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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.

AZERBAIJAN: Pressure mounts on imprisoned imam's supporters

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.

AZERBAIJAN: Muslim human rights activist jailed in rigged trial

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.

AZERBAIJAN: Independent Muslim human rights leader detained

A leading Muslim religious freedom activist, who in October found it necessary to seek temporary refuge in the Royal Norwegian Embassy, was yesterday (1 December 2003) detained. Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, of the Juma mosque in Baku, was originally summoned by the authorities as an alleged witness in a criminal case. "There is no indication what that case was about and who was allegedly involved," a spokesman for religious freedom group Devamm told Forum 18. After 8 hours of questioning, the Imam was detained and is now being held in a police isolation cell before a court hearing within 48 hours to decide whether he is to be charged with a criminal offence or released. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu is also Secretary General of the Azerbaijani Chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association.

GEORGIA: Orthodox permission needed for religious literature imports

Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that importing religious literature can be difficult and expensive, or even impossible, due both to obstruction from the Orthodox Patriarchate and also to corruption among officials. There is repeatedly said to be an unpublished instruction to Customs officials from Patriarch Ilya banning the religious literature imports without his permission. Giorgi Andriadze of the Patriarchate told Forum 18 that the Patriarchate only objects to large quantities of non-Orthodox literature being imported. "It's a question of proselytism. If groups bring in millions of books, that means they intend to proselytise. If they bring in enough for their own followers, it's their right." The Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities have not had any problems with literature importation.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Officials defend restrictions on minority faiths

Following Forum 18 News Service's report of official threats to a local Baptist, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have defended to Forum 18 the actions they took against him and their restrictions on minority religious activity. The authorities state action was taken, not on the basis of martial law as police claimed but, on the basis of street-trading and customs legislation, and deny that threats were made against the Baptist or his family. The authorities also point out that the only faith to have state registration is the Armenian Apostolic Church. Nagorno-Karabakh states that it abides by international human rights agreements. However all such agreements prevent religious activity being restricted because religious communities either do not have or wish to acquire state registration.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Police beat up, threaten Baptist and family.

A Baptist in Nagorno-Karabakh has been beaten up, threatened with mind-altering drugs and had threats against his wife, for distributing religious literature on the street. At the same time his local church had all its religious literature confiscated. Police claim this is legal under martial law, which amongst other restrictions on civil liberties bans the activity of "religious sects and unregistered organisations". However a senior Nagorno-Karabakh representative has claimed to Forum 18 that martial law restrictions have ended and that "There are no restrictions on the activity of any religious communities". Other Protestants, Pentecostals, Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses have also all faced restrictions on their activity which still continue. At the same time the Armenian Apostolic Church has become the de facto state religion.

AZERBAIJAN: Independent Muslim leaders "safe", but pressure continues

Prominent independent Muslim leaders Ilgar Ibragimoglu and Azer Ramizoglu have not been detained and are safe in hiding, one of their colleagues reported. Seymur Rashidov, spokesman for religious freedom group Devamm, told Forum 18 News Service that on 20 October Ibragimoglu, imam of the Juma mosque in Baku's old city, left the Norwegian embassy where he had sought refuge to avoid arrest after the police raided Friday prayers on 17 October. Rashidov complained of continuing media attacks on Ibragimoglu and his colleagues and the continued denial of registration for three Muslim and religious freedom organisations. "The authorities don't want anyone in the country to investigate religious freedom because there are so many violations." He said tens of thousands of Muslim women who had refused to be photographed without headscarves for their identity documents were denied the ability to vote in the 15 October presidential election.

AZERBAIJAN: Election crackdown on independent Muslim leaders

Amid the widespread violence in the wake of the 15 October presidential elections, police swooped on the Juma Mosque in the capital Baku during Friday prayers on 17 October and tried to arrest the imam Ilgar Ibragimoglu and one of his close colleagues Azer Ramizoglu. "They wanted to arrest me and radicalise the believers," Ibragimoglu told Forum 18 News Service from the Norwegian embassy in Baku, where he has taken refuge. He said he was "very worried" about Ramizoglu, who has not been seen since 17 October. "I don't know if he is in hiding or if he has been detained by the authorities." The two – both supporters of failed presidential candidate Isa Gambar - are leading members of religious freedom group Devamm, which has long been denied official registration, and the Islam-Ittihad society, whose registration was stripped from it by a Baku court in August. "Ibragimoglu will be a guest of the Royal Norwegian embassy until the matter is resolved," an embassy official told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Catholics "shocked" by undiplomatic warning

Fr Daniel Pravda, head of the small Catholic community in Azerbaijan, said he is shocked by the reported warning by the government's senior religious affairs official that he has been conducting "illegal religious propaganda", an offence under Azerbaijani law punishable by deportation. "I don't know what Rafik Aliev means by propaganda, but all I do is serve our Catholics," Fr Pravda told Forum 18 News Service. According to the local media, Aliev issued the warning to visiting Vatican foreign minister Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran on 24 September. Forum 18 was unable to reach Aliev to find out whether he had indeed warned Fr Pravda, if so why he had done so and why Azerbaijani law bans foreigners and people without citizenship from conducting "religious propaganda" in defiance of international human rights conventions.