For a country like Azerbaijan that officially touts religious tolerance and multiculturalism, the Baha’i faith might seem a natural fit – practitioners recognize Mohammad, Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, Krishna and Zoroaster as all manifestations of God.
They advocate the equality of races and faiths. And claim peace, rather than politics, as their calling.
Yet Azerbaijan’s Baha’is generally escape notice. No certain figure exists for their number, but a Baha’i spokesperson put the 2016 tally at 1,000 people – not even a thousandth of a percentage point of Azerbaijan’s population of roughly 9.9 million.
Their community has existed almost from the time the religion was founded in neighboring Persia in 1844. During the Soviet period, Azerbaijani believers practiced the Baha’i faith secretly, but with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, it again revived.
As it did, the family of 27-year-old art-photographer Elturan Mammadov decided to convert.
“I was 11 or 12 when my father became Baha’i.Of course, earlier he was Muslim,” recounted Mammadov, who runs a café in Sumgayit, a tumbledown industrial town about 30 kilometers northwest of the capital, Baku. The cities contain Azerbaijan’s two officially registered Baha’i communities.
In a predominantly Shi’a culture, the changeover to Baha’i beliefs was “painful,” and Mammadov’s mother initially opposed it, the photographer recalled. His father initially combined Baha’i and Shi’a Islamic practices, observing both faiths’ prayers and fasts to build spiritual strength.
As an adolescent, Mammadov had been undecided until, he said, he attended Baha’i classes where children were taught the importance of justice, love and mercy.
“Nobody had taught me about those human values until that age,” he said.
The US and other international observers have criticized how much justice features in Azerbaijan’s respect for religious freedom, but local Baha’is express no dissatisfaction with the government’s treatment of their faith. They have, however, faced challenges.
The Baha’i faith is not recognized in the autonomous republic of Nakhchivan, where believers report regular harassment.
In 2012, the Baku city government demolished a former 19th-century Baha’i worship and training center, named for the Baha’i spiritual leader Hazrat Abdul Baha’i, as part of a redevelopment project. Despite believers’ complaints, officials claimed there was no “procedure” for restoring the building to Baha’i ownership, Ramazan Asgarli, a Baku-based researcher of Baha’I history, said.
The great desire of the Baha’i community is to have their own house of worship, he said.
"With the country's policy of multiculturalism and tolerance, we hope to achieve it, and hope that the government will help us,” said Asgarli, a believer and psychiatrist. “This could be solved if the government can give us the land or build a building in the place of the destroyed one."
The government claims it also lacks a “procedure” for meeting this request. Meetings currently are held in believers’ homes, or at any other desirable location, and not according to a set schedule.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijani believers like Mammadov opt to stay anchored in their beliefs. They pray to become a “minaret . . . of love . . . “