Great banners across Baku’s streets celebrate the city’s role as “Islamic Culture Capital 2009”, but away from the gaze of visiting delegates, Azerbaijan’s authorities have taken a tough stance on Muslims who dare to worship without their permission.
On 11 May, Salman Aliev, a 50-year-old oil worker, said he was witness to the destruction of a mosque on the Oil Rocks, an offshore drilling settlement built on stilts and rock where 5,000 men work surrounded by the Caspian Sea.
“In the morning I heard this loud noise of machines from the direction of the mosque. When I got there, I saw how the wall of the mosque was being destroyed with a crane,” he said.
The mosque had been a well-built two-storey structure, with a minaret, a dome and air-conditioning but, while Aliev watched, the workers reduced it to a pile of rubble.
“They were not doing this because they wanted to. There was an order from the management, and so as to not lose their jobs they did this,” he said.
Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR said the destruction of the mosque was necessary for technical reasons, while the State Committee for Working with Religious Organisations, GKRR, issued a statement saying the mosque had been built without permission. The religious organisation that built the mosque, it said, had not undergone state registration.
Although the flashy website promoting Baku this year as the Islamic culture capital boasts that Azerbaijan enjoys complete religious tolerance, the destruction of this and another mosque in the last two months has led some to accuse the government of clinging onto the Soviet system of keeping a close watch on believers.