AZERBAIJAN: Senior official "slanders Adventists"
Adventists and Muslims have rejected as "slander" accusations by Azerbaijan's senior religious affairs official that an Adventist pastor, Khalid Babaev, tried to gain converts through bribery, that the Adventist relief organisation ADRA is seeking to attract converts "at all costs" and that religious liberty group IRLA is an "Adventist organisation" funded by the United States "special services". Rafik Aliev made the claims in television interviews, but Forum 18 News Service has been unable to reach him to find out why he made the allegations. Babaev was forced to flee the Nakhichevan exclave after receiving death threats. IRLA's secretary general in Azerbaijan, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of Baku's Juma Mosque, is awaiting trial while a court has ordered the community expelled from the mosque.
Aliyev, the chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, made the accusations against Pastor Babaev and against ADRA in an interview with the pro-government private television station Azad Azerbaijan TV on 5 March. His accusations came in response to strong criticism on 4 March from the US State Department and the US Helsinki Commission of moves to oust the Muslim community from the Juma Mosque and the refusal of the Nakhichevan authorities to register the local Adventist congregation and protect Pastor Babaev from death threats (see F18News 5 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=269 ).
Forum 18 tried to reach Aliyev on 9 March to find out why he had made such unconfirmed allegations about Pastor Babaev, ADRA and IRLA, but he was not at the State Committee, while a man answering his telephone in his office at the organisation Irshad, who did not give his name, said Forum 18 had got the wrong number.
Idris Abbasov, head of the local branch of the State Committee in Nakhichevan confirmed to Forum 18 on 9 March that he had not discussed the difficulties of Nakhichevan's Adventist community with Aliyev since early January and that he had not passed on to Aliyev any allegations that Babaev had been attempting to buy converts. It remains unclear where Aliyev obtained his information.
The TV broadcast quoted Aliyev as declaring that ADRA, "which is involved in popularising Adventism, is planning to increase the number of its community at all costs". Saying that this is against the law, Aliyev said these attempts "would be decisively thwarted". It is not the first time that Aliyev has accused ADRA of trying to convert local people, charges ADRA has repeatedly denied.
Zavrichko insisted that while ADRA is the relief arm of the Adventist Church, it is a completely separate organisation that solely provides aid to people in need regardless of their faith. "ADRA does not get involved in attracting people to Christianity," he declared. "People shouldn't mix up the Church with the charity – they are different organisations."
Seymur Rashidov, a spokesman for the Juma Mosque community, which is about to lodge its appeal against the court decision to taken away from it the building it has been using for the past twelve years, has complained of a "new misinformation campaign". "By saying that IRLA is an Adventist organisation that receives money from American special services he wants to create a negative impression in society," he told Forum 18 on 9 March. "It is very sad to hear these slanderous statements against believers and against the well-respected IRLA, especially from a high government official."
Rashidov described Aliyev's claims as "consumed with hatred towards believers", describing him as one of the "main fighters against missionary work".
The Juma Mosque's imprisoned imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allaverdiev, is secretary general of the Azerbaijan chapter of IRLA.
Zavrichko too insisted that while IRLA was originally founded by Adventists more than a century ago, its charter specifies that it is open to people of all faiths. "I don't understand why Rafik Aliyev, a senior government official, is making such accusations. It's very sad."
Meanwhile, Abbasov insisted that the Adventist community in Nakhichevan cannot function on a regular basis without registration, although he was unable to tell Forum 18 which article of the country's religion law specifies that state registration is compulsory before a religious community can meet for worship.
He claimed that his office had rejected the Adventists' registration application because the proposed statute was "illiterate", that the community did not have the approval of the Nakhichevan city administration and that it did not have an identification number from the statistical office. "When they submit a correct application, we will register them within the prescribed one month period," he declared. "Until then they cannot meet on a regular basis."
Despite earlier promises to Forum 18 that he would investigate the death threats that forced Pastor Babaev and his family to flee from Nakhichevan, Abbasov said he could not get involved because the community is not registered. "I have no right to get involved," he claimed. "I can only work with organisations that have undergone registration."
Zavrichko told Forum 18 that he now believes the unidentified men that threatened Pastor Babaev were from the National Security Ministry. "We are people with no rights in Nakhichevan," Zavrichko complained. "There is no guarantee that if Khalid returns he won't be driven out again, and if we send someone new as leader they too could be kicked out." He said the congregation, which is mainly made up of elderly women, is now too frightened to meet for worship.
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5 March 2004
Muslims of Baku's historic Juma mosque are continuing to reject the 1 March court order that they must leave "immediately" the place of worship they have been using for the past twelve years. A court executor visited yesterday (4 March) and warned that next time he will come with police to expel them by force. "This has put the believers into a state of fear," mosque spokesman Seymur Rashidov told Forum 18 News Service. The Muslims have not been told when the police will arrive, but pledge they will greet the police with flowers. The planned expulsion has been widely condemned, with the US Helsinki Commission calling it "a page out of Azerbaijan's communist past".
1 March 2004
A court has decided today (1 March) to "immediately" expel the Muslim community of the 1,000 year-old Juma mosque in Baku's Old City, Forum 18 news Service has learnt. This is an apparent punishment for the community's independence from the authorities, and for its stance defending human rights, including religious freedom, for all in Azerbaijan. The Muslims now fear that police could expel them at any moment. Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist community, called the ruling a "blatant injustice". "The government fights not only against dissidents, like Christians and others, but even against Muslims, its own," he told Forum 18. "It is not even a Muslim government. It is against God." He said the government wants everyone to worship and fear it, and not to speak out. "It is trying to take the place of God."
1 March 2004
Adventist pastor Khalid Babaev and his family have fled Nakhichevan (Naxçivan) in fear, being forced to flee by the refusal by police to protect them from serious death threats, Form 18 News Service has learnt. The state official in charge of religious affairs locally has claimed to Forum 18 that he didn't "know that there are people here who hate others for religious reasons" and that he is "too busy to look into the case," even though he has been told by Pastor Babaev of the death threats. It is believed that the threats are related to the commemoration by Shia Muslims of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, grandson of Islam's prophet Muhammad, which is often a tense time.