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Azerbaijan: State Hounds Muslim Leaders

The Azerbaijani government, apparently concerned over religious extremism and corruption, is cracking down on the country's main Muslim organisation.
By Gulnara Mamedzade

When the government set up a special body to deal with religious groups last year, its founders said it had limited ambitions.


But over the last few months, the new office, State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, has begun to undermine the main semi-official Islamic authority in the country, the Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, putting the two in open conflict.


The head of the board is Sheikh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazade, the main official cleric in Azerbaijan since Communist times, who welcomed the foundation of the government's new "mediating structure" in June 2001, on the grounds that it would not interfere with his duties.


But the new committee, which first of all said it would concentrate on monitoring radical religious groups, soon began to ask difficult questions about the board as well.


It started to investigate the funding of Azerbaijan's mosque building programmes, trips to Muslim holy places and religious education, all the responsibility of Pashazade's department.


Since February, the head of the new committee, the orientalist, Rafik Aliev, has frequently appeared on television alleging that the board committed financial abuses. "The financial operations for building mosques generally occur outside the banking system in the form of personal payments, which creates a fertile soil for appropriating money that is not counted for," he said.


The majority of Azerbaijan's eight million inhabitants are Muslim, most of them Shiite. Despite the proximity of another Shiite state, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azerbaijan has adopted a Turkish secular model of statehood since independence.


However, in the last few years, there has been a growth in Islamist groups and an increase in mosque building. The government has taken a greater interest in the former since the attacks of September 11, when Azerbaijan strongly supported the United States.


Although the board has no links with extremism, it has been the main victim of the government's new interest in religion. Encouraged by the authorities, the Azerbaijani press recently revealed that the department had signed an agreement in 1992 for the building of ten mosques with the Turkish ministry responsible for religious activities. They claimed that much of the money earmarked for the project had been misappropriated.


"We respect people's religious convictions and we are not interfering in religious or ceremonial issues, but when it comes to the building of houses and mosques, the state has to possess the necessary information on the funds that have been spent," said Aliev.


Aliev's new committee then proposed that the tax ministry should be brought in to investigate the activities of the mosques - which brought a sharp reaction from their main patrons. "Mosques are not commercial organisations, which pay taxes to the government," said Haji Salman Musayev, first deputy chairman of the board.


Musayev accused the government of breaking the principle of the separation of religion and state and interfering in a sphere of activity which was not its responsibility.


However, the authorities' offensive continued. Aliev joined forces with the education ministry to announce a plan to begin teaching the "moral and cultural aspects of Islam", promising to give the country's schoolchildren a new state-sponsored religious education.


Aliev also prevailed in another fight over the timing of Novruz, the traditional New Year festival. Last month, it coincided with the sacred Shiite ceremony of mourning, Ashura, dedicated to the memory of the third Shiite imam, Hussein. The government resisted appeals for Novruz to be postponed, with the result that devout Shiites were in mourning, while the rest of the country celebrated.


The Azerbaijani media has been following the dispute with interest. Some commentators praise the government's "reforms", while others regard it as the state interfering with citizens' religious lives.


Aliev has defended his campaign, saying, "When the interests of people who go beyond what the law allows are infringed, the attacks grow on the representatives of the state committee."


"Unfortunately religion was dealt a heavy blow back in Soviet times, when holy books were burned and educated clerics were sent into exile," responded Pashazade. "Bureaucrats stood behind all the attacks on mosques and Islam. That is what is happening now."


Nariman Gasymoglu, a well-known theologian who is deputy head of the opposition party the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, sees the quarrel more in terms of power.


"Over time, the outline of the conflict is becoming clear," he said. "The state's increasing control over religion is hurting the Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, because it is reducing its powers. The board feels wounded and that is creating a negative reaction amongst believers as well. The main reasons for the disagreements are deep and are political in nature."


Gasymoglu predicted that the board, which has traditionally been loyal to the government, would face yet more pressure and gradually bow to the new religious policy launched by the state.


Gulnara Mamedzade is a correspondent with Echo newspaper in Baku