By Amy Penn
08/11/2017 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Overshadowed by its more flamboyant and media-grabbing neighbors, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and China, the Caucasus region lies relatively ignored by the Western media. Known mostly for being home to many ‘-stan’ countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, the Caucasus region maintains a low profile for most people. This includes religious persecution. Unfortunately, ignorance does not make religious persecution disappear as the story of Pastor Hamid in Azerbaijan tells us.
Azerbaijan, one of the few non-‘stan’ countries in the Caucasus region, is a former Soviet country where approximately 94 percent of the local population is Muslim. Technically, the constitution says there is freedom of religion, including the freedom to participate in religious rituals. Yet the Azerbaijani government, despite its claim of religious freedom, has a State Committee on Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO), responsible for protecting and monitoring religious activity, including registering religious organizations. Without registration, no religious organization can legally operate, including churches. Unfortunately, few Christian organizations are approved; there is an overwhelming bias towards Muslim registrations. Pastors and Christians who meet in unregistered groups with religious literature can face fines and imprisonment.
Pastor Hamid’s church in Aliabad village is one of the Christian churches that has not received registration despite numerous appeals in its 25 years of existence. Located in the northwestern portion of Azerbaijan, Pastor Hamid’s home church has continued to meet and faced continued harassment. On November 26, 2016, however, policemen finally entered the church where 30 adults and several children were meeting for worship, stopped the meeting, declared it illegal, and began recording everyone in attendance.
After taking the names of all involved, the police took inventory of all of the religious literature in the home and removed it. Then, police took 26 of the attendees to the police station for several hours. At 8:00 p.m., the police released 22 but held four others, including Pastor Hamid, until 11:00 p.m. The religious literature was never returned; instead, the police sent it to government agencies for examination.
Police charged Pastor Hamid under article 515.2 of Azerbaijan’s Administrative Offences Code for “infringement of rule of organization and holding of religious meetings, campaigns and other religious events” and fined him approximately $900.00 USD. The conviction was handed down by a regional court and then upheld by a higher ranking appellate court. During the appeal process, however, Pastor Hamid’s lawyer noted multiple violations of law and process.
First, according to the lawyer, Pastor Hamid was denied a proper translator, which is required by Azerbaijani law when necessary. While Hamid is a proper citizen of Azerbaijan, he was educated in the Georgian language common to his hometown and region. Consequently, his Azerbaijani is subpar, leaving him confused and struggling during the hearing process. He was asked repeatedly to sign documents he could neither read nor understand both in the appeals process and police investigations, including a document that waived his rights. This is both illegal and negligent of the authorities in Azerbaijan.
Additionally, the lawyer noted that the appellate judge openly stated that he was friends with the preceding judge who handed out the initial sentence and fine. It was evident that the appeal process had a predetermined outcome as the entire proceeding lasted only 15 minutes.
Because Pastor Hamid’s case is administrative, by Azerbaijan law, he cannot appeal to the Supreme Court. As such, Pastor Hamid and his lawyer will be appealing to the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan, meaning that they will face off with the judiciary as opposed to the police. This is will be a long and difficult process.
This is not the first time that Pastor Hamid has been targeted for his faith. On June 20, 2008, police arrested Pastor Hamid after they claimed to have found a pistol during a house search. The claim was false, yet he was still sentenced in February 2009 to two years in prison.
Pray for Pastor Hamid as he and his lawyer begin the appeals process. Pray that they find favor with the constitutional court and that this matter may be put to rest fairly and on the merits. Pray for protection over his congregation and family as they maneuver through more legal proceedings and hearings. Azerbaijan’s religious persecution may be little known, but it is, unfortunately, ever present.