60 Christians Arrested At Worship Service in Azerbaijan

ISTANBUL (Compass)–Azerbaijani police and KGB officers forced their way into a legally registered church in Baku last Sunday–disrupting the worship service and arresting some 60 Christians in the congregation.

The local pastoral team of Baku Baptist Church–together with at least a dozen foreigners–were among those taken to the police station for interrogations over the next two days. Several young people and children were also arrested.

The detained Azeri Christians were reportedly all asked to sign a paper stating they had been attending an "illegal meeting" and promising not to attend the church again. "Some did under duress," a Baku source told Compass by telephone today–"but most did not. Those who did not alleged that the ‘confessions’ were filled out and signed [forged] on their behalf."

After being released overnight and returning for questioning on Monday and again on Tuesday–both the pastor and his assistant were sentenced Tuesday afternoon to 15 days in prison on administrative charges of "resisting the police."

The two church leaders were charged–tried and convicted in a half-hour court hearing–and then "hustled right off to the Black City Prison," the Baku source reported. They have since been allowed visitors–who reported that there were no indications of physical abuse.

According to an Azeri Christian who spoke with Compass today–the jailed church leaders must be released after 15 days–unless authorities charge them with violation of criminal laws.

Two Americans among those detained were released Sunday night and not recalled for more questioning–the US Embassy in Baku confirmed. However–a total of 10 citizens of Finland–Norway–Korea–Iran–Colombia and Mexico were charged with "engaging in religious propaganda" and "propagating against the Muslim religion."

A vague statute appended in 1996 to Azerbaijan’s religious freedom law declares–"Carrying out of religious propaganda by aliens and stateless persons is forbidden." However–the Constitution guarantees freedom of religious confession and worship to all citizens.

"The available evidence does not support either of those charges," the Baku source said. "In fact–the judge reaffirmed that under Azeri law–foreigners have the right to attend and participate in any religious services they choose."

Yesterday–the court ordered eight of the foreign citizens deported–and two others with student visas were ordered to pay a fine to remain in the country. All 10 foreigners are said to have rejected the ruling and have appealed the court’s decision through the prosecutor’s office.

Reports could not be confirmed that an additional eight foreign citizens also had been told their deportation orders were pending before the courts.

"In Azerbaijan there’s been a lot of low-level harassment," the Baku source admitted. "But nothing of this nature in the past. This is the first time they’ve gone after a registered church." In several other incidents in the past month–he said–"The excuse [the authorities] have given is that the organization in question is not registered. But the point is–they haven’t allowed them to register."

During the past month–at least two unregistered church groups have reported police raids on their worship meetings–with members of the congregations detained and interrogated by KGB authorities. "Believers were kept at police offices for a few hours," an Azeri Christian reported–"and demanded to believe in Mohammed instead of Jesus–because they are Azeris."

One of the expatriate Christians detained last Sunday reported that a recent television program had attacked the pastors and congregations of the Sumgait Pentecostal Church and Lokbaton Greater Grace Church. Both TV and newspaper reports routinely condemn Azeris for changing their religion.

Some 80 percent of Azerbaijan’s 7.5 million people are of Muslim heritage–although many Azeris who have become Christians in this decade insist they were previously atheists–not Muslims. According to research compiled this summer–there are 2,250 ethnic Azerbaijani Christians regularly attending evangelical churches in the country. Before 1993–there were less than 50 known Azeri Christians worldwide–many of whom lived abroad.

Only the Roman Catholic Church has been granted formal registration status with the Azerbaijan government in the past six years–although the Baptist–Adventist and Greater Grace churches had previous status. A number of other churches have been either refused or delayed in their attempts to gain legal registration. These include the Pentecostal Church–Word of Life–the Unregistered Baptists–Ichthus–and several small church-planting groups. Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been denied registration.

Started nearly a century ago in the Central Asian nation’s capital–the Baku Baptist Church now conducts worship services in both the Azerbaijani and Russian languages. Although registered with the Committee on Religious Affairs of the Cabinet of Ministers–it has been unable to regain possession of its original 1908 church building on Azadlyq Avenue–confiscated during the Soviet period and now used as a cinema.

This week’s arrests and pending deportations are reportedly being closely monitored by the US and Norwegian embassies–both of which sent observers to the court proceedings against the local and foreign Christians.

An observer at the Baptist church’s regular mid-week service last night reported that the congregation had assembled without incident–with no evidence of any type of police presence.

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