(Washington) – On Monday, March 1, an Azerbaijani court reportedly ordered the closure of the Juma Mosque in Baku, effectively ousting the community that has worshiped at the historic mosque for over a decade. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and House Ranking Commissioner Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) urged the authorities to intervene to ensure that the ousted community be reinstated and allowed to worship there freely.
“The government’s attempt to close down this mosque and evict its religious community appears to be a page out of Azerbaijan’s communist past,” said Chairman Smith. “I urge the Azerbaijani Government to cease efforts to close the Juma Mosque and return full control to its religious community. Any use of force by authorities against the Juma Mosque community would be most troubling.”
Earlier this year, Baku city authorities sued in the Sabail District Court to oust the Juma Mosque community, reportedly claiming that the community lacked any rental agreement or government registration, and that the 1,000 year-old mosque was a historical site. Government authorities in 1992 returned the Juma Mosque – which during the Soviet period had been converted into a carpet museum – to this community. Registered in 1992 and 1993, the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations, a frequent and vocal critique of the independent mosque, has reportedly refused to re-register the mosque.
“I am concerned that this is nothing more than a land grab dressed up as a legal proceeding,” said Rep. Cardin. “Azerbaijan committed to allow the full and free enjoyment of religious freedom, and this case appears to constitute a breach of those obligations.”
The court reportedly gave the community no timetable to vacate the property, although they have one month to appeal, and it is not clear who will gain control of the mosque. The facility is one of the few mosques operating independently of the Muslim Board of the Caucasus, a Soviet-era Muftiate close to the government that appoints Muslim clerics and monitors Friday sermons. Chairman Smith spoke out against government actions to close the mosque, and the imprisonment of its cleric, Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, on February 5.
There are additional troubling signs for religious freedom in Azerbaijan. Also on March 1, reports indicated that Adventist pastor Khalid Babaev and his family fled the Azerbaijani province of Nakhichevan due to the refusal of police to offer any assistance or protection from death threats they received because of their religious work. The State Department reports that of the estimated 2000 religious groups operating in Azerbaijan, only 199 have re-registered successfully.
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.