Christians and Muslims both face repression in Azerbaijan

By staff writers
September 22, 2009

The authorities in Azerbaijan are facing allegations of abuse and repression towards both Muslim and Christian groups in the country. A major Sunni mosque has been closed down while Baptists have accused the police of intimidation and violence.

A Sunni imam, Ilham Ibrahimov, said he had “no warning” of the closure of the mosque in Gyanja, Azerbaijan's second city. It had functioned for the last 12 years. State officials arrived to close the mosque on 16 September.

"I asked if they could at least hold off until after the end of Ramadan, but they refused” he said. He added that he had been told that worshippers would be arrested if they tried to pray in the street outside the mosque.

Forum 18, an international NGO working on freedom of religion, described the incident as “the latest in a string of enforced mosque closures on various pretexts over the past year.”

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani police have admitted breaking up a Baptist summer camp for children in the north of the country, but have denied using violence to do so.

"Without the approval of the Prosecutor's Office, they searched church members' personal belongings and cars," an anonymous Baptist told Forum 18, "Crudely using physical force and swearing, they forced church members to take down the tents”. They said that a police officer had beaten up a young man within sight of the children.

However, deputy police chief Elman Mamedov denied the claims, saying "No-one was beaten, no-one was insulted, nothing was confiscated".

He said that the Baptists were barred only from camping on state-owned land, but the camp's organisers say that they were also prevented from moving onto private land owned by a church member.

The law in Azerbaijan requires religious groups to be registered, a system used in a number of countries to control what sort of religion is allowed. Government officials claim that the mosque in Gyanja was not registered, but Imam Ibrahimov says it was registered under the previous “Religion Law” and had applied for registration under the system that replaced it.

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