Prague, 3 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A Baku court this week ordered the evacuation of a mosque that officials in Azerbaijan have long considered a hotbed of anti-government activity.
"The only grievance we have toward this religious community is that it occupies a mosque which is a historical and cultural building and, therefore, is the property of the Culture Ministry."
Officials say the demand to vacate the Cuma mosque is legal. But community leaders claim the move is part of President Ilham Aliyev's drive against all forms of dissent, be it religious or political.
As are most of Azerbaijan's religious communities, the congregation of the Cuma mosque is of the Shi'a Muslim creed. Located in Baku's old town -- also known as Iceri Seher, or the inner city -- the mosque has been the target of government attacks since the 15 October presidential elections that saw Aliyev win a controversial landslide victory.
On the morning after the polls, anti-government militants took to the streets of Baku to protest an overnight police raid on the headquarters of Musavat, Azerbaijan's main opposition party, and election results they say were rigged in favor of Aliyev. Officially, clashes with security forces left one protester dead and several wounded, including many police officers.
Blaming his opponents for the unrest, Aliyev ordered an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent that swept up hundreds of opposition activists and election observers. Around 100 people are still being detained in connection with the October events, pending trial. They face jail sentences of five to eight years.
Among them is Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, the ahund -- or imam -- of the Cuma mosque. Ibrahimoglu, who is also a leading campaigner with Azerbaijan's Center for Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion (DEVAMM), was arrested in early December after the Prosecutor-General's Office summoned him for questioning in a criminal case. The cleric, who a few days earlier had to find shelter at the Norwegian Embassy after a security raid on the mosque, was charged with allegedly helping to organize postelection violence and remanded in pretrial custody for three months.
Azerbaijani officials at the time said Ibrahimoglu was linked to radical Shi'a groups in neighboring Iran. Shortly after his arrest on 16 December 2003, authorities gave the members of the congregation of the Cuma mosque two weeks to stop using the building. But worshippers refused to comply.
In its annual report on global human rights practices released last week, the U.S. State Department cited these recent episodes as evidence of religious discrimination in Azerbaijan. The Council of Europe and a number of Western and domestic nongovernmental groups have expressed similar criticisms. Representatives of Azerbaijan's minority Christian community have also condemned the crackdown against the Cuma congregation.
Nacaf Allahverdiyev is a member of the Azerbaijani chapter of the U.S.-based International Religious Liberty Association and an elder of the Cuma congregation. He is also Ibrahimoglu's brother. He tells our correspondent that government efforts to evict his community from the mosque are part of a deliberate policy to restrict civic liberties.
"It is obvious that certain forces want to close down the mosque and make people believe that it is allegedly linked to some 'external forces,'” he says. “All this is being done with the single purpose of blackening Ilqar Ibrahimoglu's name. He has been kept in custody for three months now for monitoring religious freedom [in Azerbaijan], and the authorities are trying to shut his mouth because he is a leading defender of religious freedom."
A new order to vacate the Cuma mosque was issued on 1 March by the Sebail district court in Baku. Reading the verdict, chief judge Yusif Kerimov said the decision came into force immediately.
"Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, [DEVAMM chairman] Azer Ramizoglu and other members of the religious community of the Cuma mosque are ordered to vacate the building located in Zeynali Street in Baku's Iceri Seher. The verdict will be implemented immediately," Kerimov said.
But as of yesterday, the Cuma mosque had still not been vacated. Allahverdiyev said worshippers were able to perform the Ashura ceremonies that commemorate the passion of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the seventh century. He also said officials of the American and Norwegian embassies visited the area surrounding the mosque in an effort to prevent possible police intervention.
The order to evacuate the mosque follows a legal suit filed by a cultural association known as Iceri Seher. The group claims the Cuma mosque -- which has a 15th-century minaret -- is a historical building and should be closed to the public.
Last November, authorities resorted to a similar strategy to obtain the closure of Musavat Party headquarters, saying the building was of special architectural interest and should not be let out to tenants. Musavat has been one of the main targets of the political repression that followed the October presidential elections.
Addressing reporters outside the Sebail court on 1 March, Allahverdiyev said worshippers will appeal the decision to evacuate the Cuma mosque and, if need be, peacefully resist forced expulsion.
"All this scandal around the Cuma mosque has been planned. The verdict read by the judge shows that, once again, a court is holding a sentence that has been decided in advance. One can conclude that, regretfully, Azerbaijan is going backward with regard to religious freedom. We will not let us be mixed up in any kind of provocation. However, we the faithful will not hesitate to use our constitutional rights. If any form of violence is used against us, we will not react by using the same methods. We will only pray," Allahverdiyev said.
Congregation leaders claim the Baku city authorities are considering turning the Cuma mosque into a carpet museum.
As in the rest of the Soviet Union, most of Azerbaijan's religious buildings were turned into depots, movie theaters, or museums in the 1920s and '30s. They were returned to worshippers only after the Caspian Sea nation regained independence in the early 1990s.
Rafiq Aliyev chairs Azerbaijan's Religious Affairs Committee, the state body that oversees religious activity in the country. He dismisses as "disinformation" the allegations that the Cuma mosque will be turned into a museum and says the government has no plans to close down the building. However, he tells RFE/RL the mosque may not be returned to the Cuma congregation.
"To vacate the mosque does not mean that it will be closed down. We are talking about vacating a building that is being illegally occupied. Whether we're talking about a mosque or any other sort of building, people who illegally occupy it must leave. What we are proposing is that [worshippers] vacate the mosque, register themselves, and file an application to occupy this building again," Aliyev said.
Aliyev justifies the court's decision by saying the Cuma mosque is the property of the Culture Ministry, which reportedly never authorized religious rituals to be performed within its walls.
"The only grievance we have toward this religious community is that it occupies a mosque which is a historical and cultural building and, therefore, is the property of the Culture Ministry. The court decision [that was made on 1 March] aims solely at sorting out this situation and legalizing the presence of a religious community at the Cuma mosque. [Once again], we've never considered closing down the mosque," Aliyev said.
Aliyev also says the Cuma congregation never applied to his committee for re-registration in line with the law on religion and may therefore face prosecution.
But Allahverdiyev dismisses claims his community is violating the law and is occupying the Cuma mosque illegally. He says he has documents showing the Sebail district authorities returned the building to worshippers in 1992 and that, one year later, the Cuma congregation was duly registered by the Justice Ministry.
(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)