Baku may have the designation of this year's "Capital of Islamic Culture," but a recent series of mosque closures and fresh requirements for registration of religious organizations has prompted concern about how Azerbaijan is living up to its title.
Over the past month, police have closed or torn down mosques in various Baku neighborhoods for reasons ranging from electricity repairs to alleged construction irregularities. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the 57-member intergovernmental body that designated Baku as its "Capital of Islamic Culture" for 2009, has not commented on the government's actions.
The latest mosque to close, Ilahiyyat, located on the campus of Baku State University, was shut down "temporarily" for reportedly never having registered with the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO). Prior to the closure, university administrators complained that classes were regularly disrupted by the azaan, or call to prayer, and the subsequent arrival of thousands of worshippers.
The mosque was constructed in 1992 by the Presidency of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, an organization that builds mosques in post-Soviet Turkic countries. Muzeffer Shahin, religious affairs advisor at the Turkish Embassy in Baku, disputed Azerbaijani authorities' contention that the mosque had been constructed "illegally," the APA news service reported.
Another Turkish-built mosque, Shahidlyar, next to Martyrs' Lane, was shut down for "repairs" on the eve of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's May 13 visit to Baku. The abrupt action, taken amid rising bilateral tension over Turkey's creeping rapprochement with Armenia, prompted some Baku residents to assume the decision was a tit-for-tat expression of displeasure over Ankara's political dialogue with Yerevan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The State Committee on Work with Religious Organizations has since repeated that the mosque will reopen once repairs are complete.
Officials expressed similar concerns for building methods and property regulations to justify the destruction of two mosques. On May 11, authorities tore down a mosque located on the Oily Rocks, an offshore drilling settlement; the reason was to ensure worshippers' "safety" since the mosque allegedly had been constructed "on clay." And on April 26, police used bulldozers to tear down the Prophet Mohammed mosque; its imam was accused of having constructed the house of worship on land that belongs to the State Economic University.
Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, an imam and head of the Centre for Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Faith, asserts that Azerbaijani leaders are suffering from what he described as "mosque-phobia."
"A state body that is supposed to protect the rights of believers instead is imposing a police regime," Ibrahimoglu contended. "It is inconceivable to call God's home an 'illegal' place."
Ibrahimoglu has an extended history as a government critic. In 2004, authorities evicted worshipers from the Juma mosque in Baku, where he was the imam. His supporters at the time said the government's action was politically motivated. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The start of authorities' "mosque-phobia" can be traced to August 2008, when an explosion at Baku's Abu-Bakur mosque killed two worshippers and injured another 19, Ibrahimoglu said. The mosque was shut down, and city police subsequently stepped up their presence around other mosques, particularly during Friday prayers.
Gunduz Ismaylov, chief of the SCWRO's department responsible for interacting with religious organizations, rejected Ibrahimoglu's allegations. "There is no reason to politicize the situation and create a stir around these closures," Ismaylov said. "Some of them were illegally constructed structures."
Ibrahimoglu argues that the mosque closures are part of a larger picture. Recent amendments to the 1992 Law on Freedom of Conscience, adopted by parliament on May 8, would hinder the registration of religious organizations and simplify their closures, he charged. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has yet to sign the amendments into law.
Before registering with the SCWRA, Muslim groups now need to receive a letter of approval from the Caucasus Muslim Board, a state-associated body that appoints Muslim clerics to mosques and monitors sermons. All religious groups will have to be re-registered by September 2009 in accordance with this requirement.
Religious groups also must submit information about their founders' citizenship, residence, date of birth, religious doctrine, traditions, official duties, attitude towards family, marriage and education, as well as details about any restrictions put on their members. The group can function only at the address given for their registration. This appears to indicate that any activity outside such venues will be regarded as illegal.
Ibrahimoglu contends that the new requirements would contradict international practice. SCWRO representatives counter that the amendments were dictated by the threefold increase in the number of religious organizations functioning in Azerbaijan (534) since the committee began registering such groups in 2001. Once the current re-registration is complete, "the number of religious communities will double," argued Ismaylov.
"If a religious community's activity is in accordance with both national legislation and society's interests, why should we not register it?" he asked.
Rabiyyat Aslanova, the head of parliament's Committee on Human Rights, said that the law needs to be amended to ensure "state security" and "to prevent harmful missionary activity."
"Some religious sects that are banned in Europe are freely operating in Azerbaijan," she declared during a May 8 parliamentary session without mentioning the names of suspect groups. "We will ban the activity of groups spreading the propaganda of violence . . . [as well as those that are] against the principles of humanity and human dignity."
Ibrahimoglu rejects such arguments. "It should not be allowed to suppress freedom of conscience for the sake of state security."
Mina Miradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.