ALIABAD, Azerbaijan (ABP)—Police in Azerbaijan raided the home of a Baptist pastor who served 10 months in prison before winning a pardon following appeals on his behalf from Baptist leaders worldwide.
The Oslo-based news service Forum 18 reported authorities broke up a Baptist worship service in the Aliabad home of Zaur Balaev, who was imprisoned from May 2007 to March 2008 on charges supporters say were fabricated to punish him for freely exercising his religion.
Balaev was not present. He was in Moscow with his wife, Nunuka, who is being treated for pancreatic cancer.
About 10 police officers reportedly raided Balaev’s home Nov. 7, breaking up a meeting of about eight church members. Armed with a search warrant, they took pictures and seized about 17 items of Christian literature, including New Testaments and hand-written notebooks.
A witness said the officers were respectful, but said it is illegal to meet without registration. If officials determine the seized materials are not harmful, police said, they will be returned.
A separate raid targeted the nearby home of Hamid Shabanov, who was convicted in 2009 on a weapons charge. Members of his church said the pastor did not own a gun, but police apparently planted one in his home as an excuse to intimidate religious and ethnic minorities.
Balaev was arrested in May 2007 and sentenced to two years in prison that August for violent resistance of arrest. Witnesses described Balaev as a “man of peace” whose thin physique would not have posed much of a threat to the five police officers who took him into custody.
Azerbaijani Baptists asked for international support for the man they viewed as a prisoner of conscience. After appeals by leaders, including Tony Peck of the European Baptist Federation, Neville Callam of the Baptist World Alliance and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Azerbaijan’s president unexpectedly pardoned Balaev in March 2008, less than halfway through his sentence.
Balaev’s problems were not over, however. Not long after his release, he received a visit from two police officers who said his unregistered church did not have the right to gather for worship and warned of “unpleasantness with the law” if the congregation continued to meet.
Azerbaijan’s constitution provides for religious freedom, but other laws and policies allow authorities to interfere with groups considered “nontraditional” because they lack a long history in the country. That includes some minority Muslim and Christian groups, especially those like evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses that proselytize.
Baptists in Aliabad, a village in northwestern Azerbaijan, claim they have sought legal recognition since 1994, but attempts to register have been obstructed repeatedly by government bureaucrats.