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Page last updated at 01:17 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Azeris speak out on mosque closures

In Azerbaijan a number of Muslim clerics are speaking out against the government's decision to close certain mosques. The closures come just five months after a new law on religion came into effect.

The government says the law is designed to make following Islam and other faiths easier in a secular state. But, as Tom Esslemont reports, critics say it is an over-reaction to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Akhli Sunni Mosque, Ganca
The Akhli Sunni Mosque was closed soon after Azerbaijan's parliament passed its Law on Religious Freedom in May this year

The Akhli Sunni Mosque in the city of Ganca is firmly shut.

There are paper seals on the large wooden doors, preventing anyone from entering. It has been that way ever since it was closed by the authorities in September.

The closure came soon after Azerbaijan's parliament passed its Law on Religious Freedom in May this year, banning anyone who received their education abroad from leading religious worship.

The government has also insisted that all religious groups must re-register.

The authorities say the Ganca mosque has been closed for restoration. One of its members, Vidady Abasov, who said he had spent some time in Central Asia, says that is nonsense.

"They closed our mosque just after the new law came in," he says, gesticulating. "It made us angry. Why did they do it?

"The fact is that they don't like us because we have spent some time abroad. They think we are too radical."

Now, as the mosque's muezzin, the only place where he can perform the call to prayer is in his own back garden.

Without a minaret, he performs the enchanting ritual surrounded by apple trees.

It is not just Vidady Abasov and his supporters who have raised concerns. The US state department says it is aware of three separate mosque closures in Azerbaijan.

In its International Religious Freedom Report 2009, it noted that there was "some deterioration in the status of respect for religious freedom by the [Azerbaijani] government... There were changes to the constitution that undermined religious freedom."

'Growing threat'

So what lies behind the allegations?

In adopting the new law on religion, the Azerbaijani government says it has had to react to the growing threat of Wahhabism - a strict form of Sunni Islam.

Vidady Abasov
Vidady Abasov doesn't know when his mosque will reopen

The threat of extremism has worried the leaders of a rapidly-growing economy reliant on its vast reserves of oil and gas.

In October this year, an Azerbaijani court jailed two Lebanese men for plotting to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku. According to officials, the prosecution linked the pair to Lebanese Hezbollah and the "al-Qaeda network".

In 2007 the authorities announced they had thwarted an attack on oil installations and the US and British embassies by a "radical Wahhabi group".

In 2008, a grenade was thrown into the building of the Salafi Abu Bakr Mosque, killing two worshippers.

A radical Islamist group known as Forest Brothers, which is said to have roots in the Russian region of Dagestan in the northern Caucasus, was blamed for the attack and its trial is ongoing.

The government says radicalisation is continuing inside the Abu Bakr community, but its members say that, on the contrary, they were targeted because they are not radical enough.

In the late afternoon, the streets around the Abu Bakr mosque are quiet. Its gate, too, is locked.

The mosque's Imam, Gamet Suleymanov - still a prominent figure in the community - says the allegation of radicalism is ridiculous.

"There is no extremism here, and we reject the label of radical Wahhabis often put on us," he says. "We are Salafis, not Wahhabis."

He warns the government that if they continue to try to prevent his community from praying in the mosque it could cause ill-feeling and spread radicalism rather than prevent it.

'Roots in 9/11'

Mr Suleymanov's concern is echoed by critics of the government across the country.

They say the government is exaggerating the threat of Islamic extremism to tighten controls on religion and to restrict freedom of expression.

Hidayat Orujov, Minister for Works with Religious Associations
People don't want us to be another Chechnya, Dagestan or Ingushetia
Hidayat Orujov
Minister for Works with Religious Associations

Anar Valiyev, an independent analyst based in Baku, says the roots of the new policy go back to "the 2001 George W Bush doctrine and the War on Terror".

"Definitely there were extremist organisations existing in Azerbaijan," he says. "They were mostly liquidated. And at some point the law enforcement agencies couldn't stop.

"You had public figures coming out and saying Wahhabis are terrorists and it was just to put a negative image on the whole religion."

Azerbaijan has frequently said it fears extremism will spread across its borders from places like Dagestan to the north, where an Islamist insurgency is taking place. And that is why - under the new law - its government has taken steps to monitor and control who leads religious practice.

Hidayat Orujov, the Minister for Works with Religious Associations, says: "We have been faced with the problem of radicalism and it continues... People don't want us to be another Chechnya, Dagestan or Ingushetia."

Paradox

There is talk of a revival of Islam in Azerbaijan, a secular state.

Teze Pir mosque, Baku
The practice of Islam is said to be on the rise in Azerbaijan

Official statistics put at 90% the number of Muslims in Azerbaijan. The country's population stands at 8.2 million and, although only a small percentage practises the religion, it is said to be growing.

If you look around Baku you can see that the government-affiliated Caucasus Muslim Board is approving the restoration of several mosques.

The recently renovated Teze Pir mosque has a huge green dome with intricately painted arches.

The paradox - seen in the closure of mosques on the one hand, with the restoration of bigger mosques on the other - has led critics to suggest the authorities are designing a brand of Islam it can tolerate.

Mr Orujov disputes the claim. "This is not a special brand of Islam," he says. "We simply want there to be a freedom of conscience in Azerbaijan."

Six hours' drive away in the city of Ganca, Vidady Abasov says he doesn't know when his mosque will reopen.

In the pink light of the setting sun, he is still praying fervently in his garden.

He feels mistreated. And he and others like him now support the notion that security should not come at the expense of tolerance.



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