A Baptist pastor in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan was sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison for using violence against police breaking up a meeting of his house church and arresting him in May--allegations members of the church insist are false--according to a Norwegian-based news service that monitors abuses of religions freedom.
Forum 18 said Thursday the indictment against 44-year-old Zaur Balaev gave the following reason for the May 20 raid: "Zaur Balaev conducts illegal meetings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration in a place specially built on his property for this purpose. He attracts young children to these meetings. At these meetings they play loudly on special musical instruments, which violates the rules on social residence and annoys the surrounding inhabitants."
"It's very sad news," Ilya Zenchenko, a pastor and president of the Baptist Union of Azerbajain, told Forum 18. "We're preparing to submit an appeal on Friday."
Tony Cupit, retired evangelism director for the Baptist World Alliance, said he and BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz visited Azerbaijan a few years ago and found Baptists there to be "peace-loving, devout and respectful of the authorities, despite much provocation."
"The accusations against the pastor sound flimsy indeed and motivated by fear against a movement the authorities do not understand," Cupit told EthicsDaily.com. "The faith and courage of this pastor and his people serve as an example to Christians everywhere as to what true discipleship may involve."
Zenchenko said he was present for parts of the trial, which began July 16. The Baptist leader said five policemen claimed Balaev beat them when they visited his home during a Sunday worship service to discuss what one officer described as a "violation of public order and illegal act."
Zenchenko said officials at first claimed Balaev released a dog on them while resisting arrest, but after 50 townspeople, including non-Christians, signed a statement attesting the pastor was innocent, "the dog completely disappeared from the accusation."
Members of Balayev's 14-year-old Baptist church in Aliabad reported that police demanded that worship be stopped, that the congregation disperse and that Balayev accompany them to the police station. Witnesses say the pastor complied and deny allegations that he attacked officers and damaged a police-car door.
Forum 18 said unregistered religious activity is not formally illegal in Azerbaijan, but officials act like it is. Zenchenko told the news service he finds it ironic that after obstructing attempts by the church to register for more than a dozen years, authorities would punish it for being unregistered.
When Forum 18 went to a local notary in 2004 to ask why she persistently refused to notarize the church's registration application, she reportedly shouted, "We don't need any Baptists here," throwing the news service out of her office and threatening to call the police.
While government officials like to claim Azerbajain is a country of religious toleration, Forum 18 says Soviet-style repression still lingers. Fearing social change it cannot control and disliking diversity, the government allegedly seeks to control faiths it regards as a potential challenge--especially Islam--co-opt faiths it sees as useful and restrict faiths it dislikes--like evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Harassment of religious minorities includes denying birth certificates--needed to enter school or be treated at a hospital--to children with Christian names. It also isn't unusual for people to lose jobs after their employers find out they are Christian.
Elnur Jabiyev, today the general secretary of the Baptist union, was formerly a police officer who attended church secretly, according to an April 2005 newsletter published by the European Baptist Federation's Indigenous Missionary Project. One day he was called by police security and shown a picture of himself attending church. He eventually was fired and now is a Baptist pastor.
The Union of Evangelical Christians Baptists of Azerbaijan is a member body of the Baptist World Alliance. According to BWA statistics, it has 22 churches with a total membership of 3,000.
The first Baptist church was planted in Azerbaijan in 1890 in the capital city of Baku. The first Baptist church building, erected in 1905, served Baptists for four decades before being confiscated and turned into a cinema in 1946.
Despite obstacles, Baptist churches in Azerbaijan are growing, according to the EBF. Baptist churches in Baku are overcrowded, with standing room only. New churches are being started. The most popular method is to begin by meeting in homes. Baptists in Azerbaijan are involved in social work and ministry to homeless, orphans and immigrants. The Baptist union has plans to develop work with youth, children, women's and prison ministries.
Officials refused to transfer Balaev from jail to house arrest while he was awaiting trial, claiming they feared he would flee the country. The town is near Azerbaijan's border with Georgia. Part of the prejudice against him apparently is that his church speaks Georgian, and authorities have repeatedly accused the group of having a pro-Georgia agenda.
Supporters say there is increasing concern about Balaev's deteriorating health. He reportedly has heart trouble and kidney pain.
While in jail, they say, Balaev has been beaten by police. His family has gone into debt to pay for his food. Jail conditions are reportedly very harsh, and Baptists now suspect one reason for his prosecution is because jailers joke about his "brotherhood" being unwilling to pay a bribe for his release, a common practice in Azerbaijan.
Zenchenko told Forum 18 the going rate to buy someone out of prison is $5,000. Zenchenko said he believes Balaev could have been seen as a lucrative target, because he owns land and a tractor.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
International Baptists Protest Arrest of Pastor in Azerbaijan