Vol. 3, No. 9 (May 01, 2010)

The Azerbaijani model of religious freedom

Anar Gafarov, PhD
Research Fellow
Institute of Philosophy, Sociology and Law
Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences

Azerbaijan has a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance, a country whose people respect each other’s faiths, but the country’s legal arrangements intended to protect and advance religious tolerance are less well-known.  This article addresses the constitutional and legal arrangements that the Republic of Azerbaijan has put in place to ensure that all its citizens are free to practice their religion and that all religions are equal before the law.

Under the terms of the country’s constitution and laws, the government respects the rights of all faiths and believers and does not intervene on questions of doctrine or practice. [1] It does not prefer any religion to any other or religion to atheism or agnosticism.  It treats all religions as equal before the law.  And it limits religious activities only to the extent that no religion is permitted to humiliate anyone or to call into question humane principles. [2]

The Constitution specifies that no national or religious discrimination is permitted in Azerbaijan.  The 24th, 26th, 28th, and 48th articles of the country’s basic law, together with the first article of the Act on religious liberty form legal basis for all relations between state and communities of believers.  Thus, according to the Constitution, every individual has certain inalienable rights and liberties. [3] Moreover, he or she has legal rights to defend those liberties and rights. [4] And everyone is free to engage in religious activities as long as they do not undermine the rights of others. [5]

No one, under the law, can be forced either to adopt a particular religion or any religion or to declare himself or herself a member of one or the other categories. [6] The state may not put any obstacles to the practice of faith, but no one is permitted to threaten anyone by insisting on a particular faith or denying it.  Restrictions on religious propaganda only affect non-citizens and foreigners. [7] 
The Constitution’s freedom of conscience clause in the 48th Article is the foundation of religious liberty in Azerbaijan.  It corresponds to the 18th article of International Human Rights Memorandum, to the 18th article of the International Treaty of Civil and Political Rights, and to the 9th article of the European Convention of Human Rights. 

In Azerbaijan, then, religion and religious communities [8] are separate from the government, and the latter does not interfere in the activities of the former.  All religions and religious communities are equal before the law.  And religious communities have rights equivalent to those of other social communities to take part in public life and use the media. [9] Under existing legislation, religious communities have central organizations and are required to register with the authorities if there are at least ten members.  Once registered, a religious community has the status of a legal person. [10] For Muslims, this organization is the Caucasus Muslim Religious Department; [11] for others, it may involve ties to organizations abroad.

The Caucasus Muslim Religious Department appoints leaders of mosques, under the terms of the 8th article of the religious liberty act, but that act does not place any restriction on religious activities otherwise except to say that only citizens trained in Azerbaijan can perform these religious functions.  The act also allows soldiers to practice their faith when not on duty, and it opens the way for religious groups to apply to work in various social organizations and institutions such as prisons and hospitals.  The law also specifies how religious workers are to be paid in order to ensure that they meet government social security and pension standards. [12]

Under Azerbaijani law, religious groups have the right to own property just as in any other democratic country, [13] but also just as in all such countries, religious groups have to meet the same requirements that non-religious owners do.  And all legislation concerning property ownership stresses that. [14] 

As far as religious figures’ participation in the state’s political life is concerned, they can do so without hindrance [15] with only one other limiting factor: the Constitution’s 85th Article specifies that religious figures cannot become candidates for the Milli Majlis or contribute money to political candidates or parties. [16]    

It should be remembered that 90% of the Azerbaijani population is educated and that state education is secular in nature, as required by the provisions of the Constitution separating religion and the state. [17] But at the same time, existing Azerbaijani law includes provisions allowing for the inclusion of courses on religious issues in the curriculum, [18] although no secular school provides training for religious figures as such. [19] Religious training abroad and the establishment of religious training centers in Azerbaijan is subject to government regulation. [20] Nonetheless, under the terms of the law, any graduate of a secular secondary school has the right to pursue religious training.

Two organizations oversee these arrangements in Azerbaijan, the State Committee of the Azerbaijan Republic for Work with Religious Communities and the Caucasus Muslim Religious Department.  The former was created by President Heydar Aliyev’s decree in 2001 in place of the Department of Religious Affairs.  It is directed by a chairman and his deputies who are appointed by the president.  The Committee is charged with ensuring religious liberty, preserving the secular nature of the state, and suppressing fanaticism and violence (Aliyev 2004, p. 9).  It works to ensure that all people in Azerbaijan observe the principles of the 48th article of the Constitution. [21] And it serves as a forum where any problems that arise in relations between religions and the state can be resolved. [22]      

The other institution, the Caucasus Muslim Religious Department, has a history tracing back to tsarist times. [23] At present, it is led by Allahshukur Pashazade, the sheikh-ul-Islam.  It plays a major role in organizing Islamic religious life in Azerbaijan.  The key figures in all mosques are appointed by the Department, which also confirms the charters of Islamic schools and other institutions in the state.  After 1991, many madrasas appeared, but now the Department has controlled through registration five of them.  The others have been closed.  Since 1993, the Department has maintained the Baku Islam University which has five separate Schools.

Given its commitment to religious liberty and tolerance, Azerbaijan maintains ties with all key international organizations involved in these issues, including but not limited to the United Nations, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe.  As a signatory to the basic human rights and religious rights documents of these institutions, Azerbaijan has created the position of ombudsman to provide additional protections for its citizens.  Moreover, it has frequently held seminars on religious issues, expanded studies at the highest levels of religious law, and worked to ensure that provisions on religion are included in all state legislation that may touch on religious questions.

Given its long and complex history and its tradition of tolerance, Azerbaijan has on its territory places of worship for many different faiths past and present, including the ancient Albanian-Christian temples, Russian Orthodox Churches, and Jewish synagogues.  In addition, it has a Roman Catholic cathedral and the largest synagogue in the region, the result of supportive state policy since 1991.  At present, there are approximately 1,300 mosques in Azerbaijan, of which 220 have been built since 1991, some 40 churches, five synagogues, and other temples, and more than 500 other places of worship for those of other faiths.

Islamic missionaries in Azerbaijan have come mainly from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Qatar, UEA, Kuwait and Jordan.  They were most active between 1993 and 2002 and built numerous mosques around the country.  But because some of them promoted Wahhabi ideas, they were restricted in their activity after 1998.  But those groups which live within the law have been allowed to continue their activities unimpeded, including the formation of religious training schools in Azerbaijan and the chance for Azerbaijanis to study abroad.
Many Christian, Jewish and other missionary groups are active in Azerbaijan, although only 27 of them are registered with the state. 


Aliyev, Rafig (2004) State and Religion, Baku. 


[1] See The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic (hereinafter referred to as ARC), Article 18.

[2] ARC, Article 18; Act about Religious Liberty of the Azerbaijan Republic (hereinafter referred to as ARLAR), Article 1.     

[3] ARC, Articles 24, 28. 

[4] ARC, Article 26. 

[5] ARC, Article 48.  

[6] ARC, Article 48. 

[7] ARLAR, Article 1. 

[8] A religious community is a local organization of believers voluntarily assembled to provide for their religious needs. See ARLAR, Article 7. 

[9] ARLAR, Article 5. 

[10] ARLAR, Article 11. 

[11] ARLAR, Article 7. 

[12] ARLAR, Articles 25, 26. 

[13] ARLAR, Article 16.  

[14] ARLAR, Articles 17, 19. 

[15] ARC, Article 54. 

[16] ARC, Article 85; ARLAR, Article 6.

[17] ARC, Article 18.

[18] ARLAR, Article 6. 

[19] ARLAR, Article 10.

[20] ARLAR, Article 24.

[21] The article reads “1. Each person has freedom of conscience. 2. Everyone has rights to determine his religious attitude, to worship to any religion individually or collectively, or not to worship to any religion, to determine and spread his thoughts about the religion. 3. The fulfilment of religious rites is free if it doesn’t break the law or contradicts the social ethics. 4. The religious faith and thought does not justify the law discordance. 5. No one is forced to determine his religious faith and thought, to fulfil the religious rites or to participate in them.”  See ARC, Article 48. 

[22] ARLAR, Article  28-30. 

[23] Explore the official website of the Caucasus Muslim Religious Department at http://www.qafqazislam.com/ (accessed 19 April 2010).