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(Washington) - Helsinki Commission Chairman, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), today expressed his concern about efforts by Azerbaijani authorities to close the Juma Mosque in Baku. Members reportedly fear that the government will soon seize control of the mosque, either by force or through illegitimate judicial proceedings.
“I am seriously concerned about reported actions of the General Prosecutor’s Office to close the Juma Mosque in Baku’s old town, while attempting to expropriate full control from mosque leaders to the Muslim Board of the Caucasus,” said Chairman Smith. “I urge President Ilham Aliev and government authorities to allow the Juma Mosque to operate independently and freely.”
The Juma Mosque, converted into a carpet museum during the Soviet period, was returned to the Islamic community by the authorities in 1992 and registered in 1992 and 1993. The facility is reportedly the only mosque operating independently from the Muslim Board, a Soviet-era Muftiate that appoints Muslim clerics and monitors Friday sermons.
In addition, authorities jailed the Juma Mosque’s imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, on December 3, 2003 in the Bayil investigation prison, pending the outcome of a trial for his alleged connection to demonstrations following last October’s flawed presidential elections. Mr. Ibrahimoglu also serves as chairman of the Azerbaijani chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association, a well respected, non-sectarian organization based in the Washington, DC area.
“The imprisonment of Mr. Ibrahimoglu, coupled with government efforts to close his mosque, represents a serious breach of OSCE commitments on religious freedom,” added Smith. “I urge the government to unconditionally release Mr. Ibrahimoglu and allow him to resume his religious duties.”
Other religious groups are increasingly experiencing problems in Azerbaijan. Reportedly, authorities have denied registration under questionable circumstances to the Baptist community in Neftchala, the Greater Grace Protestant church in Ismaili, and Protestant churches in Sumgait. In addition, reports of police raids on religious communities and their members continue to arise. On August 31, 2003, for example, the Nasimi district police office in Baku broke up a meeting of Greater Grace Protestant Church because it was allegedly “illegal.” In July of 2003, police raided a Baptist church in Gyanja and two members received heavy fines.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.