Baptist Pastor Arrested in Azerbaijan

Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev has been arrested by police in Azerbaijan on 20 May, Forum 18 News service has reported.

The pastor's arrest occurred after a raid on a private home during worship in the remote village of Aliabad in the North West region of the country, close to the border with Georgia, the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) has said.

It is believed the raid is part of the security forces' effort to clampdown on unregistered churches in the former Soviet Republic. Azerbaijan became an independent country following the fall of communism.

Ilia Zenchchenko, President of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan, a member body of the Baptist World Alliance, described the area around Aliabad as the worst in Azerbaijan for Baptists.

"It is a place where officials insult our believers, won't allow them to get legal status, and deny birth certificates to their children," Forum 18 quoted him as saying.

Balaev, who is to be put on trial later in the summer, is being tried for resisting arrest, accused of setting a dog on the police when they arrived at the place of worship. He faces a maximum three-year prison sentence.

Eyewitnesses, including a church deacon, deny the charges against the pastor, describing them as "False testimony." There is no confirmation on the reason for the raid on the house church in the first place. Religious books and cassettes were confiscated by the authorities.

Reports are that the church has made repeated efforts to register since 1994 without success. Forum 18 claims that its news team was thrown out of the office of the local notary as far back as 2004, when the team sought answers as to why the church's registration documents were being held up.

"We don't need any Baptists here," the news service reported the notary public as saying.

The Baptist Union of Azerbaijan has 22 churches and approximately 3,000 members in a population of 8.5 million people. The country, which gained independence in 1991, is 96 percent Muslim.

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[Source: BWA]