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19 October 2007

TURKMENISTAN: Did government order Orthodox diocese to split?

The Deputy Chair of Turkmenistan's Committee for Religious Affairs has refused to say whether the government pressured the Orthodox Church to split the Church's Central Asian Diocese by putting its Turkmen Deanery under the Patriarch. "I'm not authorised to respond to you," Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 News Service when asked about the split. However, Gurbanov was willing to discuss other matters, claiming for example that Orthodox parishes in the country face no restrictions. Fr Georgi Ryabykh of the Moscow Patriarchate told Forum 18 that they hope the decision will make pastoral oversight easier. "For years the bishop in Tashkent didn't visit this part of the Diocese, and that isn't normal church life." Deceased President Niyazov had asked for the split in 2005, sparking complaints from another priest that Niyazov was trying to build an independent Orthodox Church just as he had done with Islam. Fr Ryabykh, however, said that "It couldn't just be a response or reaction to a demand by a president, as if the president demands and the Church obeys." He added that "some time was necessary to understand the situation and make a decision."

3 October 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Baptists "stunned" as court confirms Pastor's jail sentence

A court in Azerbaijan has today (3 October) rejected the appeal of Baptist Pastor Zaur Balaev against a two-year prison sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We're stunned at the result the court handed down," the head of the Baptist Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 from the steps of the court building. "We don't know what to do. It is a tragedy for his wife and children." Officials have refused to explain to Forum 18 why Balaev has been targeted to punish him for his religious activity with his congregation. Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that "It was all over in two minutes." He added that "Zaur's son is very distressed, complaining that there is no hope and no law in Azerbaijan. He is young but his emotional reaction is understandable." Baptists from another congregation in Balaev's home village, who unlike Balaev's congregation reject state registration on principle, are also being threatened with imprisonment by the authorities.

6 September 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Imprisoned pastor's lawyer "optimistic" over appeal

The lawyer for imprisoned Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev is hopeful about his appeal, which began at Sheki Appeal Court today (6 September) and resumes on 19 September. "Of course I'm optimistic," Gazalfar Rzaev told Forum 18 News Service. Also hopeful that the two year sentence imposed on charges of assaulting five police officers will be overturned was Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union. But he fears Balaev may not be fully exonerated. "This is a dilemma for the court. Clearing Balaev would mean incriminating the police officers who falsely testified against him," Zenchenko told Forum 18. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations insists the prosecution had nothing to do with Balaev's religious affiliation but refused to explain why the verdict speaks of Balaev's "illegal religious activity" when the concept does not exist in Azerbaijani law. "This case has given a bad impression of Azerbaijan around the world," an official of the OSCE in Baku told Forum 18.

9 August 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Two-year prison term for Baptist pastor

Baptist Pastor Zaur Balaev was yesterday (8 August) sentenced to two years in jail, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Pastor from Aliabad in northern Azerbaijan was convicted of using violence against a state representative, and was also accused of holding "illegal meetings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration," attracting young people to worship services and playing loud music at services. Azerbaijan's authorities have changed their accusations whilst Balaev has been held, initially claiming that he set a dog on police during a raid on a Sunday worship service. After more than 50 people signed a written statement testifying to Balaev's innocence, the dog disappeared from the authorities' claims and Balaev was instead accused of attacking five policemen and damaging a police car door. The authorities' claims are strongly disputed. Prosecution witnesses admitted that they had not witnessed the alleged assault by Pastor Balaev. They stated that they had only heard about it from people at the market, teahouse, or because police pressured them into testifying. "We're preparing to submit an appeal," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. A court official told Forum 18 that Judge Seifali Seifullaev was not available for comment and had been transferred to a new position.

16 July 2007

AZERBAIJAN: 20 July trial of Pastor who led "illegal meetings"

The trial of Pastor Zaur Balaev of a Georgian-speaking Baptist congregation in the village of Aliabad in the far north of Azerbaijan is to begin on 20 July, Judge Seifali Seifullaev, who will hear the case, told Forum 18 News Service. He refused to explain why he rejected Balaev's appeal to be transferred from prison to house arrest as he awaits trial. Balaev was arrested on 20 May and is charged with beating up five policemen and damaging a police car, charges he and church members reject. The indictment complains that Balaev "conducts illegal meetings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration", attracts young people to services and plays loud music at services. Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that "this is the opinion of the police and representatives of the authorities, not of the [ethnic] Georgian residents of the village, who support Zaur and do not regard him as a 'dangerous person'."

12 July 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Did "thin" Pastor beat up five "strong" policemen?

The hearing of the case against detained Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev begins tomorrow (13 July) at 10 am, Forum 18 News Service has been told by Judge Seifuli Seifullaev. Azerbaijan's Baptist leader, Ilya Zenchenko, insists the charges are false – as do over 50 other people, including 25 who were present at the service, other villagers who are not Christians, and the leaders of eight Christian churches in Azerbaijan. "Zaur is accused of beating up five policemen and damaging the door of a police car," Zenchenko stated. "But how could a thin man like Zaur beat up five strong policemen?" Police initially alleged that Balaev had resisted being taken to a police station by setting a dog onto them. "The dog has completely disappeared from the accusation," Zenchenko told Forum 18. However, during the investigation, the Prosecutor stated verbally that Balaev is a Christian and therefore a threat to society and to social security. The date for the formal trial is due to be set at tomorrow's preliminary hearing.

22 June 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist pastor still held on false charges

Imprisoned Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev has been held for over a month by Azerbaijan, on charges which witnesses insist are false, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Balaev was arrested on 20 May, and the authorities intend to bring criminal charges of resisting officials with violence. The arrest took place during a police raid on a worship service which they insist – against Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments – was illegal as the church does not have state registration. The authorities have been denying the church legal status for 13 years. Since being detained over a month ago, "Zaur's health has deteriorated seriously" the head of the Baptist Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. Zenchenko also stated that police had hit Balaev in the face and that since his arrival in prison he has been threatened with violence. The Balaev family has had to go into debt to pay to take food to Zaur Balaev, who has been held over 250 km. (150 miles) from his home. The authorities have denied Balaev's family the opportunity to meet him since his arrest. Officials have refused to discuss the charges with Forum 18.

4 June 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Arrested Baptist pastor to face three years in prison?

Police have verbally told members of the embattled Baptist church in the remote village of Aliabad in north-western Azerbaijan that their pastor Zaur Balaev is to face a criminal charge of "resisting government representatives", which carries a maximum three year prison term. The authorities claim he set a dog onto police who raided the church's Sunday service on 20 May. The church's deacon, Ramiz Osmanov, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the accusation is based on "false testimony". "I was there – I saw." After two weeks in police custody, Balaev was today (4 June) transferred to the prison in Gyanja [Gäncä]. Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 the region around Aliabad is the worst in Azerbaijan for Baptists. "It is a place where officials insult our believers, won't allow them to gain legal status and deny birth certificates to their children." Hidayat Orujev, the chief state religious affairs official, rejected Baptist claims of persecution. Balaev's arrest "has no relation to his faith", he told Forum 18.

22 May 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist Pastor arrested / Another Protestant child denied birth certificate

Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev has been detained by police in Azerbaijan since Sunday (20 May), when police raided his church's worship service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Police claim that Balaev was arrested as he resisted them, but this is strongly denied by witnesses. The police also claim – in defiance of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief – that the church has no right to meet, as it is not registered. The authorities have put Pastor Balaev's church under strong pressure since its foundation. "We are immensely humiliated as human beings in a country which pretends to be democratic," one congregation member told Forum 18. "We are discriminated against in many ways." It has been suggested that the raid and detention is in retaliation for protests against the authorities' attempts to demolish a church member's home. Also, in their latest refusal to register the birth of a Protestant family's child, the authorities are refusing to register the birth of Ilya Eyvazov – who officially does not exist and so cannot have health care.

9 January 2007

AZERBAIJAN: Biggest expulsion in eight years

In the biggest expulsion of foreigners involved in religious activity in Azerbaijan since 1999, two Georgian and two Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported, with a Dutch and a British citizen about to follow, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The administrative deportation orders – which do not require any court proceedings – followed a massive police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, which only four of the six foreign residents were attending. Jeyhun Mamedov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed to Forum 18 that "it wasn't a raid – you can't call it that." He refused to state what law the Jehovah's Witnesses had allegedly broken. Mamedov claimed on local public TV – which accompanied the raid - that "specialised equipment" was confiscated which "could be used for communicating secretly with secret services of other countries". Jehovah's Witnesses totally reject these allegations. A steady trickle of foreigners have in recent years been deported for their religious activity.

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