3 February 2004
Two false accusations of spreading religious hatred have been made on local TV by the government religious affairs committee, Forum 18 News Service has found. Both those accused – the Protestant Greater Grace Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses - have denied to Forum 18 that they spread hatred, and also denied that they received the official warnings the state committee claimed it had issued. The state committee has spoken of plans to use the courts to liquidate the Jehovah's Witness community. Local media frequently repeat assertions that minority religious communities violate the law, preach religious hatred and have been warned by the state committee, and this creates suspicion of the communities. Police broke up the Greater Grace Church's Sunday School last August, and in 2002 the State Committee used the courts to close down Baku's Azeri-language Baptist church, as well as most of Azerbaijan's madrassahs, or Islamic schools.
2 February 2004
The Muslim community of the 1,000-year old Juma mosque has told Forum 18 News Service that it fears it will be expelled by compliant judges, not the violent police assault originally feared. Local human rights activists from the International Religious Liberty Association, Devamm and the Committee for the Protection of Ilgar Ibragimoglu's Rights have told Forum 18 that they welcome international pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities which, they believe, prevented a violent assault on the mosque. But they fear that expulsion by the tame courts "only looks less aggressive". Muslims from the Juma mosque have told Forum 18 that "the Baptist Church is also persecuted" and note that the Baptist church on Baku's Azadlyq street has not been returned to the church. "It is interesting that it is also intended to be turned into a museum, " the Muslims comment. Along with the Adventists, the Baptists have been the strongest religious supporters of Ibrahimoglu and the Juma mosque.
29 January 2004
Muslims from the 1000-year old Juma mosque in Baku fear the authorities, who want to use it as a carpet museum, will seize the mosque by force on Friday, and the mosque has invited foreign diplomats to be present as neutral observers. Rafik Aliev, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, has said that Muslims must leave the mosque because his committee has not registered them – but his committee has refused to consider the mosque's registration application. Otherwise, Aliev has said that police will remove them by force. Under international human rights conventions that Azerbaijan has signed, the absence of official registration does not give any grounds for this expulsion. The embattled mosque and its religious freedom activist imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who was jailed after a rigged trial, have received strong support from Azerbaijan's Baptist and Adventist churches, as well as from the International Religious Liberty Association.
23 January 2004
In the run-up to the inauguration of new president Mikhail Saakashvili on 25 January, religious minority leaders have told Forum 18 News Service they are waiting to see if the new government will bring religious freedom and a decisive end to the violence against religious minorities that has plagued the country since 1999, and change the law to allow non-Orthodox religious communities to gain legal status. Forum 18 has learnt that senior government leaders have declared privately that Old Calendarist priest Basil Mkalavishvili, responsible for much of the violence against Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, will not be arrested before the rescheduled parliamentary elections on 28 March, despite an outstanding warrant.
21 January 2004
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.
19 January 2004
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."
8 January 2004
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.
9 December 2003
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.
4 December 2003
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.
2 December 2003
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.
26 November 2003
President Shevardnadze's resignation will not bring an immediate improvement in the religious freedom situation, Forum 18 News Service has been told. "Although the new leaders are not interested in supporting religious violence, at the same time I don't think fighting it will be a priority - it is not a popular cause, unfortunately", said Dr Gia Nodia, of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, as well as describing the Baptist role in the protests which led to Shevardnadze's fall, told Forum 18 that new elections will allow more democratic politicians to be elected. "In accordance with the results of the falsified elections, more than half the members of parliament would have been hardliners, including Guram Sharadze and others who had been openly supporting religious terrorism," he stated. Dr Nodia also told Forum 18 that the most influential politicians supporting religious violence and restrictions on minority faiths were allied with the former government. Some religious minorities are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, or are sceptical, pointing to opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili's role as minister of justice when many of the attacks on religious minorities were taking place.
20 November 2003
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.