Washington, DC (BWA) –Three Baptist women were detained and fined for “illegally spreading Christianity and other faiths” in the South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan on March 25.
The three, who are from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, were charged after police raided a Baptist religious gathering in a private home in the central town of Agdash, where children were receiving religious instruction.
According to Forum 18, a religious freedom watchdog group based in Oslo, Norway, “In the afternoon of 25 March, eight men raided the Agdash home of long-standing Baptist Vera Zhuchaeva, who is in her seventies,” and detained the three women, who claimed that “officers insulted them for their faith.”
Forum 18 reported that parents had been invited to send their children to Zhuchaeva’s home to listen to Bible stories during the Novruz spring festival, a holiday celebrating the arrival of spring. Approximately 12 children were present.
A report out of the office of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), one of six regional fellowships of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), stated that the police confiscated more than 500 pieces of Christian literature, 40 CDs and a CD recorder.
The EBF report also stated that the raid and the detention of the Baptists have had widespread media coverage, which has included the disclosing of the addresses of those detained and fined.
Elnur Jabiyev, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, described the public disclosure of the addresses of the detainees as dangerous. “Nationalists will know their addresses. The police should not have given journalists this information,” Jabiyev said.
Azerbaijan has come under increasing scrutiny from the international Baptist community in recent times. Two Baptist pastors, Zaur Balaev and Hamid Shabanov, were arrested in 2007 and 2008, respectively, after police raided their house churches. Both were found guilty on what were regarded as trumped-up charges. Balaev was released in March 2008 after serving six months of a two-year sentence, while Shabanov, though convicted in February of this year, was not imprisoned as he had spent time in jail and under house arrest before and during his trial.
Both the BWA and the EBF protested the arrest of both men to Azerbaijan leaders and ambassadors.
An EBF-BWA Religious Freedom Monitoring Group visited the country in January of this year where they met with several government, diplomatic and religious leaders, including the chair of the Government Committee on Religious Communities.