AZERBAIJAN: Muslims ordered out of Mosque authorities want as carpet museum
Having jailed religious freedom activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who is Imam of Baku's historic Juma mosque, Azeri authorities have given Muslims in Baku until the end of January to leave the Mosque, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The authorities want to turn it into a carpet museum, the use to which the 1,000 year-old Mosque was put in Soviet times. "The Muslim community regards the demand to leave the mosque as illegal," the imam's brother Najaf Allahverdiev told Forum 18. "It is unjust punishment and reprisal for my brother's religious and human rights activity." Vowing to resist the expulsion, Najaf Allahverdiev told Forum 18 that the Muslim community will respond calmly. "We are going to insist peacefully on our rights to continue to meet for worship in our mosque under the Azerbaijani constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
In a 16 January statement, the Committee to Defend Ilgar Ibrahimoglu and the Community of the Juma Mosque continues to insist that their imam should be freed immediately, declaring his 1 December arrest "illegal" and the charges against him as "unfounded" (see F18News 8 January 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=223 ).
While vowing that it will resist the expulsion, Najaf Allahverdiev said the Muslim community is determined to respond calmly. "We are going to insist peacefully on our rights to continue to meet for worship in our mosque under the Azerbaijani constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
Nigar Mamedova, aide to Rafik Aliev, the chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, declined to discuss the proposed seizure of the Juma mosque. "I can't say anything about this as I have no information," she told Forum 18 from Baku on 19 January. "Only Rafik Aliev is authorised to speak about it."
Nubaris Kuliev, an official of the city administration responsible for the Icherisheher (Old City) architectural zone, wrote to the mosque leaders on 15 January to tell them that because of information received from the general procuracy that Ibrahimoglu had participated in the post-election riots the Muslim community had to leave the mosque within 15 days and hand it over to the "appropriate authorities". No precise deadline was given.
Attached to Kuliev's letter were two other letters, one from the general procuracy to the city administration detailing what it claimed was Ibrahimoglu's guilt (though he has not been found guilty by any court), and one from the city administration declaring that it wanted the mosque once again to be used to house a carpet museum, as it had during the later Soviet period.
The officials also insisted that the mosque is breaking the law by functioning independently outside the framework of the state-approved Caucasian Muslim Board (Article 9 of the religion law requires all Muslim communities to be subject to the Board in defiance of international religious freedom commitments).
Reached by telephone on 19 January, one of Kuliev's colleagues, who declined to be named, said Kuliev has been ill for some months and only appears in the office from time to time. The colleague denied that Kuliev had any responsibility for the decision to evict the Muslim community. "He got a letter from on high instructing him to pass on the decision, so he passed it on. Why is he guilty?"
Although officials made clear they wanted the mosque to be used as a carpet museum, Najaf Allahverdiev says they are now backtracking. "They think this maybe sounds too much like the old Soviet atheist regime, so they are now saying on television they want to hand it over to the Muslim Board for them to use as a mosque."
Allahverdiev expressed his community's appreciation for support they have received from other Muslims across the country, the local Baptist community and the Azerbaijan chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), of which Ibrahimoglu is secretary general.
The thousand-year-old Juma mosque, which was closed down during the Soviet period, only revived its religious activity after the collapse of the Soviet regime. It registered as a religious community with the justice ministry in 1992. Its re-registration application in 2001 was verbally rejected by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations because of its refusal to subjugate itself to the Caucasian Muslim Board.
Najaf Allahverdiev told Forum 18 that on Fridays between 1,000 and 2,000 worshippers attend prayers. He said on major festivals up to 4,000 people attend. Since Ilgar Ibrahimoglu's arrest, prayers have been led by acting imam Abil Huseinov.
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8 January 2004
In an apparent attempt to divert attention from the imprisonment of religious freedom activist Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that the Azeri authorities have dropped their investigation into the alleged charges against him - whilst still keeping him in prison. "It's like under the Bolsheviks – they arrested people but then left them to languish in prison with no investigation of their case," one human rights activist told Forum 18. Imam Ibrahimoglu is one of 123 people held in a crackdown after the Azeri presidential elections in October 2003, which were widely condemned as fraudulent by independent election observers.
9 December 2003
Members of a committee to defend imprisoned religious freedom activist and imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu have come under threat of arrest, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Two committee members have been summoned to local police stations tomorrow (10 December), where they fear that, just like Ibrahimoglu, they will be arrested. Another committee meber held by police was told that "if his name was published abroad it would be bad for him and his family." Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Church, has told Forum 18 of Baptist's indignation at Imam Ibrahimoglu's arrest and the value they place on his work. Forum 18 has also learnt that another prisoner, prominent opposition leader Rauf Arifoglu, has been denied access to the Koran, prison guards forcibly confiscating a copy. Reliable sources have told Forum 18 that Azer Ramizoglu, leader of the 'Devamm' religious freedom society, is in hiding from the authorities, who are trying to arrest him.
4 December 2003
Though authorities claimed that Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a Muslim religious freedom activist, did not face criminal charges, he has been, after a rigged trial, jailed for three months before a possible trial, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. State authorities are investigating him for organising demonstrations after the rigged election, although the court was "given proof that Ibrahimoglu had not taken part in any public disorder and clashes with the police," a spokesman for religious rights group Devamm told Forum 18. "All he did was monitor the post-election situation." Ibrahimoglu is being held along with more than 100 opposition activists detained after street protests against the way the presidential poll was conducted, nad he has in the past helped end the ban on female Muslim teachers and students wearing headscarves, helped several Protestant churches to gain registration, and had helped the Baptist Church to extract a shipment of books that had been held up in customs.