A European Baptist leader renewed calls to pressure Azerbaijan to release an imprisoned Baptist minister after a court rejected an appeal of his two-year prison sentence Oct. 3.
Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, wrote Mehriban Aliyeva, Azerbaijan’s first lady and a UNESCO goodwill ambassador protesting what Baptists say is the unjust imprisonment of Zauer Balaev and urged EBF members bodies to do the same, the Baptist Times reported.
Balaev, pastor of a Baptist house church in Aliabad, in the northeast region of the country near the border with Georgia, was arrested May 20 during a raid of what officials claimed was an illegal meeting and convicted of violently resisting arrest.
Baptists originally were optimistic about Balaev’s appeal of a two-year sentence handed down in a trial frequently interrupted for unexplained reasons, but they were let down when the appeal ended quickly.
Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist union in Azerbaijan told Forum 18 News Service that Baptists were “stunned” at the court’s quick ruling. “It was all over in two minutes,” he said.
Joel Griffith of the Slavic Gospel Association told Mission Network News he wasn’t surprised by the ruling, because if the court had cleared Balaev, it would have meant the police testifying against him were lying, and they would have been charged with a crime. “In Azerbaijan, that’s not likely to happen,” he said.
Zenchenko said he spoke up at the appeal hearing to defend Balaev.
“I told the hearing that our church teaches all our members not to resist with violence,” Zenchenko told Forum 18. “I testified that Zaur would not commit violence.”
Zenchenko added that Balaev’s father, a witness to the May 20 raid, also testified that it was not the pastor, but authorities, who used violence.
Authorities accused Balaev, a frail, 44-year-old pastor, of beating up five policemen sent to break up a religious gathering they said was being held without proper authority. Azerbaijan requires churches register with the government but reportedly routinely deny registration to minority faiths like Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses that they view as unpatriotic.
Officials reportedly believe a hidden agenda of Balaev’s church, which worships in Georgian, is to assimilate the area into Georgian culture with a long term goal of annexation by the neighboring nation.
Other forms of harassment against religious minorities include denying birth certificates–need to enroll in school or be treated in a hospital–to babies with Christian names and for workers to lose their jobs if employees find out they are a Christian.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.