2 August 2004
The policeman responsible for breaking up a Muslim prayer service in a private home, Colonel Chingiz Mamedov, has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that Muslims cannot hold prayer services at home. Asked by Forum 18 why believers of any faith cannot meet in homes for worship, he said that the meeting was in a basement with no running water, and then put the phone down. This is the latest attack on members of the Juma Mosque and its religious freedom activist imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, whose mosque was taken over after an attack by police. Colonel Mamedov threatened the home owner where the prayer meeting happened that if the mosque community met there again, "it would be worse for him".
22 July 2004
Two weeks after police forcibly occupied Baku's historic Juma Mosque and handed it over to a new imposed leadership, one of the mosque community has been fired from his hospital job for refusing to accept the new leadership. Zeynal A. signed a statement that he was voluntarily resigning as "he was threatened that if he did not sign he would face more serious problems and he now fears further persecution," Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the imam removed by the authorities, told Forum 18 News Service. The authorities have long disliked imam Ibrahimoglu for his defence of the religious freedom of both Christians and Muslims. In a related move yesterday (21 July), the Supreme Court upheld the stripping of registration from a charity run by Ibrahimoglu, Islam-Ittihad. The head of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan, Ilya Zenchenko, said that for the past three years the Justice Ministry has refused to register human rights organisations and expressed his support for the Juma Mosque community. "All who sincerely follow God in Azerbaijan are persecuted," he told Forum 18.
7 July 2004
In the wake of the police swoop on the Juma mosque in Baku's Old City on 30 June, 27 community members were detained and most were fined before being freed, mosque imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev told Forum 18 News Service on 7 July. He said four had been beaten in detention. He was particularly offended by the detention and interrogation on 5 July of eleven women, who were then fined. "It is an insult to arrest Muslim women," he complained. The community is still being denied access to the mosque. "We have been deprived of the right to meet collectively in God's house." Baptist pastor Ilya Zenchenko and Adventist pastor Yahya Zavrichko offered their support to the community. "The seizure of the mosque was unjust and a violation of their rights," Zenchenko told Forum 18.
5 July 2004
Police forcibly interrupted the prayers of imam Adil Huseinov - a colleague of Juma mosque imam and religious freedom activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu - and three other Muslims, and detained all four overnight. Muslims consider it to be sacrilegious to interrupt prayers, but the start of prayers was the signal for the police to move in. The police also acted offensively in failing to remove their boots and weapons before entering the mosque, as Islam requires. Imam Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 News Service that all four were beaten, threatened and insulted before being released this morning. However police then seized five other community members arriving for prayers this morning (5 July) and are still holding them.
2 July 2004
AZERBAIJAN: Juma mosque stolen by police, community refused access for worship, and new imam imposed
Following Wednesday's police attack on Baku's Juma mosque community and its religious freedom activist imam, in which an attempt to impose a new imam failed, Forum 18 News Service has ascertained that the police have now seized control of the 1,000 year old mosque, imposed a new imam against the will of Muslims who worship there, and are refusing to allow the existing mosque community to use their own mosque for prayers and other religious activities. The mosque community has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, following previous attacks on their religious freedom by the authorities.
30 June 2004
Police today have twice forcibly expelled Muslims from a 1,000 year old Baku mosque that the authorities want to turn into a carpet museum, and tried to impose a new Imam on the community. However, community members were allowed back into the mosque for afternoon prayers, before being expelled again. The police attack was observed by Ambassador Steinar Gil of the Royal Norwegian Embassy, as well as diplomats from the British and US embassies, as well as the OSCE. Ambassador Gil told Forum 18 that the Muslims "behaved very calmly and with restraint, doing nothing to provoke further violence", and other witnesses told Forum 18 News Service that the police beat some community members up. The authorities' attempt to impose their own imam on the mosque community failed. The current imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, is strongly disliked by the authorities for his religious freedom and human rights campaigning for Christians and Muslims.
10 June 2004
Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan – which threatens to spread in Central Asia and elsewhere - is largely the result of government repression and lack of democracy, Azerbaijani scholar and translator of the Koran Nariman Gasimoglu, head of the Center for Religion and Democracy http://addm.az.iatp.net/ana.html in Baku and a former Georgetown University (USA) visiting scholar, argues in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. Extremist Islamist groups, like the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, which do not yet enjoy widespread support, have been strengthened by repression while moderate Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered. The best, if not the only way to counter religious extremism, Gasimoglu maintains, is to open up society to religious freedom for all, democracy, and free discussion – even including Islamist groups. This is the only way, he argues, of depriving Islamic extremism of support by revealing the reality of what extremism in power would mean.
9 June 2004
Although Tajikistan permits Muslim women to wear the hijab, or head and neck scarf, for international passport photos, it normally does not permit this for internal identity documents. Many Muslims think that it is unacceptable for a woman to be photographed without wearing a hijab, so many Muslim women, especially in very devout Muslim areas, do not have an internal identity document. Pulat Nurov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 News Service that this insistence on photographs without hijabs has caused problems, but claims that only a "very small percentage" of Muslim women regard this demand as "unacceptable". He also told Forum 18 that his committee has persuaded the police to make exceptions to the general rule in individual cases.
20 May 2004
Adventist Pastor Khalid Babaev – forced by death threats out of Nakhichevan in February – was fined on 20 May in Sumgait, an industrial city near the capital Baku, for leading a congregation without registration. "They failed to register their place of worship," the local police officer told Forum 18 News Service, though he was unable to say which law requires this. A week earlier, two Adventist pastors in Gyanja were fined for failing to register their place of residence in the city. "We don't agree with these fines," Adventist leader Pastor Yahya Zavrichko told Forum 18. "All we want is to be able to function freely." Local officials are also seeking information about the Baku congregation in an apparent bid to step up pressure.
27 April 2004
Politicians in the breakaway unrecognised republic of Abkhazia have told Forum 18 News Service that the Jehovah's Witnesses will continue to be banned. "If they won't defend their families, why should they have the freedom to practice their faith?" asked Valera Zantaria, making it clear that the ban was because of the Jehovah's Witnesses refusal of military service. Also unable to function is the Georgian Orthodox Church, whose members have to travel out of Abkhazia to the Georgian city of Zugdidi for services. Although the Catholic church can function in Abkhazia, access for priests has become difficult because Russian border guards refuse to let them through. Lutherans and unregistered Baptists are also allowed to function, one unregistered Baptist Pastor telling Forum 18 that conditions for their people are better in Abkhazia than in Georgia, with preaching permitted "once the authorities had established they were not Jehovah's Witnesses."
26 April 2004
The official responsible for carrying out a court order to expel Muslims from the 1,000 year old Juma mosque, which the authorities want to turn into a carpet museum, has told Forum 18 News Service that the task will be unpleasant, but that he will carry out the expulsion. Ambassador Steinar Gil of the Royal Norwegian Embassy has condemned the decision, saying it "violates the letter and the spirit of international conventions Azerbaijan has signed up to", adding that he found it hard to determine what the authorities hope to achieve by expelling the community. Ambassador Gil also pointed out that the Juma Mosque is led by Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who is disliked by the authorities and has been given a suspended five-year jail sentence for his human rights and religious freedom work for Christians and Muslims. The Imam today (26 April) told Forum 18 that he has resumed his human rights and religious freedom activity.
19 April 2004
ARMENIA: Council of Europe fails to punish commitment violations over imprisoned conscientious objectors
With 24 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison for refusing military service on grounds of conscience, another fined and a further three awaiting trial, Council of Europe officials have been unable to explain to Forum 18 News Service what punishment Armenia faces – if any - for violating its commitments to the organisation. The commitments required Armenia to have freed all imprisoned conscientious objectors and introduced alternative service by January 2004, but it failed on both counts. One outsider involved in the issue at the Council of Europe, who preferred not to be identified, told Forum 18 that the Armenian government had deployed "an especially successful lobbying campaign" to have the issue buried. The Jehovah's Witnesses, one of Armenia's largest religious minorities, appear no nearer to receiving state registration.