VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 03/28/08) - Zaur Balaev, the Baptist pastor from Azerbaijan who was sentenced to two years in prison on August 8 of last year, has been released. Balaev was freed from prison on March 19.
"We praise God for preserving Pastor Balaev through the months of his harsh treatment in prison and for his release from the prison colony on March 19," said Reid Trulson, executive director of International Ministries. "We continue to pray for Baptists and for all people who face harassment and oppression because of their faith and conscience."
Elnur Jabiyev, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, expressed thanks to American Baptists as well as other Baptist bodies in the U.S. "On behalf of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, we thank you for your prayers and letters which were a big support for him and for his family during these hard times."
Balaev was convicted and sent to prison on charges that he beat up five policemen and damaged a police car door. Arrested on May 20, 2007 during a raid on a church service at his home, Balaev was originally accused of resisting arrest and setting dogs on police officers. The congregation of the church denied these charges saying the pastor went peacefully. More than 50 people, including members of the congregation and non-Christian villagers, signed written statements testifying to Balaev's innocence.
Balaev serves the Baptist church in Aliabad, located near the Azerbaijani/Georgian border in the northwest part of the country. Although the Aliabad congregation has repeatedly applied for legal status, since 1994 its applications have been refused without comment. Following Balaev's arrest, other Baptists have also been harrassed. Last summer, police closed a five-day Baptist children's camp in central Azerbaijan. Last November in the Caspian Sea port town of Neftechala in southern Azerbaijan, police summoned the local Baptist pastor and his assistant for "preventative conversations," threatening them with imprisonment like Pastor Balaev if they continued to conduct Baptist worship services.
"Baptists from all over the world rejoice in God's answer to our prayers for the release of our brother, Zaur Balaev," said Baptist World Alliance (BWA) General Secretary Neville Callam.
American Baptist International Ministries has partnered with the Baptists in Azerbaijan, which have grown to 22 churches and 3,000 members today, from 15 churches and 500 members in 2001. They are actively reaching out to meet human need in areas such as literacy, jobs training, conflict transformation, hunger and medical care.
Trulson noted that in 1992 Azerbaijan signed the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 of that Covenant states: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching."
"We call upon the government of Azerbaijan to fulfill its publicly stated commitment to human rights by protecting and promoting liberty of religion and conscience for all people within its nation," Trulson said.
The Republic of Azerbaijan, located south of Russia and north of Iran between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, has been independent of the Soviet Union since 1991. The nation is largely Muslim, with a growing Christian presence.
Andrew C. Jayne American Baptist Churches USA Mission Resource Development http://www.abc-usa.org/