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10 June 2004

COMMENTARY: Religious freedom, the best counter to religious extremism

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

TAJIKISTAN: Why can't women wear the hijab for internal identity photos?

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.

20 May 2004

AZERBAIJAN: New crackdown on Adventists

Adventist Pastor Khalid Babaev – forced by death threats out of Nakhichevan in February – was fined on 20 May in Sumgait, an industrial city near the capital Baku, for leading a congregation without registration. "They failed to register their place of worship," the local police officer told Forum 18 News Service, though he was unable to say which law requires this. A week earlier, two Adventist pastors in Gyanja were fined for failing to register their place of residence in the city. "We don't agree with these fines," Adventist leader Pastor Yahya Zavrichko told Forum 18. "All we want is to be able to function freely." Local officials are also seeking information about the Baku congregation in an apparent bid to step up pressure.

26 April 2004

AZERBAIJAN: Expelling Muslims from Mosque "unpleasant," court executor says

The official responsible for carrying out a court order to expel Muslims from the 1,000 year old Juma mosque, which the authorities want to turn into a carpet museum, has told Forum 18 News Service that the task will be unpleasant, but that he will carry out the expulsion. Ambassador Steinar Gil of the Royal Norwegian Embassy has condemned the decision, saying it "violates the letter and the spirit of international conventions Azerbaijan has signed up to", adding that he found it hard to determine what the authorities hope to achieve by expelling the community. Ambassador Gil also pointed out that the Juma Mosque is led by Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who is disliked by the authorities and has been given a suspended five-year jail sentence for his human rights and religious freedom work for Christians and Muslims. The Imam today (26 April) told Forum 18 that he has resumed his human rights and religious freedom activity.

6 April 2004

AZERBAIJAN: Is religious censorship getting worse?

Baptists, Muslims, Adventists, Hare Krishna devotees, Baha'i and human rights activists have all noticed the problems caused by the censorship of religious literature in Azerbaijan, the head of the Baptist Union telling Forum 18 News Service that censorship is "getting worse". "We even have to ask for permission for one book sent to us through the post," Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. "Formally, censorship was abolished in Azerbaijan by presidential decree in August 1998, but it still exists," Eldar Zeynalov, of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, pointed out, telling Forum 18 that "If Rafik Aliev [chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations] had existed in Mecca at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he wouldn't have allowed him to produce any books as his views would have been regarded as heresy." Zeynalov also noted that prisoners are sometimes banned from seeing religious literature.

5 April 2004

AZERBAIJAN: "Half-free" imam to challenge suspended jail sentence

A five year suspended jail sentence has been given to Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev, imam of Baku's historic Juma Mosque and a leading religious freedom advocate, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He was accused of associating with Iranian revolutionaries and al-Qaida, and later accused of supporting Protestants and the West, and preaching radicalism. The verdict has been widely condemned by Azerbaijani human rights activists, the Baptist Church and the rapporteur of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly monitoring group on Azerbaijan. However, the state-approved Caucasian Muslim Board told Forum 18 it welcomed the sentence. Azerbaijan insists that every Muslim community must belong to the Caucasian Muslim Board, which has been accused of being "packed with KGB officers". The Juma Mosque has refused to submit to the board's authority and the 1,000 year old mosque is also fighting an attempt by the authorities to evict worshippers and turn the mosque into a carpet museum.

22 March 2004

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist and Adventist support for Imam at trial

At the opening of the trial today (22 March) of jailed religious freedom activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, Azerbaijan's Baptist leader Pastor Ilya Zenchenko and Adventist leader Pastor Yahya Zavrichko have spoken out in support of the Imam, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Baptist Pastor Zenchenko told Forum 18 that "the trial is a spectacle, a show. There is no basis for the charges against him. He is a victim." Adventist Pastor Zavrichko was as forthright. "I believe he is innocent. He only spoke up for people's religious rights." The Imam's brother, Najaf Allahverdiev, is not optimistic about the trial's outcome, speaking of "the usual procedural violations" and fearing that Imam Ibrahimoglu might be sentenced to several years' jail, possibly suspended if there is great international pressure. Meanwhile, members of Imam Ibrahimoglu's 1,000 year old Juma mosque are still fighting the authorities' attempts to evict them and turn the mosque into a carpet museum.

9 March 2004

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.

5 March 2004

AZERBAIJAN: Muslims await police expulsion "with fear and flowers"

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

AZERBAIJAN: Court decides to "immediately" expel Muslims from mosque

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."

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