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Chairman Smith Outraged over Azerbaijan’s Seizure of Juma Mosque

Washington – United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today expressed outrage over a Wednesday morning seizure by Azerbaijani authorities of the independent Juma Mosque in Baku, where police reportedly beat some worshipers before taking control of the place of worship.

“The government’s forcible eviction of this peaceful Islamic community is an outrage,” said Chairman Smith, “no charges should be brought against the mosque’s leadership.”  The Juma Mosque community operated freely for nearly 10 years until its leader dared to speak out against the repressive policies of the Azerbaijani Government.  “These Soviet-style tactics demonstrate the government is determined to control individuals’ religious beliefs and ignore internationally recognized standards of religious freedom, including OSCE commitments,” Chairman Smith observed.

Agence France Presse reported Wednesday, “Worshippers said they were kicked and punched as police burst in during morning prayers at the Juma mosque in the capital, Baku, one of the country’s few mosques to remain outside strict state control.”

“These actions represent a serious breach in Azerbaijan’s human rights commitments and further tarnishes its international reputation,” said Chairman Smith. “Government violence against religious communities harkens back to the darker, Soviet days of Azerbaijan’s history.  The government should allow for religious freedom and permit the Juma Mosque congregation to worship and operate free from government control.”

Earlier this year, Baku city authorities successfully sued 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 an 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, and registered it in 1992 and 1993.  However, the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations has reportedly refused to re-register the mosque.  Before the seizure, Azerbaijani authorities visited the mosque several times in June threatening closure of the worship site.  Helsinki Commission Members denounced Azeri Government tactics in March as a “land grab dressed up as a legal proceeding.”

Government actions have not been limited to the mosque.  During the raid on Wednesday morning, police aided the unilateral installation of a new imam appointed by the Muslim Board of the Caucasus, a Soviet-era Muftiate close to the government, to replace the community’s leader, Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu.  Authorities had jailed Imam Ibrahimoglu in December 2003 on charges related to his alleged connection to demonstrations following last October’s flawed presidential elections.  He was released in early April after receiving a five-year suspended sentence. 

In addition to congressional actions, other governments and NGOs have often expressed concerned.  In April, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, noting that the Azerbaijani Government was threatening to use force to expel the Juma Mosque congregation “in retaliation for the pro-democracy, pro-human rights, and pro-religious freedom activities of its leadership.”

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