(Washington) – United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) expressed frustration with today’s ruling by the Azerbaijan Supreme Court to uphold the eviction of the Juma Mosque community and the continuing harassment of community members.
“The actions of the Azerbaijani Government are shameful and demonstrate real contempt for international human rights norms and OSCE commitments,” said Chairman Smith. “I again call for the government to end this embarrassment, return full control of the mosque to the community and allow them to operate freely. These Soviet-like actions by authorities – harassing and detaining community members and imposing a state-appointed imam at the mosque – must end.”
In March, the Sabial District Court ruled in favor of Baku city authorities’ petition to oust the Juma Mosque community, reportedly citing the community’s lack of any rental agreement or government registration, and arguing 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 and that community was twice registered in the early 1990s. But, the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations, a frequent and vocal critic of the independent mosque, refused to re-register the mosque. A Baku appeals court upheld the eviction on April 22.
When the community gathered on July 30 at a private home to hold prayer services, the police raided the home and arrested all 26 members present, detaining them for two hours. The police colonel overseeing the raid reportedly suggested that if the Juma community meets again, authorities would take stronger actions. In addition, Forum 18 reported that a member of the community was fired from his government job at a hospital for refusing to accept the new leadership of the mosque.
The Juma Mosque, through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights concerning the April eviction. The U.S. Helsinki Commission recently convened a congressional briefing on religious freedom in the Caucasus and the Beckett Fund’s counsel, Eric Rassbach, was among the presenters.
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.