Three months after Azerbaijan, under international pressure, released a Baptist pastor imprisoned on questionable grounds, a second Baptist church leader in the same small village has been jailed on what family members claim are trumped-up charges of illegal possession of a firearm.
Police in the Zagatala region of the former Soviet state arrested Hamid Shabanov, 52, a leader in the Baptist Christian community in the remote village of Aliabad on Friday. According to Azeri-Press Agency, an officer said a pistol and 37 banned books on Christianity were found in Shabanov’s house. He was arrested on a criminal charge of “illegal purchase, transfer, selling, storage, transportation and carrying of firearms.”
But Forum 18, an ecumenical Christian news service that supports freedom of worship, said family members accused the authorities of planting the evidence against Shabanov.
“They came in claiming to be looking for drugs and guns,” the family reported. “They searched the house and claim to have found a gun, but they planted it themselves. He has got no weapons.”
“We believe they already had the intention to seize him,” the family said. “They threatened him because we meet for worship and pray together. They said we shouldn’t do it.” Family members said the entire search, seizure and arrest took about 20 minutes.
Badri Shabanov, told Forum 18 the aim of both his brother’s arrest and the 2007 imprisonment of Baptist pastor Zauer Balaev on charges of violent resistance of arrest were to shut down Baptist activity in Aliabad, a town of about 10,000 citizens almost exclusively from the Ingilo minority, ethnic Georgians who converted to Islam centuries ago. “Their target is the church,” he said.
Ilya Zenchenko, president of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, termed the arrest “a provocation by the police, a deliberately targeted action.”
While Azerbaijan’s Constitution guarantees religious freedom, Christians are routinely discriminated against in the majority-Muslim country on the basis of their faith, Elnur Jabijev (Baku), general secretary of the Azerbaijani Baptist Union, told the European Baptist Press Service in May.
Baptists in Aliabad claim they have faced intimidation since the first congregation was established in 1993. Reported problems include denying registration to house churches, firing people from their jobs when they are discovered to be Christians and refusal to issue birth certificates to children given Christian names. Without birth certificates, people cannot enter kindergarten, be treated in a hospital or travel abroad.
Baptist pastor Zauer Balaev was freed from prison seven months into a two-year sentence in March following a worldwide campaign for his release that included support from the European Baptist Federation, Baptist World Alliance and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Since his release, Forum 18 reported, police have threatened Balaev with further arrest if he continues his religious activity.
“Haven’t you learnt from your imprisonment?” Balaev quoted police officers as telling him. “Wasn’t one prison term enough for you?”
One officer reportedly added, “You may not be afraid, but you’ve forgotten you’ve got a wife, daughter and a son.”
Baptists in Azerbaijan say after conversion, many Christians face pressure from their Muslim families and neighbors to recant. As a result, many withdraw, but some resist.
Four years ago Shabanov told Forum 18 that after he converted to Christianity from Islam in 1994, he was summoned to the secret police in Zakatala, where officers beat him.
The town mosque, he said, organized meetings to denounce Christians. Church members said they lost jobs in state institutions when authorities learned they had become Baptists.
“I worked for the local television in Zakatala for 18 years,” Shabanov told Forum 18. “When I was kicked out they refused to give me a reason at first, then they said it was because I had converted.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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