Azeri Muslims Feel State Far From Friendly

Believers says problems over mosques, headscarves and the Hajj reflect official climate of indifference or hostility.

Azeri Muslims Feel State Far From Friendly

Believers says problems over mosques, headscarves and the Hajj reflect official climate of indifference or hostility.

In Azerbaijan, non-Muslim, Christian communities are allowed to operate freely, whereas the Muslim community for some reason is not.”

So said Haji Gamet Suleimanov, imam of the Abu-Bekr mosque in centre of the capital, Baku. “It’s because the Council of Europe and the Americans are behind the Christians,” he added.

The imam goes on to complain that when believers try to spread Islam, they get arrested as suspect Wahhabi Islamic militants and forced to shave off their beards.

Suleimanov’s mosque has been closed by the authorities since August 2008, when an explosive device was thrown into the building, killing two worshippers and wounded another 18.

The precise motives for this bombing have never been satisfactorily explained, though some believe the attack was linked to the fact that the mosque followed the Sunni tradition – whereas most Azeris are Shia.

The authorities says a radical Muslim group called The Forest Brothers was responsible, and that they have arrested 13 people in connection with the incident and are tracking down other members of the organisation.

But since then, police have refused to allow Suleimanov to reopen the mosque, saying the threat to the building has not been dealt with.

According to one local media outlet, police expect a new attack and the building is under police protection day and night. The imam has been forced to go to court to get permission to unseal the premises.

Meanwhile, he claims the continuing enforced closure of the building reflects officialdom’s indifference or even hostility to Muslim communities.

Like some other Muslim activists in Azerbaijan, he also has little confidence in the state-run Committee for Work with Religious Entities.

“We expected support from the chairman, Hidayat Orujev,” the imam said.

“But he merely said the mosque had not been registered and suggested that people gather for prayers at my home.”

Suleimanov insists that the mosque was registered as far back as 2002.

The imam says that although they repeatedly sought a meeting with Orujev, they got no response.

“I think that a religious organisation should be led by a knowledgeable person,” he said. “But there’s a lack of religious specialists in Azerbaijan.”

As further evidence of official hostility to Muslim believers, the imam cites the ban on people praying in the courtyards of mosques, which he says has caused problems for the parishioners of Abu-Bekr since their mosque was closed.

He says the congregation has been forced to use a small mosque where there is not enough room for everyone to enter all at one time. “Because it is very small, they have to take turns entering it,” he said.

Gyunduz Ismailov, of the committee for religious entities, dismisses the imam’s complaints, saying his claim that the mosque was registered is not entirely correct, either.

Ismailov adds that the government is not in the habit of providing funds for the reconstruction of mosques, churches, synagogues or other places of worship, unless they are buildings of historic importance.

Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, head of the Centre for Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Faith, known by its acronym of DEVAMM, says the overall situation in Azerbaijan has recently improved in terms of freedom of conscience.

However, outstanding problems remain.

One is the overcomplicated law on the registration of Muslim communities, obliging them to seek permission from the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus as part of the registration process.

Ibrahimoglu cited his own experience in this context, as former leader of the Friday Mosque in Baku’s Old City.

“After we registered with the justice ministry in 1992 we were then told we needed also to register with the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus as well,” he recalled.

Meanwhile Ismailov, from the state committee for religious entities, says registration with the board is not in fact compulsory for communities that have registered with the justice ministry.

Aside from this confusion over the precise requirements of registration, another problem cited by the head of DEVAMM is the continuing censorship of all imported religious material.

Ismailov, whose organisation vets foreign religious literature, says it only bans books seen as liable to cause religious divisions or incite religious intolerance and conflicts.

A tiny minority of books is affected, he continues, citing figures from last year. “Of 1,500 religious books expertly assessed in 2008, 59 of them were banned for encouraging religious division and intolerance,” he said.

Ibrahimoglu disagrees, going on to describe the criteria used by the committee to assess imported religious literature as absurd.

“Why only screen religious literature when other books may contain propaganda for terror and division, too?” he asked.

“I once brought in a book entitled Freedom of Religion from Moscow. But the book was not about religious freedom but about freedom in general, and just imagine, they sent the book for evaluation because the word ‘religion’ was on the cover!”

Another controversial issue that irritates some Muslims in Azerbaijan concerns the wearing of the hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

While there is no ban on women wearing the headscarf in public in Azerbaijan, Ibrahimoglu says it is unfair that they are advised not to wear it while being photographed for their passports, as it could make them difficult to identify.

“Citizens from foreign countries can be identified although their ID cards show them in hijabs, so I wonder why our citizens cannot?” he asked.

Ibrahimoglu also maintains he has been banned for preaching in the Friday Mosque for the past five years because of his human rights campaigning.

“DEVAMM had nothing to do with the mosque, nevertheless, all the problems came crushing down on the mosque,” he said.

A case concerning his right to lead worship in the Friday Mosque is now pending before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, according to Ibrahimoglu.

“They allege they offered us an agreement and we refused to accept it,” he said, concerning the authorities. “But it’s not true.”

Ismailov, of the committee for religious entities, says Ibrahimoglu can not lay any claims to the Friday Mosque because the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus has since assigned its own ahund, or head of the mosque, to conduct services there.

Ibrahimoglu says Muslims are also dissatisfied with the way that Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of to Mecca, is run in Azerbaijan.

An effective monopoly granted to the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus prevents healthy competition and keeps prices high, he maintains.

“If a number of companies were allowed to handle it alongside the Board, which is what happens in Turkey, it would be more transparent and cost less,” he said.

Mugaddas Payizov, chief of the board’s department for foreign relations, says the total number of pilgrims coming from one country or another is not their affair.

It is up to Saudi Arabia to issue quotas for the number of pilgrims allowed in from each country. Payizov also insists that the services of private companies, mostly tourist firms, are frequently used in the organisation of the Hajj in Azerbaijan.

But Ibrahimoglu says this form of participation by private firms had not solved the problem, as their status was far lower than that of the board.

“Only if they are vested with the same powers as those enjoyed by the board, will the thing develop,” he said. “Any development is based on competition, and this is something we don’t have.”

Seymur Kazimov is a freelance journalist working in Baku.
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