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Approximately 93.4 to 96 percent of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim. The rest of the population adheres to other faiths or are non-religious, although they are not officially represented. Among the Muslim majority, religious observance varies and Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity rather than religion; however, many imams reported increased attendance at mosques during 2003. The Muslim population is approximately 85% Shi'a and 15% Sunni; differences traditionally have not been defined sharply. Most Shias are adherents of orthodox Ithna Ashari school of Shi'a Islam. Other traditional religions or beliefs that are followed by many in the country are the orthodox Sunni Islam, the Armenian Apostolic Church (in Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), the Russian Orthodox Church, and various Christian sects. Traditionally villages around Baku and Lenkoran region are considered stronghold of Shi'ism. In some northern regions, populated by Sunni Dagestani (Lezghian) people, the Salafi movement gained great following. Folk Islam is widely practiced but there is little evidence of an organized Sufi movement.
There are fairly sizable expatriate Christian and Muslim communities in the capital city of Baku; authorities generally permit these groups to worship freely.
In the sixteenth century, the first shah of the Safavid Dynasty, Ismail I (r. 1486-1524), established Shi'a Islam as the state religion, although a portion of people remained Sunni. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, the two branches of Islam came into conflict in Azerbaijan. Enforcement of Shi'a Islam as the state religion brought contention between the Safavid rulers of Azerbaijan and the ruling Sunnis of the neighboring Ottoman Empire.
In the nineteenth century, many Sunni Muslims emigrated from Russian-controlled Azerbaijan because of Russia's series of wars with their coreligionists in the Ottoman Empire. Thus, by the late nineteenth century, the Shi'a population was in the majority in Russian Azerbaijan. Antagonism between the Sunnis and the Shi'a diminished in the late nineteenth century as Azerbaijani nationalism began to emphasize a common Turkic heritage and opposition to Iranian religious influences.
There is also a small Jewish community in Azerbaijan. There are three sinagogues in Baku and a few in the provinces. Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade has donated USD 40,000 for construction of Jewish House in Baku in 2000.
Azerbaijan is a secular country. A survey estimated the proportion of ardent believers in Azerbaijan at close to 7 percent, slightly more than the number of declared atheists — almost 4 percent — with the largest numbers falling into the category of those who consider Islam above all as a way of life, without strict observance of prohibitions and requirements, or as a fundamental part of national identity.
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Before Soviet power was established, about 2,000 mosques were active in Azerbaijan. Most mosques were closed in the 1930s, then some were allowed to reopen during World War II. The Soviet rule promoted an Azerbaijani national consciousness as a substitute for identification with the world Islamic community.
In the 1980s only two large and five smaller mosques held services in Baku, and only eleven others were operating in the rest of the country. Supplementing the officially sanctioned mosques were thousands of private houses of prayer and many secret Islamic sects.
Gradually, during the Soviet imperial twilight, signs of religious reawakening not only multiplied but surfaced into the open. According to Soviet sources, during the late 1970s around 1,000 clandestine houses of prayer were in use, and some 300 places of pilgrimage were identifiable. This growth proved the prelude to the public openings of hundreds of mosques in the following decade.
During World War II, Soviet authorities established the Muslim Spiritual Board of Transcaucasia in Baku as the governing body of Islam in the Caucasus, in effect reviving the nineteenth century tsarist Muslim Ecclesiastical Board. During the tenures of Leonid I. Brezhnev and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Moscow encouraged Muslim religious leaders in Azerbaijan to visit and host foreign Muslim leaders, with the goal of advertising the freedom of religion and superior living conditions reportedly enjoyed by Muslims under Soviet communism.
Beginning in the late Gorbachev period, and especially after independence, the number of mosques rose dramatically. Many were built with the support of other Islamic countries, such as Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, which also contributed Qur'ans and religious instructors to the new Muslim states. A Muslim seminary has also been established since 1991. After independence, the laws regarding religion are quite clear. In Article 6 of the constitution, Azerbaijan is declared a secular state. This point is driven home in Article 19 with the statement of the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions before the law as well as the secular character of the state educational system.
Secular politicians in Azerbaijan have raised concerns about the rise of political Islam, but others argue that Islam in Azerbaijan is a multifaceted phenomenon. Islam plays only a very limited role in the political sphere and only a small part of the population supports the idea of establishing an Islamic order. This is due to the long tradition of secularism in Azerbaijan and to the fact that the nationalistic opposition movement is secular in character. Yet, according to some analysts, on the longer run, if the politicians do not manage to improve the conditions of life of the vast majority of the people, the population may express its discontent through political Islam.
A current center of conservative Shia Islam, is the settlement of Nardaran, near Baku renowned for its 13-century shrine.
A survey estimated the proportion of ardent believers in Azerbaijan at close to 7 percent, slightly more than the number of declared atheists — almost 4 percent — with the largest numbers falling into the category of those who consider Islam above all as a way of life, without strict observance of prohibitions and requirements, or as a fundamental part of national identity.
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There is a certain rise of religious extremism across the Azerbaijan as a result of continued problems such as corruption, poverty, and semi-authoritarian government rule, combined with disillusionment with the West and support of religious sects from different countries. However there's a very limited support for radical Islam in Azerbaijan. According to Svante Cornell:
Azerbaijan can rightly claim to be among the most progressive and secular Islamic societies. Aside from having been the first Muslim country to have operas, theater plays, and a democratic republic, Azerbaijan today is among the Muslim countries where support for secularism is the highest, and where radical ideologies have met only very limited interest.
Svante Cornell believes that the radical groups remain weak, but have a potential to grow under the current domestic and international circumstances. To confront this, the Azerbaijani state needs to address the diarchy in terms of supervision of religious structures. He writes, that the Government policies toward Islam in general and Islamic radicalism in particular have been inadequate.
Islamic activism, and radicalism, has geographic variations: while Shias are strong in the South of Azerbaijan, the Sunni radicalism is growing in the North, and the capital is experiencing growth in both Shi’a and Sunni radicalism.
The International Crisis Group has determined, in the executive summary of the findings from its special report on religion in Azerbaijan, that: "Azerbaijan is a secular state with an overwhelmingly moderate (predominantly Shiite) Muslim population. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and independence in 1991, independent Sunni and Shiite groups have emerged which refuse the spiritual authority of the official clergy. Some are political, but very few, if any, appear intent on employing violence to overthrow the state.
Today Wahhabi congregation, particularly the radical part of Salafists, are considered one of the dangerous radical Islamic groups in Azerbaijan. Before the November 6, 2005 elections Rafik Aliyev, chairman of the Azerbaijani government's Committee for Work with Religious Formations, warned that the increased activity of "Wahhabis," poses a threat to political stability in Azerbaijan. In October, 2007 the Azerbaijani government reported it thwarted a Wahhabi radical Islamic group’s plot to conduct a “large-scale, horrifying terror attack” against US and British diplomatic missions and government buildings. According to the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry, one suspect was killed and several others were detained in a weekend sweep in village outside the capital. The State Department closed US embassy in Baku for a period, as well as the UK embassy in Azerbaijan also suspended services due to "local security concerns".
The Islamic group included an army lieutenant who stole 20 hand grenades, a machine gun, assault rifles and other military ammunition from his army unit for the planned attack.
According to Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu "it is no secret to anyone that radical Wahhabi groups have been active in Azerbaijan for several years," and that there is no indication of a weakening of that trend because of the lack of democracy, frequent human rights violations, and the authorities' repression of less radical but unregistered religious communities. Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade also was quoted as openly branding the congregation of the Abu-Bakr mosque as "Wahhabis" and as implicitly criticizing the Azerbaijani authorities for failing to crack down on them.
An Attack on Abu Bakr Mosque of Baku took place on August 17, 2008 when a man or men threw a grenade through a window of the Abu Bakr (Abu-Bekir) mosque, used both by Sunni and Wahhabi Muslims, during the evening prayer. Three people were killed and 13 injured. During the investigation, 26 persons were accused of Article 214 (terrorism), 279 (creation of a armed formations or groups, which are not provided by the legislation) and others of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan Republic, and one person, the leader of “Forest brothers” radical group, was killed during a special operation.
In 1998 after the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi, as a result of the fax that was sent from Baku, the level of activity of Al-Qaeda in the country was discovered. Azerbaijan actively cooperated with the United States in counterterrorism operations and had success in reducing the presence and hampering the activities of international Islamic militant groups with ties to terrorist organizations seeking to move people, money, and material throughout the Caucasus. Following this members of the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya close to Al-Qaeda movement were arrested in Azerbaijan and extradited to Cairo. An Al-Qaeda operative, Abu Atiya, was arrested in Baku and turned over to the CIA. The arrests came after security forces engaged in a search for more than a month, that finally led them to a safe house in Sumgayit, where the militants were arrested.
Amiraslan Iskenderov received special training at al-Qaeda-connected training camps of Afghanistan and was taught how to make and use bombs and organize mass killings of people in public places, and was also assigned to recruit young girls with extremist religious views to become suicide bombers in Azerbaijan. Iskenderov’s group prepared a statement on behalf of al-Qaeda in the Caucasus, threatening the Azerbaijani government with bombings in Baku. Currently Iskanderov and his group are prisoned.
According to U.S. Department of State report on terrorism in Azerbaijan, "in April 2006, in a trial involving a group called al-Qaida Caucasus (separate from a group of the same name sentenced in 2005), 16 group members were sentenced to terms of up to life in prison. The group was convicted of the illegal purchase and bearing of firearms and for the July 2005 assassination of an officer of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Internal Affairs. The group consisted of citizens of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia and Yemen."
The Jeyshullah (soldiers of Allah) group was an extremist Salafi group, mainly active in Azerbaijan in the late 1990s, and reportedly responsible for several murders and attacks against the Hare Krishna temple and the Baku office of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It is also thought to have planned to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan but was pre-empted by Azerbaijani law enforcement officials.
Jeyshullah was founded by Mubariz Aliyev, a renegade Internal Affairs Ministry officer, with the aim to spread Salafism in Azerbaijan by "getting rid of those who stood in their way, seizing of power in the country by force and creating an Islamic state". It also called on Azerbaijanis to fight foreign religious missionaries and non-Islamic religious groups and received special military and ideological training in Chechnya. Jeyshullah's leaders were alleged of terrorism and prisoned in 2000, Mubariz Aliev was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Tovba (Repentance) Radical Islamic organization, that supported the usage of Arabic script in prevail of Latin in Azerbaijan in early-1990's, was expanded from Azerbaijan to Central Asia and founded its power structures in Ferghana Valley in 1991. According to Stephen Roth Institute, Tovba, as well as Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islamiyya were among the organizations in Azerbaijan and in Central Asia that "reflect the anti Israel and anti Jewish attitudes of the parent organizations in the Middle East, which finance the dissemination of their propaganda."