Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Embattled Mosque Defiant

Muslim congregation say they will continue resisting police attempts to evict them from the mosque they have made their own.
By

The authorities in Azerbaijan have sent in police repeatedly in the last week to clear worshippers out of a mosque in the picturesque centre of Baku, but each time the congregation just comes back.


The official justifications for the use of force range from claiming that the mosque is a heritage site to the most plausible theory – the authorities’ conviction that the prayer leader or imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, is a political troublemaker.


Ibrahimoglu and his followers are refusing to budge, and say they will appeal an eviction order at Europe’s highest human rights court.


In repeated raids between June 30 and July 5 – each time coinciding with prayers – police arrested 15 people attending the Juma or Friday mosque, including 10 women. Ibrahimoglu’s deputy Adil Huseinov was detained on July 4 while he was leading evening prayers. Police also confiscated computers, literature and cash from the mosque’s offices.


Najaf Allahverdiev was worshipping at the mosque when police raided it on the evening of July 4. “Several dozen uniformed police burst into the mosque and demanded that the Muslims praying there leave the building immediately. They were led by the city’s deputy police chief, Yashar Aliev. When we tried to protest, the police used force.”


Imam Ibrahimoglu was outraged. “It’s a violation of all laws and human rights conventions,” he told IWPR. “We were not even allowed to finish our prayers, but were forcibly ejected from the House of the Lord. We’d received no prior warning of the [police] action.”


The police raids were the latest move in a long-running confrontation between the mosque leaders and congregation on the one hand, and Azerbaijan’s political leaders and the officially-sponsored religious council.


The authorities have been trying to drive the mosque leaders and congregation – who like most Azerbaijani Muslims are Shia – out of the building following an eviction order served in March.


The eviction order has attracted attention from human rights groups and foreign embassies because of suspicions that the authorities’ hostility towards Ibrahimoglu and his colleagues stem from their opposition sympathies rather than any dispute over religion or property rights.


The United States – generally supportive of Azerbaijan’s leadership – has voiced concern at the way Ibrahimoglu and his mosque are being treated. After the police raids, US ambassador Reno Harnish visited the scene with Norwegian envoy Steinar Gil.


Christopher Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, an arm of Congress, issued a strongly worded statement after a police raid conducted on July 2, saying, “The government’s forcible eviction of this peaceful Islamic community is an outrage…. Government violence against religious communities hearkens back to the darker, Soviet days of Azerbaijan’s history.”


The 15 people detained were released shortly afterwards, but the atmosphere at the mosque remained tense.


Many in the congregation are concerned at the way the authorities are behaving. "We [Azerbaijan] have been shamed before the whole world,” complained Kamil Huseinov, who comes every Friday. “In a country where more than 90 per cent of the people are Muslims, the government wants to close a mosque.”


Officially, the eviction order relates to a ruling that the 14th century Juma mosque is located within the Old Town, a designated national heritage site, and belongs to the state. In Soviet times it was, like many religious buildings, converted for secular use, in this case housing a museum of carpets.


After Azerbaijan became independent, a group of devout Muslims successfully lobbied for the mosque to be returned to its proper use, and in 1992 they moved in, forming its congregation.


They ran into trouble in 2002 when they refused to obey a new law requiring all religious communities to re-register with the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, a government-affiliated body which runs Islamic religious affairs in Azerbaijan.


The Juma congregation asserted its right to operate as an independent religious community, disputing the right of Spiritual Directorate chief Allahshukur Pashazade to control it.


Ibrahimoglu also ran up against the political authorities when he was among the many people arrested in October 2003 while protesting against alleged irregularities in the election which brought Ilham Aliev to presidential office. He was released in April but still has a five year conditional sentence hanging over him.


The official claim that the main issue is a property dispute was somewhat undermined by the Spiritual Directorate’s decision to impose a new prayer leader on the congregation. Cleric Surkhay Mamedov was brought in from outside to lead the regular prayer sessions.


Apart from a few who joined in, most of the congregation reacted by waiting outside until he had finished, and then followed their own imam Ilhamoglu in prayer.


Interviewed by IWPR, ?amedov justified his appointment to another imam’s congregation, saying, “It’s all the same to me what games are played around this issue. I know just one thing – that our sheikh [Pashazade] has appointed me as akhund [theologian] here and in accordance with his orders I will be akhund of this mosque.”


The sense that this was about politics rather than property was strengthened when Rafik Aliev, head of the government committee responsible for religious matters, said that Ibrahimoglu’s secular activities were a problem.


“Recently he has been acting more as a human rights defender and politician than a cleric. You can’t be a cleric and a politician at the same time,” Aliev told the Turan news agency.


The imam says his civil rights engagement is quite separate from his preaching, “I am coordinator of the Centre for the Defence of Freedom of Conscience and Confession and secretary general of the Azerbaijani branch of the International Religious Liberties Association. But I do my human rights work in my office rather than in the mosque.”


He denies any political links, saying, “There have been attempts to draw me into politics, but my position is that if I want to be involved in politics, I won’t make a secret of it.”


Asked why a congregation should run into such trouble with the authorities, Ibrahimoglu said it might be that the Spiritial Directorate was unhappy that his mosque – unlike others – did not charge people a fee for conducting marriage rites and other Islamic ceremonies.


Ibrahimogly noted also that the Juma mosque has been attracting a lot of new people, many of them young and educated. He said that on a recent Friday - the main day of prayer for Muslims - the Spiritual Directorate’s main mosque, Teze Pir, had a congregation of 60 while the Juma gathered several times that number. And while most of the people attending the official mosque looked over 40, those at his mosque were in the 20 to 40 age bracket.


“That naturally causes jealousy among some of the old-fashioned religious bureaucrats", he concluded.


Ibrahimoglu’s next step is to take his appeal against the court ruling to the European Court of Human Rights. Eldar Zeynalov, who heads Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Centre, takes the view that he has a good chance of winning the case.


Meanwhile, the imam is left to reflect on the authorities’ antipathy towards him. In a recent interview with the Zerkalo newspaper he recalled about his arrest last October.


“For the first month they accused me of being an al-Qaeda supporter. By the third month they were saying I was ‘the West’s man’. In the fourth month they came up with the idea of calling me a Protestant.


“They only thing they failed to do is describe me as a Cuban revolutionary, or an alien from outer space.”


Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s coordinator in Azerbaijan. Rufat Abbasov is correspondent for the newspaper Olaylar.


More IWPR's Global Voices

Why Did Cuba Jail This Journalist?
Rights defenders say that unusually harsh punishment reflects wider troubles for Havana regime.
Under A Watchful Eye: Cyber Surveillance in Cuba
Cuba's Less Than Beautiful Game