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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".

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."

AZERBAIJAN: Adventist pastor flees serious death threats

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.

AZERBAIJAN: Police refuse to protect Adventists facing death threats

Police have refused to protect an Adventist pastor in Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), who has been threatened by local men with death or being driven out of the community. "People phone and come to my house to threaten us but the authorities have refused to help," Pastor Khalid Babaev told Forum 18 News Service. Pastor Babaev fears for the safety of his wife and son, and does not know if it will be safe to hold a service as usual next Saturday. Local Muslims have threatened to sacrifice Babaev as a holy duty and to halt Adventist religious activity in Nakhichevan. If Pastor Babaev holds another service, he has been told that a mob will be collected to attack his house. The police have refused to discuss the threats with Forum 18, or say what they would do to protect church members from the threatened violence.

AZERBAIJAN: Court proceedings to seize mosque next week

Court proceedings to seize the 1,000 year-old Juma mosque in Baku, which the government wants to turn into a carpet museum, are due on Wednesday 25 February, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "You know that judges in Azerbaijan are not independent, so they'll rule to close down the mosque and kick us out," Seymur Rashidov, a mosque spokesman, told Forum 18. "But we'll challenge any such decision through the courts, even to the European Court of Human Rights." The mosque's jailed Imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev, has pleaded for international publicity and help: "All the hope is for the help of dear friends for whom religious freedom and human rights are not just words but their life mission.", he wrote to Forum 18. The mosque and its young imam have been prominent defenders of religious freedom for all, including Baptists and Adventists. Amongst foreign embassies expected to attend the court hearings is the Royal Norwegian Embassy. "We will be following the case very closely – we will be there," Ambassador Steinar Gil told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: "Traitor" for being Christian?

A deputy head of police has threatened a Baptist Pastor, trying "to drive him out of the town, ban him from visiting and insulted him as a 'traitor' for having adopted Christianity," the leader of the Baptist church in Azerbaijan has told Forum 18 News Service. This is one of many problems Baptists have, including other threats from local police officers and congregations being unable to get state registration. An Azeri-language Baptist church has been closed down and its pastor banned from preaching and subjected to a harsh media campaign. Also, 50,000 Azeri-language New Testaments have been denied entry to Azerbaijan. Baptists have told Forum 18 of their opposition to attempts to crush the Muslim community of Baku's Juma mosque led by imprisoned imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev. The Baptists have been prominent in his defence, pointing out that his arrest "testifies to the intentions of the authorities to restrict even further the religious freedom not only of Baptists but of all believers in Azerbaijan".

AZERBAIJAN: New media threats against Protestants and JWs

Two false accusations of spreading religious hatred have been made on local TV by the government religious affairs committee, Forum 18 News Service has found. Both those accused – the Protestant Greater Grace Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses - have denied to Forum 18 that they spread hatred, and also denied that they received the official warnings the state committee claimed it had issued. The state committee has spoken of plans to use the courts to liquidate the Jehovah's Witness community. Local media frequently repeat assertions that minority religious communities violate the law, preach religious hatred and have been warned by the state committee, and this creates suspicion of the communities. Police broke up the Greater Grace Church's Sunday School last August, and in 2002 the State Committee used the courts to close down Baku's Azeri-language Baptist church, as well as most of Azerbaijan's madrassahs, or Islamic schools.

AZERBAIJAN: Judges not police to expel Muslims from mosque?

The Muslim community of the 1,000-year old Juma mosque has told Forum 18 News Service that it fears it will be expelled by compliant judges, not the violent police assault originally feared. Local human rights activists from the International Religious Liberty Association, Devamm and the Committee for the Protection of Ilgar Ibragimoglu's Rights have told Forum 18 that they welcome international pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities which, they believe, prevented a violent assault on the mosque. But they fear that expulsion by the tame courts "only looks less aggressive". Muslims from the Juma mosque have told Forum 18 that "the Baptist Church is also persecuted" and note that the Baptist church on Baku's Azadlyq street has not been returned to the church. "It is interesting that it is also intended to be turned into a museum, " the Muslims comment. Along with the Adventists, the Baptists have been the strongest religious supporters of Ibrahimoglu and the Juma mosque.

AZERBAIJAN: Authorities plan to storm embattled mosque?

Muslims from the 1000-year old Juma mosque in Baku fear the authorities, who want to use it as a carpet museum, will seize the mosque by force on Friday, and the mosque has invited foreign diplomats to be present as neutral observers. Rafik Aliev, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, has said that Muslims must leave the mosque because his committee has not registered them – but his committee has refused to consider the mosque's registration application. Otherwise, Aliev has said that police will remove them by force. Under international human rights conventions that Azerbaijan has signed, the absence of official registration does not give any grounds for this expulsion. The embattled mosque and its religious freedom activist imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who was jailed after a rigged trial, have received strong support from Azerbaijan's Baptist and Adventist churches, as well as from the International Religious Liberty Association.

TURKMENISTAN: Secret police break up Muslim commemoration of dead Azeri president

Turkmen secret police have raided a mosque to break up a Shia Muslim commemoration for the dead former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev. Forum 18 notes that the government has de facto banned Shia Islamic practice, although some Shias continue to practise their faith in defiance of the authorities.

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."

AZERBAIJAN: Imam still imprisoned despite no investigation

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.