f18 Logo

The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

AZERBAIJAN: Another mosque threatened, two others reprieved – for now?

Police have refused to explain why they have threatened to close the Sunni mosque in Mushfiqabad near the capital Baku, the latest of a series of mosques to be threatened in Azerbaijan. "Of course we'll continue to pray if the police go ahead and close us down," Imam Mubariz Gachaev told Forum 18 News Service. Police chief Intigam Mirsalaev told him that the mosque is to be closed as it does not have registration, though he gave no order in writing. But another mosque near Baku appears to have been reprieved after police ordered it to close. "People pray there – it is open. Police did not intervene," Police Chief Namik Ismailov told Forum 18 just after the order was given. Days later the community's lawyer told Forum 18 the police had overturned the closure order after questions from abroad, but rebuked the community for harming the country's image internationally. And President Ilham Aliyev suddenly overturned a series of court rulings ordering the confiscation and destruction of the half-finished Fatima Zahra mosque in Baku.

AZERBAIJAN: Nakhichevan - "No trial – they were just held"

Four readers of the works of the late Muslim theologian Said Nursi were held for three days without trial by Azerbaijan's NSM secret police in Nakhichevan, Forum 18 News Service has learned. "There was no administrative trial – they were just held there," Muslims complained. Restrictions in Nakhichevan - an exclave between Armenia, Iran, and Turkey - are even tighter than in the rest of Azerbaijan. No officials, whether in Nakhichevan or in the capital Baku, were prepared to explain why the four Muslims were held without trial. The NSM denied the incident, claiming that they "didn't arrest anyone for reading books. That would be absurd." Trouble began for the Nursi readers when one of them was arrested at Nakhichevan airport after Nursi literature was found on him. Five other local Nursi readers were then arrested at home, and eventually late at night two of them were freed. The remaining four were held in the NSM cellars for three days, a Nursi reader told Forum 18. Like Baha'is and Adventists, Nursi readers have also told Forum 18 that a number of them have left Nakhichevan, to live in other parts of Azerbaijan where pressure on them is not so intense.

AZERBAIJAN: "Unpleasantness with the law" for worshipping?

Religious communities punished for meeting for worship in Azerbaijan, or who have had religious literature confiscated, continue to formally appeal against these human rights violations, they have told Forum 18 News Service. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi have demanded the return of confiscated literature. But despite repeated appeals over more than 15 years – most recently in early 2010 – for the Baptist church in Aliabad to be registered, its application has still not been granted. Police visited its pastor in late April, to warn him not to gather church members for worship or they would face unspecified "unpleasantness with the law". Violations of freedom of religion or belief in Azerbaijan have been occasionally successfully challenged, but the only example in 2010 known to Forum 18 is an appeal against a fine imposed on one Muslim reader of Nursi's works. Despite many such protests not being successful, for example to re-open mosques and churches, one Muslim insisted to Forum 18 that publicly challenging violations is crucial to defend religious freedom.

AZERBAIJAN: Will appeals to re-open mosques succeed?

Two mosque communities from among those closed or demolished in Azerbaijan have recently appealed for their mosques to be allowed to re-open, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Fatima Zahra mosque community in the capital Baku have had their Supreme Court appeal against the confiscation and demolition of their half-finished mosque rejected. But they have told Forum 18 that they will continue to try to save their mosque, even if they have to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The mosque community's lawyer, Aslan Ismailov, told Forum 18 that the latest rejection "is not based on the facts". Elsewhere, members of a Sunni Muslim mosque forcibly closed in September 2009 in Gyanja, have written to President Ilham Aliyev and lower officials for help in getting their mosque reopened. "We asked them why the mosque is still closed and who we can apply to so that we can get it reopened," Forum 18 was told by a community member. Forum 18 is not aware of any successful appeal against the authorities' repeated forcible closures of Muslim and Christian places of worship.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "We are getting ready for war and we need our nation to be united"

Fines today (27 April) on four Protestants bring to nine the number of religious believers punished so far for unregistered religious worship in Nagorno-Karabakh, the internationally unrecognised entity in the south Caucasus, religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service. More fines are likely. The fines follow eight police raids on worship services of Adventists, Evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses since February. "All religious organisations must have registration before they start to meet – it's the law," Deputy Police Chief Mkhitar Grigoryan told Forum 18, without admitting that two of these communities were denied registration. Karabakh's religious affairs official Ashot Sargsyan explained to the Adventists the government's attitude to smaller religious communities: "We are getting ready for war and we need our nation to be united".

AZERBAIJAN: Official denies "unprofessional work" over re-registration denials and delays

Seven months after compulsory re-registration of all Azerbaijan's religious communities began (except in Nakhichevan) and three months after the end of the submission deadline, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has admitted that fewer than half the 534 registered communities have been re-registered. Yet an official denied to Forum 18 News Service its work is "unprofessional". Mosques forcibly closed by the state – including Fatima Zahra mosque in Baku - have been told their applications are invalid. Baku's Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and International Fellowship have also been denied re-registration, Forum 18 has learnt. In the wake of its rejection, Baku's Baptist church was four times visited by police in March, claiming that it was acting "illegally". The International Fellowship – an English-language Protestant church – is now having visas for foreign personnel denied and one has already had to leave.

AZERBAIJAN: "Distributing religious literature without state permission"

Police in Azerbaijan have detained two Jehovah's Witnesses and fined them each the equivalent of about three weeks' average wages, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The two – who also had their personal Bibles and other literature confiscated – were fined under the Administrative Code article banning "distributing religious literature without state permission". They were detained by police in the capital Baku after talking to neighbours about their beliefs, and were put on trial the same day. The assistant to the judge who tried the case insisted to Forum 18 that the verdicts had been "in accordance with the law". Meanwhile, Baku's Baptist congregation is deeply concerned about a political opposition newspaper article making unfounded allegations against them, including that they are spies for foreign countries. The article led directly to police officers visiting the church several times to check its documents and question the pastor. The newspaper's editor, Rauf Arifoglu, vigorously defended the article to Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Raids, fines, detentions, and another birth certificate denial

Two followers of the approach to Islam of Said Nursi have been fined and sentenced to 48 hours' detention in Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service has learned. They were also among seven Muslims fined three days earlier, after police raids on private homes during which religious books were seized. During the raids police used hostile TV and newspaper coverage against the Muslims, as has also happened against members of Protestant Christian and Jehovah's Witness communities the authorities dislike. Separately, a "temporary" nationwide ban on praying around mosques, imposed in August 2008, continues to be enforced. And the latest case of a child in Zakatala Region being denied a birth certificate because the parents have chosen a Christian name is Esteri Shabanova, born on 25 December 2009. Without a birth certificate, it is impossible for children to go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital, or travel abroad. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations insisted to Forum 18 that "there is no persecution of religious believers in Azerbaijan."

AZERBAIJAN: Raids "as if we are terrorists" on Muslims

Three groups of followers of the approach to Islam of Said Nursi have been raided by police in Azerbaijan since the beginning of 2010. "Officers with automatic weapons raid our meetings as if we are terrorists," a Nursi follower complained to Forum 18 News Service. "But what troubles me the most is that when our books are confiscated they say they will check them and return them – yet they never do." Also, three members of one of the mosques forcibly closed in 2009 have been fined, in apparent retaliation for a large-scale commemoration of Ashura in December. Arif Yunusov of the Baku-based Institute of Peace and Democracy told Forum 18 that this represents an official attempt to crack down on the last uncontrolled sector of the population. "First they [the authorities] moved against opposition political parties, then against non-governmental organisations and journalists. Now all that is left are religious movements." He noted that "religion provides an umbrella for protest. So they have moved against groups they say are conducting unsanctioned meetings."

AZERBAIJAN: Nakhichevan authorities crack down on Ashura commemorations

Authorities in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan warned employees of state enterprises and students not to attend mosque during Shia Muslim commemorations of Ashura in December, local human rights activist Malahat Nasibova told Forum 18 News Service. She said she had seen plain clothes police officers turning away young men from a Nakhichevan city mosque. A massive crackdown in the Nakhichevan village of Bananyar the day after the Ashura commemorations saw dozens detained, including some in psychiatric hospital. It is not clear if this was official punishment for their Ashura commemoration or to prevent potential opposition. Parliamentary deputy Ismail Hajiev denied to Forum 18 any crackdown in Bananyar, adding: "All mosques in Nakhichevan are working normally." Nasibova also said three young men who attended the Turkish-built Sunni mosque in Nakhichevan city were detained for 15-days in November and told to go to a Shia mosque instead. Forum 18 notes that small Adventist and Baha'i minorities have already been forced out of Nakhichevan.

AZERBAIJAN: "The authorities are already preparing to destroy the mosque"

Rovshan Shiraliev, lawyer for the only mosque in the Yeni Guneshli residential district of Azerbaijan's capital Baku, told Forum 18 News Service he fears that the authorities are already preparing to demolish the Fatima Zahra mosque. This is despite the community intending to take their case to the Supreme Court. Baku Appeal Court failed to uphold the community's challenge against a lower court decision to evict the community, demolish the Fatima Zahra mosque and return the land to the local administration. "The most important thing is that the court decision should be in favour of God," community leader Tofik Razizade told Forum 18. In Baku alone the authorities have demolished one mosque and closed three others, including Fatima Zahra. Several commentators bitterly pointed out to Forum 18 that the mosque closures and demolitions came while Baku was one of the four Capitals of Islamic Culture for 2009.

AZERBAIJAN: Restrictions imposed as registration deadline approaches

Less than two weeks before Azerbaijan's 1 January 2010 deadline for religious communities to re-register to continue to legally exist, Forum 18 News Service has found that more than four fifths of religious communities have apparently been unable to get re-registration so far. They are liable to liquidation through the courts, unless they are able to re-register before 2010. Muslims have complained to Forum 18 News Service that only communities affiliated with the Caucasian Muslim Board are now eligible to apply for registration, while non-Muslim communities complain that officials of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations - which conducts the registration - is forcing communities to include restrictions in their statutes. The so-called "model statute" reinforces restrictions included in the 2009 Religion Law, and also imposes unclear wording that may be used against peaceful religious activity. One reinforcement of restrictions is a requirement that the State Committee will be informed when religious education is given to a community's young people and adults. It appears that in the Nakhichevan exclave no re-registration is taking place.