FALLS CHURCH, Va. (ABP) — A Baptist minority in the South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan continues to face run-ins with police. In the latest, reported by the Baptist World Alliance April 2, charged three Baptists with "illegally spreading Christianity and other faiths."
Forum 18, a Norwegian-based news service that monitors alleged violations of religious freedom, said eight officers raided a peaceful religious gathering in a private home in Agdash, a community of 25,000 in central Azerbaijan, detaining and fining three women, who all are from Baku, Azerbaijan's capital.
Authorities said the women were giving religious instruction to children, which is against the law in Azerbaijan. Baptist representatives said 12 children invited to the home to hear Bible stories during a spring holiday were there with their parents' permission.
The raid, carried out March 25, was on the home of Vera Zhuchaeva, a long-standing Baptist who is in her 70s.
According to a report from the European Baptist Federation, police confiscated more than 500 books, 40 recordings, as well as a player for the recordings. Baptists said the books and films are legal, and many were Hollywood films with Bible themes.
The raid is the latest in a string of run-ins with the law for Baptists in Azerbaijan.
In February Hamid Shabanov, pastor of a house church of about 60 Baptists in the town of Aliabad, was convicted of a weapons charge. Supporters said police planted the weapon, and Shabanov vowed to fight to clear his name.
In 2008 Baptist Pastor Zauer Balaev served 10 months of a two-year sentence for conviction of allegedly trumped-up charges, following pressure from Baptists around the world including former President Jimmy Carter.
Azerbaijan's constitution provides that persons of all faiths may choose and practice their religion without restriction, but the United States State Department has reported "sporadic violations of religious freedom by some officials" in the former Soviet republic.
A delegation of leaders from the Baptist World Alliance and European Baptist Federation visited Azerbaijan in January to discuss religious-freedom concerns with government, diplomatic and religious leaders including the chairman of the state committee for work with religious associations.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.