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8 March 2006

Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, made the following statement on 4 March at the end of a visit to Azerbaijan that had started on 26 February:

“I have come to Azerbaijan in my capacity as Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on freedom of religion or belief.

This visit was carried out at the invitation of the Government and I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the impeccable cooperation it has extended to me and for having offered to me the great pleasure to see by myself the wonderful hospitality of the Azerbaijanis as everyone who I have met – from those living in the IDPs camps to his Excellency the President – have been impressively welcoming.

During the week, I had the pleasure of meeting with a large variety of people, Government and local authorities, representatives of most - if not all - religious communities and members of the civil society as well as of political parties. I also wish to communicate my gratitude to all of them.

Finally, I wish to express my particular thanks to the United Nations Country Team which has facilitated the organization of this visit in a highly professional manner.

Given the brief character of this visit, I am not in a position to make a detailed assessment of each reported incident in every region of the country. However, since I was already following closely the situation in Azerbaijan, I am now in a position to make an objective assessment of the situation concerning the right to freedom of religion or belief.

As the purpose of the visit was to assess the freedom of religion or belief of Azerbaijani people, I would like to share with you some of my main impressions before the publication of my report which will contain conclusions and recommendations to the Government.

The most striking feature of Azerbaijan regarding issues relevant to my mandate is the easy going and dispassionate attitude shown by the Azerbaijanis towards religion. The main consequence of this attitude is an undisputable degree of tolerance of the population in general which certainly constitutes an essential ingredient of the freedom of religion or belief in a society.

At the normative level, while the Constitution contains the main guarantees of the right to freedom of religion of belief, the corresponding legislative framework may disclose certain shortcomings that I will address in my report. Moreover, the Government has created – and in some cases re-established – specific mechanisms to deal with religious related matters.

The Government generally respects freedom of religion or belief but this respect is not uniformly observed in all regions of Azerbaijan. I have indeed noticed that, in some cases, the concerned authorities may have blurred the thin line that distinguishes facilitation of religious freedoms from control. In particular, certain situations related to the different aspects of this control have resulted in actual limitations of the right to freedom of religion of religious communities: difficulties in registration, restriction on religious literature, methods of appointment of clergy or obstacles for non registered religious communities.

In a few cases, this control has unfortunately transformed in real forms of repression. I am urging the Government to rapidly take the appropriate measures so that such incidents do not reoccur in the future. In this regard, I am particularly concerned that, because of fear or compromise to maintain silence, some religious communities have openly confessed their reluctance to talk to me.

Moreover, while maintaining my opinion on general tolerance in the society, I am sorry to note that the level of tolerance between religious communities is sometimes significantly challenged. This challenge is, inter alia, the result of the actions carried out by the relevant mechanisms and by the negative role played by some media in stigmatizing certain religious communities. In this respect, I would like to stress the responsibility of the media and draw the attention on the relevant provisions of international law that prohibit any form of incitement to religious hatred, such as article 20 of the International Covenant on civil and political rights.

To address these concerns as well as other related human rights, the existence of effective independent and impartial administrative and judicial mechanisms is of crucial importance. While I am acutely aware of the deep pain and sufferings that the people of Azerbaijan has endured during this transition period, I am strongly encouraging the Government as well as the other actors of the society to work without restraint towards the strengthening of these institutions, which are essential in the construction of a democratic society.

Despite the concerns I have expressed, I am convinced that Azerbaijan can play a leading role in building a model of its own because it has the most valuable raw material available to achieve this purpose: the good will and accommodating nature of its people towards spiritual beliefs.

Therefore, I can say that this has been a visit that has given me more hopes than worries and I look forward to continue cooperation with the Government”.

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For use of the information media; not an official record