01/22/2010, 00.00
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In December, the Azerbaijani authorities banned Shiite faithful from celebrating Ashura

It is a festival for Shiite Muslims. The day of the festival in the region of Nakhichevan, the police invited everyone to go home. In a village they go ahead with celebrations: in the days after the police raided homes making dozens of arrests. Experts say it is an attempt to undermine the strong autonomy of the area.

Baku (AsiaNews/F18) - The authorities of the enclave of Nakhichevan "warned" public servants and students not to celebrate the Shiite Islamic festival of Ashura in the mosque. The festival fell on 26 and 27 December but only in recent days has the agency Forum 18, which is fighting for religious freedom, been informed and denounced abuses and arrests against the Shiite community in the area.

In the village of Bananyar, where this is considered an important religious feast, over 2 thousand residents celebrated Ashura. The next day, December 28, the village was invaded by the police who took away numerous residents, many of whom have been held for days in psychiatric hospitals. Again military from the Interior Ministry returned the night between 4 and 5 January, raiding houses and knocking down the doors to those who did not open, arresting several people and dragging them away in their pyjamas. Residents talk about 150 arrests, with the women freed after 2-3 days and the men a few days later.


Interior Ministry troops left after residents reported the facts to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and it was carried in newspapers, but a close police surveillance remains. Norwegian and U.S. diplomats tried to reach Bananyar January 13, but an unknown group stopped their vehicle and forced them back with threats. On 15 January, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry summoned ambassadors and diplomats accusing them of violating the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Malahat Nasibova, a Muslim human rights activist, celebrated the feast in the mosque in Nakhichevan. He told F18 that there were policemen in uniform, intent on advising young people to go home. By the end the celebration there were "almost exclusively the elderly and women." Even here, the police the day after the feast detained at least 5 people and interrogated them for hours about their participation in the festival of Ashura, some were beaten. Relatives who went to inquire about their wellbeing, were themselves threatened and chased away. Some were detained for several days. The authorities have not explained these operations in any way, in fact, official sources have denied the facts to Forum 18. Experts note that Nakhichevan is located between Armenia, Iran and Turkey and has always acted independently of the central government. This suggests a willingness to strike the powerful local leaders, intimidating their entire community. The area is almost entirely Shiite, and there are approximately 250 mosques in the area, only one is Sunni.


Ashura, which falls on the tenth day of Muharram, is a feast for the Shiite community. The authorities have banned some old customs, such as scourging with rods, as a votive offering. Instead, they have authorized the donation of blood at the larger mosques.


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