Pastor Zaur Balayev, left, with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's Jim and Becky Smith. (Photo: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)
Two pastors imprisoned in Azerbaijan have now been released, but the array of problems in countries and regions where religious freedom is hampered by a majority religion or political structures continues.
That is why one-third of the receipts from this year's Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Offering for Religious Freedom and Human Rights will again go to the European Baptist Federation (EBF), which works to address these issues. The annual offering will be collected in July during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's General Assembly in Houston.
The imprisoned pastors were from the same village in Azerbaijan. One was accused of building an illegal place of worship, and the other was accused of keeping illegal weapons in his home.
A delegation from EBF and the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) visited Azerbaijan in January. In its report, the delegation said that Baptists have experienced a history of hostility from the authorities, including a refusal by the government to give birth certificates to children who were given Christian names; authorities have repeatedly told pastors to stop their religious activities. The report also said that it is not uncommon for people who become Christians to lose their jobs.
"Legal procedures for the pastors were not followed, and the men languished for long periods of time without due process," said Jim Smith, the CBF's director of field ministries. "They are now free, but only after considerable international lobbying by a host of Baptist entities and intervention by President Carter personally."
"The strategy of the authorities is to pressure the Christians step by step until there will be no more Christian activity here," said Zaur Balayev, a local pastor, in the EBF/BWA report.
The EBF used funds from last year's Carter Offering to make visits to the Azerbaijan Embassy in Prague in the Czech Republic, to send a delegation to speak to Azerbaijan authorities and to pay the travel expenses of the first pastor to be released to attend the EBF council meeting in September 2008.
The EBF has also used Carter Offering funds in the past to establish a more intentional strategy to increase the profile of religious freedom among its unions, General Secretary Tony Peck said. This includes building an archive of religious freedom reports from around the region and the part-time appointment of an EBF religious freedom representative.
"The offering is a noble effort to give initiative toward situations which impact both human rights and religious freedom," Smith said. "This has not always been easy. Many CBF field personnel have to work in countries that do not guarantee basic human rights or care for religious freedom."
As of May, all pastors in Azerbaijan are out of jail, Smith said. "But you never know if that will continue to be the case," he said.
Peck said the EBF is currently working to advance the case for human rights and religious freedom in the following areas:
- In the Gaza Strip, evangelical believers are under pressure from both Muslims and the Israeli military.
- West Bank Christians struggle with Muslims there to gain government recognition for their buildings and programs. They also are prevented from visiting other nearby Christians because of the dividing wall that separates Bethlehem from the rest of the West Bank.
- Belarus has enacted very severe laws against religious gatherings in homes. Authorities have made church planting almost impossible because a church would need a large number of members to be registered, which is nearly impossible for a church-start.
- Serbia has also adopted religion laws favoring only large traditional faith communities and excluding Baptists and other smaller faith communities.
- Turkmenistan has closed all places of worship other than traditional Muslim or Russian Orthodox traditions.
Sue Poss is on the communications staff with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.