OSLO, Norway (ABP) — A Baptist pastor in Azerbaijan who served 10 months in prison before being pardoned by the nation's president after appeals from Baptists worldwide says police have visited him again.
Zaur Balaev, who leads a Baptist congregation in the small town of Aliabad in the northwestern region of Zakatala, told the Norwegian-based news service Forum 18 May 10 that two police officers visited his home and warned him that his unregistered church does not have the right to gather for worship.
Balaev said the officers warned of "unpleasantness with the law" if the church continues to meet.
Balaev was imprisoned from May 2007 to March 2008 on charges of violent resistance to arrest. Supporters said the allegations, including that he assaulted five police officers and damaged a police car, were fabricated.
After protests from the Baptist World Alliance the European Baptist Federation and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev ordered Balaev's release.
A second Baptist pastor in the same town, Hamid Shabanov, was convicted in 2009 on weapons charges and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Shabanov's supporters said the weapon was planted and was part of an intimidation campaign aimed at closing the church in Aliabad.
Azerbaijan's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but churches are required to register with the state. Baptists in Aliabad say they have been trying to register for a dozen years, but their application keeps getting rejected for bureaucratic reasons.
Observers say the community near Azerbaijan's border with Georgia doesn't want the Baptists there, because they are mostly ethnic Georgians. Along with denying registration, religious minorities claim that bureaucrats have refused to issue birth certificates — which are needed to enroll in school or be treated in a hospital — to children with Christian names, and that workers can lose their jobs if employers find out they are a Christian.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.