from taking place in public places. Jumu'ah, holidays, or other congregational prayers, as well as Sunday rites in the church, can only be held at a certain place of worship. Most of the complaints against Azerbaijan to international tribunals are related to the penalties for violating these rules.[1]

The law does not provide for any exceptions in public and other places, even on special days (such as religious holidays). However, in terms of religious holidays, another regulation had to be introduced.

The law excludes burial, mourning, iftar, nikāḥ, mawlid and Ehsan ceremonies from this rule. It is understandable that circumcision ceremonies for boys, or ceremonies to mark someone's pilgrimage after a visit, can also be held freely.

The restriction specified in Article 6-1.1 of the ECHR must comply with the international agreements to which the Republic of Azerbaijan is a party, including the restriction conditions in paragraphs 9-2 of the ECHR. However, it should not be forgotten that the ECtHR's approach to many judgments suggests that the European Court has ruled that the dispersal of unregistered religious communities` meetings by the police is a violation of the law; For this reason, we can say that it would be a violation of the Convention to consider it illegal for a religious community to celebrate any public worship, such as the Prophet's birthday in a rented hall or in a country house. There is a similar decision of the ECHR, in the decision of Kuznetsov and Others v. Russia, which ruled that the removal of Jehovah's Witnesses from the rented gym and the termination of the meeting violated Article 9.[2]

In the above section, we discussed the priorities of the legislation on religious beliefs. The official religion policy does not want all the religious denominations in the world to operate in the country without any obstacles and to engage in propaganda. Because it is difficult to predict how different religions will affect the socio-political situation in the country. At the same time, it is not convincing to say that marginal religious groups can have a serious impact on public order if they do not resort to violence.

However, this prohibition, provided for in LFRB 6-1, is not mandatory. With the permission of the SCWRA, it is possible to hold a mass ceremony, for example, on a religious holiday. However, it is not known what rules the SCWRA will use to determine the issuance of this permit, what objective evaluation criteria it will use, and there is no legal guarantee for this. As noted earlier, the European Court of Justice has established that restrictive laws are vague, do not provide guarantees against arbitrariness, do not meet the standard of "transparent and accessible law" and do not comply with the "prescribed by law" condition of the Convention.

Other laws, such as Article 515 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO) and Article 168 of the Criminal Code (CC), provide for liability for mass worship, rites and ceremonies conducted in violation of the law. Article 515 of the Criminal Code provides for a fine of 2,000 manats for individuals and 8,000 manats for community leaders, while Article 168 of CC imposes a fine of 7,000 to 9,000 manats or imprisonment for up to two years. Penalties specified in the law cannot be considered proportional. In an environment where the activities of religious organizations are permitted, the imposition of such severe penalties for the use of freedom of worship and prayer together, which is a fundamental freedom, cannot be considered in accordance with the state's conventional obligations.

The Venice Commission notes that registration, criminal sanctions and serious administrative offences imposed for non-compliance with other procedural obligations or violations of propaganda rules are directly illegal. However, terrorism, murder, robbery, money laundering, and other common criminal offences committed under the guise of religion may face criminal law sanctions according to the VC.[3]


[1] UN Human Rights Committee, Rahima Huseynova v.Azerbaijan, Communication no 2845/2016.

[2] ECtHR.Kuznetsov and Others v. Russia - 184/02 Judgment 11.1.2007 

[3] Venice Commission, Opinion 271/2004, Section IV.A, page.18.

6.5 Organization of Pilgrimages

Religious centers and institutions were given the right to organize planned pilgrimage by believers to places located abroad that are considered sacred. Alternatively, this right could be given to tourism organizations, or it could be used directly by believers without being given to any institution at all. However, it should be noted that, especially due to a large number of pilgrims, and the fact that the pilgrimage can be performed only on limited dates, and the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia accepts pilgrims for Hajj only on quotas, such pilgrimages are organized by religious centers, this arises as a necessity in terms of some types of visits. Therefore, Article 6-1.3 should only apply to visits with limited conditions, limited time and quotas. Without a quota, anyone can go to the shrines, which are open to the public 365 days a year, in any way they want. Other visits otherwise, centrally arranging daily visits to places such as the Vatican will place an additional burden, such as price increases, and place additional restrictions on believers.

6.6. Reporting of Islamic religious organizations to the Caucasian Muslims Office

Article 7 of the law provides for a control mechanism in the form of religious organizations reporting to the Caucasus Muslim Board. However, the law does not specify what the report will cover. The report of Islamic religious communities cannot cover every aspect of its activities, otherwise, it cannot be considered applicable to limit their activities. The purpose of creating a religious community is to bring together people of the same religion, to perform common worship, to be united, to share a common vision. From this point of view, it does not seem rational, expedient and logical for Islamic religious organizations to report on these issues, such as the number of daily prayers of community members and how many acts of worship they read in the Qur'an. The report shall be submitted on the arising obligation. However, religious communities do not make any commitments to the centre to which they belong. The issue of accountability can only arise in order to ensure transparency in financial matters, to prevent corruption, terrorist financing or other financial crimes. For example, if a religious organization receives a donation from any government agency, individual or legal entity, it may be suitable to report on the amount and purpose of the donation. The Council of Europe's approach to the issue is similar to that of the Venice Commission.[1] It would be illegal to report on other issues. Also, the legislation does not specify what information should be included in the content of the report to be submitted by the religious organization.


[1] Opinion 271/2004, Section III.D., s.11.,

6.7. Restrictions on the establishment of religious communities

The latest amendments require that at least 50 adults in the same territorial unit apply for the establishment of a religious community. It should be noted that the demand for 50 believers is difficult to implement, especially in remote areas such as rural areas. Before the change, this number was 10 people. The failure to provide society with any justification for raising the 10-member requirement to 50 makes it difficult to establish a religious community. We must not forget that members of the religious community are not allowed to act as a group, to hold public worship, rituals and ceremonies without registration. The ECtHR has also stated in various decisions that the practice of worship in the form of a community is inherent in many religions and is an ancient tradition.[1] However, according to the Convention on Human Rights, it is intended to give everyone the right to worship together in an open manner, without any restrictions. In its 2016 recommendations on Azerbaijan, the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) condemned the conditions for registration of religious communities and the non-registration of Islamic religious communities with the permission of the CMO, noting that they are "concerned about" it.[2] On the one hand, the legislation imposes more difficult conditions, such as registration and the presence of a cleric at the head of the community, but also explicitly contradicts Article 9 of the ECHR and Article 18 of the ICCPR. It is not possible to claim that such a condition is a technical or procedural condition. For example, due to the presence of Christian minorities in the northern regions of Azerbaijan, it is difficult to find 50 believers in those areas.

The Venice Commission (VC) of the Council of Europe, in its Opinion 271/2004, states that the State should, on the one hand, avoid imposing any sanctions on a group of believers who do not wish to register, and on the other hand, should not impede a group of believers wishing to register. Various procedural and substantive obstacles constitute a violation of the "right to freedom of religion."[3] In the same opinion, the VC noted that the condition of a large number of community members was inadmissible for registration.[4]


[1] Case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, § 61.

[2] UN Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Azerbaijan, 1-2 November 2016, para.32.,HRC,,AZE,587794644,0.html

[3] Opinion 271/2004, Section III.B.8, s.9.

[4]High minimum membership requirements should not be allowed with respect to obtaining legal personality” , Opinion 271/2004, Section III.F.1, s.12.

6.8. Rules of subordination of Islamic religious communities

Article 8 of the law states that Islamic religious communities are subordinate to the Caucasian Muslim Office (CMO). Subordination relations are administrative in nature and give the other party the power to control, punish and command. However, religious communities are independent legal entities and operate independently. In its decision on “Hasan and Chaush v Bulgaria” case, the ECHR noted that the independence of religious communities was an integral part of pluralism in a democratic society.[1] However, such an arrangement in Article 8 of the LFRB is aimed at subordinating religious communities to the Caucasus Muslim Office, and it must be mentioned that there should be only a limited control relationship between the Caucasus Muslim Board and religious communities, rather than a subordinate relationship.[2] Religious freedom may be restricted and controlled in the promotion of religious beliefs and religious practices through the use or threat of use of force, as well as for the purpose of inciting racial, national, religious, social hatred and enmity. Article 168 of the CC (infringing on the rights of citizens under the guise of performing religious rites), as well as Articles 214 (Terrorism) and 214-1 (Financing of Terrorism), regulate violations of the law that may be related to religious activity.

Article 515 (establishment of religious organizations and violation of the rules of operation), Article 516 (violation of the legislation on freedom of religion) are considered a violation of the law. This means that control over religious communities can only be limited to these.

We would like to remind you that Articles 515 and 516 of the CAO provide for sanctions that can be considered quite severe. For example, citizens can be fined up to 2,000 manats, and community leaders up to 8,000 manats.

The norms of responsibility in the criminal and administrative legislation suggest that religious communities have no obligation to subordinate to the CMO. The appointment of leaders of Islamic religious communities by the CMO is an obstacle to the community's freedom of operation. On the other hand, with the amendment introduced in 2021, the requirement to establish Islamic religious communities only in places of worship and shrines belonging to the religion they represent, in fact, will lead to the impossibility of establishing religious communities in the absence of a mosque, and the appointment of clerics or the establishment of a religious community in those areas will be the direct responsibility of the CMO. This is an excessive interference in the freedom of religion and group worship. ECtHR, 14 May 2016 stated in its decision on the “Jehovah's Witnesses Support Association and Others v. Turkey" case that not providing believers with a place of worship or preventing them from owning a place of worship violates Article 9 of the Convention's "freedom to express one's religion with others"; because believers must have the opportunity to gather somewhere to worship as a group.[3]

With regard to non-Islamic religious communities, with the exception of Jewish, Orthodox, Orthodox Christian, and Protestant religious communities, other religious communities exercise their leadership with the consent of the body designated by the SCWRA. Given that community members cannot function without a community leader, such regulation makes the right of believers to worship together directly dependent on the authorities, and if the proposed community leader is not approved by the SCWRA, the freedom of religion is recognized in the Convention is actually violated. ECtHR noted that the identity of religious leaders is of special importance to each member of the community in the "Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria" decision.[4]

According to the new amendments, according to Article 8, when a clergyman appointed to a place of worship and a shrine is dismissed, the religious community of the place of worship and the shrine shall cease its religious activities until a new cleric is appointed to that position.

This article directly restricts the activities of the religious community, making the activities of the religious community dependent on the presence of a cleric, and reveals the consequences of violating the registration of the religious community without violating its registration.


[1] Case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, § 62.

[2] Venice Commission, Opinion 271/2004, Section III.D

[3] ECtHR, Case Of Association For Solıdarıty With Jehovah's Witnesses And Others v. Turkey, App No. 36915/10 and 8606/13, para.90 and para. 108.

[4] Case of Hasan and Chaush v.Bulgaria, § 62.

6.9. Restrictions on the area where a religious organization operates:

The 2021 amendments to the law restrict the activities of religious organizations and do not impose any restrictions on the activities of the religious center. Although Article 9-1.2 limits the area of ​​activity of a religious organization to the legal address in which it is registered, Article 9-1.3 stipulates that the area of ​​activity of a religious center in the Republic of Azerbaijan is not restricted. This is an unreasonable restriction on the activities of the religious community. Let's explain our idea with an example: Any religious community may want to visit historical graves and perform religious rites in another area where it is not registered, such as any district. However, this is prohibited by the last amendments to the law. Yet, the ECHR did not impose any restrictions on the conduct of mass religious rites or worships in terms of area of ​​activity. In the above example, the religious community does not harm the health of any person, public order or the rights of any person while holding this ceremony. If the government intends to impose such a restriction on the territory of a religious community, it must justify this restriction under Article 9.2 of the ECHR.

Article 11 of the law defines the information to be provided in the charters of religious organizations. The analysis of this article leads to the conclusion this information is not aimed at restricting the activities of religious organizations.

6.10. Restrictions on the registration of religious organizations:

According to Article 12, all religious organizations can operate only after state registration with the relevant executive authority and inclusion in the state Register of religious organizations. This provision severely restricts the activities of religious organizations. Because Article 9 of the ECHR states that everyone has the freedom to practice their religion or beliefs, both individually and in association with others, and to perform their worship, teachings, religious and ceremonial rites openly or privately. Article 12 of the law violates the rights of individuals under the Convention by registering the activities of religious organizations and this violation was recognised by the international tribunals.[1] Here, it is possible to say that the LFRB is in apparent conflict with both the UN Pact of 1966 (ICCPR) and the ECHR. The ECtHR has ruled in many decisions that religious communities can be established freely without state interference. In its decision on the case of the Moscow Branch of the Salvation Army v. Russia, the European Court reiterated that “Since religious communities traditionally exist in the form of organised structures, Article 9 must be interpreted in the light of Article 11 of the Convention, which safeguards associative life against unjustified State interference. Seen in that perspective, the right of believers to freedom of religion, which includes the right to manifest one’s religion in community with others, encompasses the expectation that believers will be allowed to associate freely, without arbitrary State intervention. Indeed, the autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is thus an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 affords.” [2]

The European Court of Human Rights has assessed various rulings on mandatory registration in most CIS countries. For example, in its decision on the case "Masayev v Moldova" ECHR noted:

"The court notes that in accordance with the Law on Religious Communities in Moldova, anyone who exposes unrecognized religions is liable under Article 200 § 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. The government objected, arguing that just as it is disproportionate to require compulsory registration for religious communities, it should not be disproportionate to impose sanctions on violators. The court does not object to the state requiring registration conditions for religious communities under Articles 9 and 11. However, it does not follow, as the Government appear to argue, that it is compatible with the Convention to sanction the individual members of an unregistered religious denomination for praying or otherwise manifesting their religious beliefs. To admit the contrary would amount to the exclusion of minority religious beliefs which are not formally registered with the State and, consequently, would amount to admitting that a State can dictate what a person must believe. The Court cannot agree with such an approach and considers that Article 200 § 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses constitutes such interference that it cannot be regarded as a "pressing social need" and therefore cannot be accepted as a necessity in a democratic society. Accordingly, there has been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention.” [3]

Such administrative practices in Azerbaijan, which prohibit unregistered communities and has a very similar legal regulation, are clearly contrary to the Convention.

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe also stated in its 2004 Opinion that compulsory registration is unacceptable.[4] According to the VC, even without registration, religious communities that do not pursue or practise extremism, hatred or violence can operate without registration.

Article 12 of the ODIHR states that religious organizations may operate in places of worship and shrines specified as legal addresses in the information submitted for state registration only after the appointment of a cleric by religious centres and institutions. This is an additional limitation to the above-mentioned restrictions. The activity of a religious community depends on the presence of a cleric. In terms of the document submitted for the registration of religious organizations and other conditions, we can say that the demand for 50 people, and the informal reference letter requirement, disproportionately restricts freedom of religion. In the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee Huseynova v Azerbaijan, we have shown that such regulations violate Article 18 of the ICCPR.


[1] UN Human Rights Committee, Saladdin Mammadov, Rashad Niftaliyev and Sadagat Abbasova v.Azerbaijan, Communication no 2928/2017, para.7.5.

[2] ECtHR, Case of the Moscow Branch of the Salvation Army v. Russiya, 05.10.2006 (Final Judgment on 05.01.2007), Para 58.

[3] ECtHR, Masayev v. Moldova, para 26.

[4] Venice Commission, opinion 271/2004, Section III.P.1, pg.12.

6.11. Property of religious organizations

Article 18 of the LFRB regulates the property rights of religious organizations and their rights over the assets they own. Considering other articles, it can be said that the legislation liberally regulates the property regime of communities. Religious organizations have the right to own, donate, and dispose of mobile and immovable property, including commercial property. It should be noted that religious organizations in our country do not use a special tax regime. They can also receive donations, assistance and other support from the state.

According to Article 19 of the law, religious organizations can also create commercial and other legal entities.

As noted above, the obligation of religious communities to report to religious centres should be primarily involved with financial and property changes (such as donations and spending of them).

6.12. Illegal restrictions on public worship, rites and ceremonies

Another serious illegal restriction imposed by the LFRB is the prohibition of religious communities from operating outside the legal address in which the religious organization is registered. The prohibition, strengthened by Articles 6-1 and 9-1.2 of the Law, is repeated in Article 21. Thus, prior to the 2021 amendment, Article 21 (1) recognized the right of religious organizations to use proper places for worship and religious gatherings. However, after the amendment, religious organizations may hold public prayers and meetings only at registered places of worship and shrines. In this regard, the phrase "held in the apartments and houses of citizens" in part 2 of Article 21 is invalid and can be applied to religious organizations only if the apartment or house is indicated as the registered address of the religious organization.

Such restrictions are a serious interference with the freedom to "worship with others" and cannot be justified as a "necessity in a democratic society" under Article 9, paragraph 2, of the ECHR. Decisions on the cases of "Izzettin Doğan and others v. Turkey ” and “Association For Solidarity With Jehovah`s Witnesses and Others v. Turkey" states that restricting the religious communities to a specific place of worship and therefore imposing any sanctions is a violation of the Convention.[1]

Article 169 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan also stipulates that organizing, holding or participating in meetings that contradict the legislation will result in criminal liability if they cause significant violations of the rights and legitimate interests of citizens. In the event of a complaint from someone (eg neighbors), a significant violation of the rights and interests of citizens will be recorded and the person conducting the religious meeting (eg community leader) will be prosecuted, which can result in up to two years in prison. Taking into account the cases of Nasirov and Mammadov, such a punishment contradicts the measure of "necessity in a democratic society" specified in the Convention. It should be recalled, the HRC (UN Human Rights Committee) said that in order to restrict freedom of religion, the legitimate reason of "protection of the rights and freedoms of others" set forth in Article 18.3 of the ICCPR should be interpreted in a narrow sense, the government should expose what specific rights have been violated; this assesment has been stated again in "Huseynova v. Azerbaijan" case.[2] In that case, the applicant was talking to two people on the street in order to promote the Jehovah's Witness sect. According to HRC, in this decision in 2020, Azerbaijan violated Article 18.3 of the Convention, as Ms. Rahimova could not justify how she violated public order or the rights of others by talking to two people on the street.[3]

Both the ECHR and HRC decisions show that the ban on propaganda and rituals outside the registered address is a violation of the ECHR and ICCPR, which Azerbaijan has ratified.[4]

Religious figures who have received religious education abroad, if they perform religious rites and ceremonies in violation of the law, will be held liable under Article 168-1.1 of the Criminal Code. According to this article, a fine of 2,000 to 5,000 manat or imprisonment for up to one year is envisaged. If the rite or ceremony is of a propaganda nature and is performed by a foreigner, then the punishment for the act is even more severe and may include imprisonment for up to 5 years. It is clear that the government has taken this step with the intention of resolutely pursuing the activities of foreign missioners, but the proportionality of the restriction and the necessity to protect democracy is highly controversial. In the case of Huseynova against Azerbaijan, the fine of 1,500 manat imposed on the applicant Rahima Huseynova was found by the international tribunal to be a disproportionate violation of human rights.[5] In this case, there is no doubt that higher fines will constitute such a violation.

Article 21 prohibits not only public worship and rites, but also registration and places of worship, chanting slogans outside religious sites, and displaying religious attributes. Religious flags are allowed only in closed places of worship, religious centers and offices. Restrictions on religious slogans are no different from restrictions on freedom of worship. For example, incitement to violence, discrimination or hostility should be prohibited. Slogans of mercy, charity and peace should be chanted without violating public order.

The use of religious attributes and flags should also be more widely allowed in light of the above criterias.


[1] ECtHR, Association for Solidarity with Jehovah's Witnesses and Others v. Turkey, § 105-108.

[2] UN Human Rights Committee, Rahima Huseynova v.Azerbaijan, Communication no 2845/2016, para.8.4.

[3] İbid.


[4] UN Human Rights Committee, Saladdin Mammadov, Rashad Niftaliyev and Sadagat Abbasova v.Azerbaijan, Communication no 2928/2017, para.7.5.

[5] UN Human Rights Committee, Rahima Huseynova v.Azerbaijan, Communication no 2845/2016, para.8.6.

6.13. Participation of worshipers and clergies in military units, prisons and penitentiaries

Article 21 allows individual and public worship in military units in the leisure time of a serviceman without any obstacles. The exceptions for this are combat operations, combat duty, guard and garrison service and military service. In such cases, the participation of a serviceman in individual or group worship is subject to the permission of the military command. Such restrictions are legitimate because they arise from the nature of military service. Although it is not specified in the law, such restrictions can be applied to police, military police and border guards.

The activities of clergy in military units are approved with the permission of headquarter. While such a restriction in Islamic denominations does not violate freedom of religion, it is a violation of Article 9.2 of the ECHR for Christians and Jews, who have weekly rites performed by clerics, not to allow them to meet with clerics at will.[1] This is because if preventing a meeting with a cleric in a penitentiary institution with more severe restrictions is a violation of the ECHR, then not allowing a meeting with clergy in military units will be assessed in the same way.

The practice of worship in prisons is not clearly regulated. We understand that there can be no restrictions on the individual worship of prisoners. In this regard, the ECHR decision Korostelev v Russia (29290/10, 12.05.2020) considered the ban on night worship to be a violation of the Convention.[2]

As for mass worship, rituals such as Jumu`ah and Sunday rites are allowed with the consent of the persons in the institution, and the institution must assist in inviting the clergy. Participates in determining the time and other conditions of rituals and ceremonies.[3] The law recognizes the right of religious organizations to apply to medical and social services, dormitories, and penitentiaries for mass worship and rituals.


[1] ECtHR, Case Of Mozer v. The Republıc of Moldova and Russia, § 198-201.

[2] Para 65

[3] LFRB Article 21 Paragraph 7

6.14. Use of religious literature (on paper and electronic media), audio and video materials, assets and other informative materials of religious content

Religious literature has a special place both in the spread of religions and in religious life. Believers read books by various religious scholars and commentaries on holy books/hadith books in order to preserve their beliefs. The most influential factor in the spread of religions is religious literature. In its decision on "Nasirov and others v. Azerbaijan" ECHR reiterated that the distribution of religious literature was freedom protected by Article 9 of the Convention.[1]

Article 22 of the law regulates the production, import, export and use of religious literature and other material by citizens and religious organizations. The main condition of the law is that the literature and material (including paper and electronic media) demand the consent of the SCWRA and the acquisition of a control mark. Dissemination of religious literature and material is possible only after the control mark is attached.

Issuance of a control mark is regulated by the Decision of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan on the "Rules for the form, registration, use and issuance of a control mark", dated June 9, 2014. Although Part 5 of the decision specifies the content of the application for the issuance of the control mark, it does not say in which cases the control mark will be issued or refused. Under the current regulation, the SCWRA has a very broad, discretionary authority in approving and branding religious literature and materials. In fact, the SCWRA should check whether the religious belief and religious lifestyle violate the principles of human dignity, non-discrimination and non-violence, whether it calls to degrading or inhumane behavior, propagate the use or threat of use of force, as well as racial, national, religious, social hatred and hostility and religious extremism. But in practice, as in case of Elshad Miri's book "Things not existing in Islam", for example, it is possible to say that the State Committee uses this power to an uncertain extent. We cannot say that there is real judicial control over them. It should be noted that when the ECtHR explains the "prescribed by the law" requirement, the Court does not simply consider its existence to be sufficient to satisfy this condition, the law has to meet a certain quality; in particular, the ECtHR considers that the regulation of discretionary powers provided by law in a way that does not lead to arbitrariness is important for the existence of the requirement "provided by law".[2] However, the current regulation on the issuance of control marks does not even meet the "statutory" requirement of the ECHR.

It should also be noted that the control mark is censorship in nature because it carries a "pre-agreed consent" essence, and according to the Joint Opinion of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission on the Law on Freedom of Religion 12-13 October 2012, the requirement of prior consent constitutes a direct violation of Article 10 of the ECHR, and the SCWRA was recommended the repeal of the pre-consent clause in Article 22.[3]

Such heavy control over religious material cannot be explained by necessity in a democratic society. Instead, it would be more appropriate to give freedom of import and distribution and to exercise control ex-post, ie later (for example, on appeal) in terms of respect for freedom of religion.

In this regard, in the case of the UN Human Rights Committee dated April 26, 2021 "Aziz Aliyev, Jeyhun Aliyev v. Azerbaijan", the police raided the house of Jehovah's Witnesses community without registration and collected religious materials; HRC assessed such practice as a violation of Article 18 of the ICCPR.[4]

The illegal and disproportionate restrictions provided for in Article 22 of the ECHR do not end there. Approval/consent from the SCWRA must be obtained for outlets that sell (for-profit) religious literature and material.

It should be noted here that the law does not regulate under which conditions such a consent (to establish religious book-shop) can be made, ie the SCWRA has been given unlimited and uncontrolled discretionary authority. As noted above, this situation contradicts the “required by law” clause in the ECHR 9.2.[5]

  In other words, in Azerbaijan, even the sale of material with a control mark can not be carried out anywhere. This restriction applies only to sales. If provided free of charge, the religious community may distribute them at a place of worship or shrine at its registered address. However, in paragraph 64 of the above-mentioned "Nasirov v Azerbaijan" decision, the ECHR investigated the distribution of the religious literature outside the address where the religious community was registered, and as a result, found a violation in this regard (para. 67 of the ECtHR Ruling).

Despite what we have written, the European Court found a violation of the Convention on the confiscation of religious books, based on the principle of freedom in the distribution of religious literature enshrined in the first paragraph of the Article 22 of the LFRB in its decision on the case of "Mammadov v. Azerbaijan (Application No. 7308/12)."[6] Although the regulation on the control mark is introduced after this decision, the uncertainty in the issuance of the control mark is far from being consistent with Article 9-2 of the Convention. We noted above that the requirement for prior consent for religious literature and materials is a violation of Article 10 § 2 of the ECHR Convention.

However, the Criminal Code of our country imposes severe sanctions on the production, sale and distribution of religious literature and materials without a control mark. With the change in 2020, the punishment for this actions includes imprisonment.

Persons importing, selling or distributing religious literature (including electronic media), audio and video materials, goods and other religious information materials for the purpose of production, sale or distribution without appropriate consent shall be punished by a fine in the amount of 5,000 to 7,000 manats or restriction of freedom for a period up to two years, or imprisonment for a term up to two years.

Such a punishment cannot be considered proportional, in other words, "necessary in a democratic society." Since the ECHR has previously recognized a violation of Article 9 for such acts, it will be possible to say that this punishment which was introduced after 2020, will violate Article 9 in most cases. The imposition of criminal sanctions for such acts is also illegal under the 2004 Venice Commission's Opinion.[7]


[1] ECtHR, Case of Nasirov and others v. Azerbaijan § 61.

[2] Case of Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, § 84.

[3] ECtHR, Case Of Religious Community Of Jehovah’s Witnesses V. Azerbaijan, (Application no. 52884/09), para.30

[4]UN Human Rights Committee, Aziz Aliyev, Jeyhun Aliyev and others v. Azerbaijan, 2805/2016, para.7.5.

[5] Case of Hasan and Chaush, § 84-86.

[6], § .48-49

[7] Venice Commission, Opinion 271/2004, Section IV.a, page.18.

6.15. Restrictions on constructions of places of worship

According to Article 29 of the Law, an opinion on the appropriateness of the construction of a place of worship or the reconstruction of an existing place of worship must be obtained from the SCWRA. Only after receiving this opinion, the relevant executive authority may issue a construction permit. Such an arrangement makes it very difficult to establish or expand new places of worship. Given the small number of places of worship in Azerbaijan and the rate of population growth, such a restriction is far from meeting the needs of believers.

According to the Venice Commission Opinion, restrictions on the construction of places of worship can be imposed only within the general rules of urban planning, and these are shown examples - traffic congestion, non-compliance with the architectural style, the creation of high noise. Construction restrictions should not be imposed in discriminative manner on religious groups.  Permits for the construction of places of worship should not differ from the grounds and procedures for obtaining permits for the construction of non-religious facilities.[1]


[1] Venice Commission, Opinion 271/2004, Section 4.C, page.18.

7. Conclusion

It is clear from the mutual analysis of legislation and international law that the state's unofficial religious policy is aimed at preventing the spread of religiosity and operating of existing religious denominations under the State control, and these goals are reflected in the national legislation. Although Articles 2 and 31 of the SCWRA emphasize the superiority of international treaties, the lack of independence of the courts makes these two articles ineffective.

From the decisions of the ECHR and the HRC on Azerbaijan, we can see that complaints about violations of religious freedom brought to international tribunals are successful; legislation and practice in the country do not meet international standards.

Under the current legal framework, the number of complaints and convictions against Azerbaijan will increase. All of the UN Human Rights Committee's recommendations to the Azerbaijani government in 2016 regarding unjustified restrictions on religious freedom are still relevant, and given that since then, religious legislation has led to more restrictions instead of liberalization. It is obvious that more recommendations and notices about inconsistence will be included in the next decisions or reccomendations of the international tribunals.[1]

However, the priorities of the state's religious policy can be implemented without violating the conventional obligations. For example, all online religious literature is already free. It is also possible to hold religious meetings online, thus weakening the legal ban.

One of the main goals of the state in religious policy is to prevent religious bigotry. In this regard, instead of restricting the implementation of religious worship and rites, it should be considered more appropriate to improve the quality of secular education and increase the environment of tolerance.


[1] UN Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Azerbaijan, 1-2 November 2016, para.33.