The leader of Baptists in the central Asian republic of Azerbaijan has requested international support for a pastor arrested during a worship service May 20. Zaur Balayev, 44, is being held on charges of “violent resistance” of arrest. Authorities say Balayev, described by acquaintances as a “thin” man, beat up five policemen and damaged a police car during his arrest.
Supporters, including eyewitnesses, say the charges are false and believe the arrest is part of a crackdown on unregistered house churches in the country where 96 percent of people are Muslims and Christianity is often perceived as a foreign religion.
Religious minorities like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists have long complained of intimidation. Tactics include denying birth certificates to children given Christian names–which they need in order to enroll in school or get treatment in a hospital–and people losing their jobs when their bosses discover they are Christians.
Balayev has been in jail before. He was imprisoned 16 days in 1995, when police called him a bandit and accused him of plotting a revolt in Aliabad, a town of about 10,000 people in northwest Azerbaijan near the Georgia border.
Arrests are not uncommon for violations of an amendment in Azerbaijan’s 1995 constitution requiring all religious groups to be registered. Balayev’s Baptist church in Aliabad, which formed in 1993, has tried to register numerous times over the last 13 years but each time was told there were papers missing. A second Baptist church in the town had the same experience. A third refuses to register out of conviction.
But Balayev faces a more serious crime–“violent resistance against the representatives of the local government”–punishable by up to three years in prison. Church members fear the testimony of five police officers, whom they say are lying, will be believed, and the court may not call any witnesses in his defense.
Police at first claimed Balayev turned a dog loose on them, but mention of the dog later disappeared. The officers say the pastor beat and injured them, allegations that supporters say are fabricated and therefore false.
Eyewitnesses deny Balayev resisted arrest. Fifty people in his town, including non-Christians, signed a letter describing him as “a man of peace” incapable of doing the things of which he is accused.
“Zaur is accused of beating five policemen and damaging the door of a police car,” Ilya Zenchenko, a pastor and leader of the Baptist Union of Azerbajain, told Forum 18 News Service, an ecumenical Christian initiative that supports freedom of worship.
“But how could a thin man like Zaur beat up five strong policemen? He’s not some Superman or an [Arnold] Schwarzenegger,” Zenchenko asked. “We pray that the judge will be objective and will look simply at the facts of the case.”
Elnur Jabiyev, general secretary of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Azerbaijan, said international support is essential to put pressure on the government to release Balayev and ensure him a fair trial.
Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, called on the 800,000 Baptists of Europe to protest the arrest. He suggested that each EBF member body address a letter to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, requesting that he enforce justice and religious liberty in his country.
“It is our hope and prayer that the false accusations against Pastor Balayev be dropped and he be freed,” Peck said.
The International Christian Network, based in Italy, wrote Azerbaijan’s president asking him to free pastor Zaur and give him a fair trial with eyewitness testimonies.
Azerbaijan has 22 Baptist congregations with about 3,000 members. About 4 percent of the country’s eight million residents are Christians, and most of them are Russian Orthodox.
The church led by Zaur is Georgian-speaking, and that is apparently a source of hostility. Officials have repeatedly accused the Baptists of having a pro-Georgia agenda, which the Baptists deny. They are involved in social work as well as ministry with homeless, orphans and immigrants.
Authorities have been quoted as denying birth certificates with biblical names like Luke and Samson, viewing the taking of non-Azeri names as part of a political a plot.
“They [Baptists] want to change our names, make us Georgian and then claim that this area is part of southern Georgia,” said a letter reported by Compass Direct in 2006. “Why have they become Christians and started serving a foreign country?”
Christians fear that if something like this can happen to a lifelong Christian born in Georgia–Georgia accepted Christianity in 326 and 85 percent of the residents are nominally Orthodox–things can only get worse in the south, closer to the Iranian border where radical Muslims are dominant and Christians are often harassed.
“Will this arrest be the starting point of another wave of harassment against Christians, especially against those who converted from Islam to Christianity?” asked Christer Daelander, a member of the external relations group of the European Baptist Federation, which coordinates work for religious freedom and human rights.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.