Azerbaijani Islamic council bans amplified calls to prayer from mosques

Baku, Azerbaijan - Azerbaijan's top Islamic council banned mosques nationwide from broadcasting the five-times-a-day call-to-prayer through amplifiers, saying the resonant calls disturb the elderly, the sick and children, an official said Wednesday.

The ban, which went into effect Wednesday, was needed because of the proliferation of mosques in the country and in particular in the capital, Baku, where dozens of mosques broadcast calls-to-prayer often simultaneously, said Akif Agayev, a spokesman for Administration for Muslims of the Caucasus.

"We're not talking about banning the call-to-prayer, but only about the calls not being performed directly through an amplifier since this doesn't meet the approval of everyone," Agayev told The Associated Press.

There are hundreds of mosques throughout this small ex-Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea, though a precise number was not immediately known. Most of the country's 8.5 million residents are overwhelmingly Muslim, though the government is secular and deeply wary of any Muslims whose views and practices go beyond the bounds of the approved.

Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, director of the non-governmental Center for the Freedom of Conscience and Denomination, called the decision "absurd and nonsense" and he said he knew of no other country in the world where such a ban existed.

The prohibition "throws the country back into the whirlpool of athiestic-Bolshevik attitudes toward religion," he said. "No one anywhere in the world, even in Christian countries, would think that the call to prayer — an invitation to divine worship — would somehow be bothersome to someone."

Agayev said the council was confident it could find people capable of sounding the calls-to-prayer — called muezzins — with just their voices.

Some observers have speculated that government authorities may be behind the ban, amid a growing unease in the country about the pressure from radical Islamic groups or religious fervor from neighboring Iran. Like Iran, Azerbaijan's Muslims are predominantly Shiite.

Earlier, Ramiz Mekhtiyev, a top aide to President Ilham Aliyev, warned that radical Islamic could pose great problems for the country, and he appeared to issue a subtle warning to Iran.

"The entire nation should rise up against this negative tendency," Mekhtiyev told reporters. Azerbaijanis are Muslim, "but this doesn't mean that any country should seek to establish its own religion in Azerbaijan and create trouble. Therefore, I think that it follows that we should be vigilant...."

Despite its name, the council has little influence outside the border of Azerbaijan.