Fate of Baptist pastor on trial in Azerbaijan in the balance
AZERBAIJAN (Assist News Service) — Baptist Pastor Zaur Balaev was arrested during a raid on his church in Azerbaijan . He has been detained since Sunday May 20, 2007.
Officials allege that he resisted arrest with violence and subsequently is being charged under Article 315 Part 1 of the Azerbaijan Criminal Code, which “punishes application of violence, resistance with application of violence concerning the representative of authority in connection with performance of official duties by him or application of violence not dangerous to life or health concerning his close relatives, as well as threat of application of such violence.”
According to the Jubilee Campaign, 25 witnesses to the arrest state that these charges are false and that Pastor Zaur did not resist arrest, he did not set a dog on the arresting officers, nor did he beat them up or threaten them with violence.
Jubilee Campaign says that on June 4, Balaev was transferred from the local prison in Zakatala to a prison in Gyanja over 150 miles away. His family has gone into debt in order to continue to take him food and has been denied the opportunity to meet with Zaur; however, they have spoken with him over the phone.
In an e-mail to ASSIST News, Jubille Campaign says there are currently some health concerns surrounding Balaev’s imprisonment.
“The head of the Baptist Union, Ilya Zenchenko, told Forum 18 news that Zaur’s ‘health has deteriorated seriously.’ Zenchenko also reported to Forum 18 news that the ‘police hit Zaur in the face’ and that ‘since his arrival in prison, he has been threatened with violence.'”
Jubilee Campaign said it should be noted that his church is unregistered. “They have been trying to register for the more than 13 years, but their application is consistently denied. Official registration is the primary means by which the Azerbaijani government attempts to control religious expression. Many unregistered churches suffer from frequent raids by the government and harassment of their parishioners.”
Bayaev’s trial began on Friday, July 13 and as of August 1, the judge had not yet issued a decision. He is facing a maximum of three years in prison.
Yesterday, Jubilee Campaign received an update from the lawyer who is working on the case asking for prayer for Pastor Zaur.
He wrote: “I want to inform you that Pastor Zaur’s court case is continuing. As all of you know, the public prosecutor said that pastor Zaur must be imprisoned for 2 years and 7 months (31 months), but the defense lawyer gave his opinion that Pastor Zaur should be set free.
“Today, the judge should have announced his decision, but the court session is not being held. We do not know the reason for this.
“We believe the judge hasn’t given his decision because of your prayers. God is giving the judge additional time to think about Pastor Zaur’s case.
Please keep Pastor Zaur in your prayers.”
Jubilee Campaign is deeply concerned about Pastor Zaur and the state of religious freedom in Azerbaijan . They ask: “Will you join us in praying for his immediate and unconditional release from prison?”
Background information on Religious Freedom in Azerbaijan
According to an analysis done by Forum 18 News, “The Azerbaijani government is fundamentally hostile to the idea of religious freedom, seeking to control faiths it regards as a potential challenge (especially Islam), to co-opt faiths it sees as useful (Judaism, Russian Orthodoxy, Lutheranism and Catholicism) and to restrict as far as it can other faiths that it dislikes (Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna).
“Although the 1992 religion law (amended in 1996 and 1997) does not make registration compulsory, government officials at all levels often act as though it does. Police and local authorities have raided many religious communities that have chosen not to register or have tried to register but have been refused.”