AZERBAIJAN: Turkish Imams' Agreement 'Nothing To Do With Muslim Board'.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 March 2002

A new agreement due to be signed "in the very near future" over Turkish imams who will work in mosques subject to the Caucasian Muslim Board is "nothing to do with the Muslim Board", a leading official of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations has insisted. "It is an inter-state agreement between the Azerbaijani state, represented by the State Committee, and the Turkish state, represented by the Religion Ministry," Samed Bairamzade, head of the department for relations with religious groups, told Keston News Service by telephone from Baku on 26 March. He stressed that the Muslim Board was simply a "social organisation" and for that reason was not involved. Asked whether this did not represent state interference in an internal decision for the Muslim community over which the Muslim Board might be unhappy, he responded: "We are not concerned with the views of other organisations."

Keston tried to seek the views of the Muslim Board, but Haji Akif Agaev, deputy chairman of the Board, was out of Baku on 27 and 28 March and unavailable by telephone. No other official was prepared to comment.

Asked what the new agreement will cover, Bairamzade said it would "clarify the status of Turkish imams". Asked why the State Committee believed it was the role of the state to handle this, rather than the Muslim Board, he responded: "Above all these imams are foreign citizens. We have a passport and visa system here, so it is a matter for the state."

Although there have been reports that the number of imams from Turkey permitted to work in Azerbaijan will be reduced under the new agreement (see KNS 14 March 2002, which wrongly implied that the agreement had already been signed), Bairamzade declined to say how many Turkish imams will be invited under the new agreement. "There are about 15 from Turkey currently working as deputy imams in Azerbaijan's mosques. The new agreement is still being discussed, so we do not know exactly what it will say, and at present the old agreement is still valid."

Bairamzade did not sound enthusiastic about the role of Turkish imams, declaring that they would remain in the country "only as long as Azerbaijan needs their advice and help" and indicating that their primary responsibility in mosques would not be leading prayers but education. (END)