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Baptist Monitoring Group Cites Problems in Azerbaijan

Representatives from the European Baptist Federation (EBF) and the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) recently issued a report citing human rights and religious liberty shortcomings in Azerbaijan.

The report, addressed to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on Jan. 15, came after members of the European Baptist Religious Freedom Monitoring Group spent several days in the nation. The report outlines four areas that are called serious instances of intolerance and discrimination towards Baptist Christians and churches.

Over the past two years, two Baptist pastors in Azerbaijan have been arrested and jailed. BWA and EBF leaders have challenged the charges against the pastors as false and advocated for their release. In May 2007, Zaur Balayev was arrested and then sentenced in August 2007 to two years in prison. He was released in March 2008 by decree of Azerbaijan’s president. Former United States President Jimmy Carter had joined the BWA and EBF in urging Balaev’s release.

In June 2008, another Baptist pastor ”Hamid Shabanov ”was arrested. Although he was convicted, he has not yet been sentenced. Shabanov remains under house arrest as BWA and EBF leaders work for his release.

The monitoring group noted in its report how very well we have been received by every organisation we have met in Azerbaijan and expressed hope that this good process of cooperation will continue. The introduction to the report also argued that Azerbaijani Baptists regularly express their support and prayer for the President, government and all people of Azerbaijan during their times of worship.

The monitoring group included EBF General Secretary Anthony Peck, BWAid Director Paul Montacute, EBF Religious Freedom Representative Christer Daelander, International Baptist Theological Seminary Academic Dean Parush Parushev, and attorney Ebbe Holm. The Baptist Union of Azerbaijan is a member body of the EBF and the BWA.

The first problem identified was the Harassment of Baptist Believers, with the cases of Balayev and Shabanov cited as examples. The monitoring group offered thanks for the presidential decree that released Balayev and expressed hopes Shabanov would soon be released as well.

Several Baptist leaders have described in detail to us instances of harassment and intimidation from the police and public media because they are Baptists, the report explained. These have included hostile interrogation, threats against themselves and their families, and even imprisonment.

The second area outlined in the report dealt with the Obstacles to Registration of Baptist Churches. Cited as an example was the case of Aliabad Baptist Church, which is led by Balayev, that has been attempting to register for 15 years but governmental officials refuse to sign necessary documents. Another example mentioned was the case of Neftcala Baptist Church, which has not been registered because the document proving the congregation owns the building that it has used since 1966 was lost after being submitted for approval. They have been refused a replacement document.

It is quite clear to us that serious obstacles are placed in the way of Baptist churches seeking official registration as religious communities, and therefore seeking as good citizens to be within the law, the report offered. It is possible to lay the blame at national or regional/local government bodies but our conviction is that if there is a political will to register the Baptist churches these can easily be overcome.

The third problem noted in the report concerns the Discrimination against Baptist Christians in their Employment. Mentioned as an example is Elnur Jabiyev, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, who was forced to leave his employment as a Baku Police Officer because he attended a Baptist church.

We have met several cases of Baptists being asked to leave their employment when it is known that they are Baptist Christians, and this continues right up to the present time, the monitoring group wrote in its report. We intend to monitor and report on such violations in the future.

The final problem outlined in the report is that a church building from the Soviet era was not returned to the Baptists. The monitoring group reported that they learned from other faith groups that many buildings confiscated by the Soviet authorities have been returned to their original owners since Azerbaijan once again became an independent nation. However, the report notes, a Baptist church building built in 1911 and confiscated in 1931 has not been returned but instead is being used as a movie theater.

The Baptists regard this as a desecration of one of their holy places and have a document requesting its return dated 1989, the report added. Therefore we request that the same policy be followed with the Baptists as other faith groups, and this building be restored to them.

The report concluded by explaining that the monitoring group had highlighted these issues in the expectation that with goodwill they can be overcome and the Baptists enjoy their full religious freedom in Azerbaijani society. The group also offered to work with governmental officials to ensure that the commitment to religious tolerance which we see in Azerbaijan towards some faith groups will apply to all.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.