AZERBAIJAN: Juma mosque stolen by police, community refused access for worship, and new imam imposed
Following Wednesday's police attack on Baku's Juma mosque community and its religious freedom activist imam, in which an attempt to impose a new imam failed, Forum 18 News Service has ascertained that the police have now seized control of the 1,000 year old mosque, imposed a new imam against the will of Muslims who worship there, and are refusing to allow the existing mosque community to use their own mosque for prayers and other religious activities. The mosque community has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, following previous attacks on their religious freedom by the authorities.
On telephoning the mosque office on 2 July, Forum 18 spoke to a man who identified himself as Haji Ilham, newly-named imam of the mosque, who said Imam Mamedov was not available. He said he himself had been named to the post by Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, the head of the Caucasian Muslim Board. Asked what involvement the Board could have in a mosque that is not subject to its authority he responded: "That is not a subject for a telephone conversation." Pressed on the issue he insisted: "Who they are subject to is their affair. I am subject to the Muslim Board."
Asked why the police were involved in installing leaders from the Muslim Board he responded: "That's not our affair." He said he was unable to say whose responsibility it was or who had invited the police to help in trying to install a new leadership. On 30 June, the mosque community rejected the attempt to install an imam against its will (See F18News 30 June 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=352).
Asked about his connection with the Juma mosque, Haji Ilham declared that he had long been involved at Baku's Taza-Pir mosque, where the Board has its headquarters. He claimed "sometimes" to have visited the Juma mosque for prayers in the past. He declined to answer any other questions and put the phone down.
Allahverdiev told Forum 18 that the rooms inaccessible to the community include the mosque office, the room where the Koran is taught and the kitchen. "It was only because of the sheer numbers of people coming to worship – more than 2,000 – that they let us in to the toilet and washroom to conduct the ritual washing before prayers," he reported. "But they're not cleaning that area and with the large numbers of people it is now filthy." He said police officers in uniform with sidearms are guarding the entrance to the barred rooms and the police have put their own locks on the doors.
Nuridin Mustafaev, the court executor for the Sabail district court, which ordered the community to vacate the mosque in March, a decision upheld by the appeal court in April, insisted that he was obliged to execute the court judgment. "We gave them a long time to leave voluntarily, but they didn't do so," he told Forum 18 from Baku on 2 July. "We were instructed to remove the community and their property and we did so." He admitted that "of course it was unpleasant" but denied there had been any political involvement in the decision to expel the community. Mustafaev said he knew nothing about any police violence and claimed the police did not enter the mosque's prayer room.
He said that if any other court – including the European Court of Human Rights to which the mosque community has appealed – issues another ruling handing the mosque back to the community the court executors will hand it back.
Mustafaev said he did not know who had invited the Caucasian Muslim Board to name new imams, but insisted that community members can still go to pray in the mosque, but simply can't use the other rooms.
Allaverdiev reaffirmed that during the storming of the mosque on 30 June, the police officers had beaten the fifteen or so people they found inside with their hands. He said the police had been carrying sidearms in their holsters but had not used them. "They were very aggressive," he recalled. "Two policeman would hold someone while the third would beat them. It was very easy for them as we did not resist. We carried on praying." He claimed some of the officers involved in the raid had been drinking alcohol, which community members found highly offensive.
He said the mosque community has heard rumours that the authorities are now preparing to close the mosque for "repairs". "The building doesn't need repairs," he insisted. "We have been looking after it well for the last decade." The authorities have also said in the past that they want to turn the 1,000-year old mosque into a carpet museum, which is what the anti-religious Soviet regime used it for.
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30 June 2004
Police today have twice forcibly expelled Muslims from a 1,000 year old Baku mosque that the authorities want to turn into a carpet museum, and tried to impose a new Imam on the community. However, community members were allowed back into the mosque for afternoon prayers, before being expelled again. The police attack was observed by Ambassador Steinar Gil of the Royal Norwegian Embassy, as well as diplomats from the British and US embassies, as well as the OSCE. Ambassador Gil told Forum 18 that the Muslims "behaved very calmly and with restraint, doing nothing to provoke further violence", and other witnesses told Forum 18 News Service that the police beat some community members up. The authorities' attempt to impose their own imam on the mosque community failed. The current imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, is strongly disliked by the authorities for his religious freedom and human rights campaigning for Christians and Muslims.
10 June 2004
Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan – which threatens to spread in Central Asia and elsewhere - is largely the result of government repression and lack of democracy, Azerbaijani scholar and translator of the Koran Nariman Gasimoglu, head of the Center for Religion and Democracy http://addm.az.iatp.net/ana.html in Baku and a former Georgetown University (USA) visiting scholar, argues in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. Extremist Islamist groups, like the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, which do not yet enjoy widespread support, have been strengthened by repression while moderate Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered. The best, if not the only way to counter religious extremism, Gasimoglu maintains, is to open up society to religious freedom for all, democracy, and free discussion – even including Islamist groups. This is the only way, he argues, of depriving Islamic extremism of support by revealing the reality of what extremism in power would mean.
9 June 2004
Although Tajikistan permits Muslim women to wear the hijab, or head and neck scarf, for international passport photos, it normally does not permit this for internal identity documents. Many Muslims think that it is unacceptable for a woman to be photographed without wearing a hijab, so many Muslim women, especially in very devout Muslim areas, do not have an internal identity document. Pulat Nurov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 News Service that this insistence on photographs without hijabs has caused problems, but claims that only a "very small percentage" of Muslim women regard this demand as "unacceptable". He also told Forum 18 that his committee has persuaded the police to make exceptions to the general rule in individual cases.