When protesters tried to stop the demolition of a Baku mosque in April, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev stepped in and decided to appoint a special commission to look into the issue.
“Taking into account the reaction of believers, the head of state gave directions to halt demolition of the mosque, comprehensively investigate the situation, evaluate the technical conditions of the building and submit relevant proposals,” senior Aliyev adviser Ali Hasanov said at the time. Aliyev even fired the local district administrator for his "unauthorized" decision to tear down the mosque, Haji Javad, built in 1912.
On July 1, Hasanov said that the commission had reached its conclusions: "President Aliyev, taking into account the opinion of the local community, took the decision to build a new mosque and only afterwards revisit the question of the demolition of Haji Javad."
But that same evening, under cover of night, the mosque was torn down.
"Last time, in April, our brothers gathered together and didn't allow them to tear down the mosque," one congregant told the news website Caucasian Knot. "Now the authorities decided to do it quickly at night and present us with a fait accompli."
The mosque's members also complained that the new mosque isn't really a replacement for Haji Javad, as it will be located four or five kilometers from the neighborhood. "You have to understand that we had a religious community here, we grieved and celebrated together, we helped those in need, held funerals, paid for medication and so on," another congregant told Caucasian Knot. "The new mosque is being built far away, and the clerics won't be the same, they'll be appointed by the Caucasus Muslim Board," the state agency that regulates religion in Azerbaijan.
A cynic might suggest that there may be more behind the timing of the demolition. Aliyev's decision to get involved was an unusual degree of concern given to a public protest, but the demonstration came at an awkward time, just a month before the kickoff of the Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku. And the government didn't want any bad press about Islam.
“Aliyev is really scared of possible resistance of Shias," said Altay Goyushev, a historian and prominent public intellectual in Azerbaijan, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org ahead of the games. "That is why he immediately reacted as if he was not aware” of the issue, he added. “They do not want to have this problem – I mean noisy discussions about a mosque’s destruction, just before the Games.”
Now that the games are over, the government took care of another awkward bit of business. On July 3, a court sentenced a Shia cleric to three years in prison for the crime of preaching while having received a religious education abroad. The arrest of the cleric, Sardar Babayev, in February also spurred Islamic Games-focused protests.
“The country is preparing to host the Islamic Solidarity Games,” said one Shia activist, Hadjiaga Nuriyev, at an April event in support of Babayev. “And it will be shameful when these guests from Muslim countries come and learn that in Azerbaijan religious figures are arrested because they performed Muslim rites in a mosque.”
Fortunately for Baku, all those Muslim guests are gone now.