By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries
|Azneft Square in downtown Baku, Azerbaijan,|
named after historical Azneft (AzOil) trust
According to Felix Corley of Forum 18 News Service (www.forum18.org), Judge Imanverdi Shukurov in Zakatala fined two Baptists, Pastor Zaur Balaev and Hinayat Shabanova, more than a year's average local wages for a manual worker to punish them for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief.
"I can't pay this amount," Shabanova told Forum 18 from Aliabad on April 4 while Balaev, who is caring at home for his sick wife, Nunuka, said, "I am worrying over how I will find this money."
Balaev went on to say, "I am not intending to appeal against the fine, as what I was sentenced for I did. There's no point. I would rather take the State Committee to court for refusing to register us for so many years."
Balaev fears that - as a community that has been denied legal status - it will no longer be possible for the Baptists to meet for worship without risk of further punishment. Like other local Protestants, he said the church would like to be able to celebrate Easter on May 5 (which is the date they normally celebrate the resurrection of Christ in their country).
Fines follow raids
Corley sated that the fines were imposed in the wake of raids on the Balaev and Shabanov family homes in Aliabad on November 7, 2012. Police warned those present that meeting for religious worship without registration is "illegal".
They seized religious literature - including Bibles - in Azeri, Russian and Georgian (The Balaevs and the Shabanovs are from the local Georgian-speaking minority). Balaev and his wife were away at the time, as she was seeking cancer treatment in Moscow.
Corley went on to say that Judge Shukurov, as well as the local police chief and the local official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, refused to discuss the fines with Forum 18. Balaev and Shabanova's husband have both served prison sentences for their faith and their church has been denied legal status for nearly two decades - an Azerbaijani record.
Pastor Balaev has already served a prison term for his faith. Shabanova's husband - Pastor Hamid Shabanov - has similarly been imprisoned.
Corley said that among the many religious communities facing State Committee obstruction to receiving religious literature is Azerbaijan's Baptist Union. Its head, Pastor Ilya Zenchenko, wrote a letter of protest to State Committee chair Elshad Iskenderov in mid-March after the State Committee rejected his application to import 3,500 copies of the Bible in Azeri. They would authorize only 1,000 copies, Zenchenko complained to Forum 18.
Zenchenko insisted to the State Committee that Azerbaijan's Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but he says they merely repeated their insistence on allowing only 1,000 copies. He also complained that he filed his request with the State Committee in late 2012 and had to wait three months for a response.