11/05/2010, 00.00
AZERBAIJAN

Baptist Christians in prison for having gathered to pray

The police raided a private home, a photographer present, cutting electricity and gas. 4 Baptists detained, taken to court and convicted the same night. In the country persecution of Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses frequent, to combat "extremism."

Baku (AsiaNews/F18) - Police burst into a private home and arrested 4 of Baptist Christians "guilty" of praying together, in the northern Qusar. Ilgar Mamedov owner of the house and three other Christians (Zalib Ibrahimov, Rauf Gurbanov and Akif Babaev) , were arrested by police on Oct. 31, and immediately brought before the local tribunal, which sentenced them to five days in jail, in a swift hearing held behind closed doors, without access to a defense.

Forum 18 news agency reports that on November 1, another Christian, went to the police to ask for news of the four arrested the night before, he knew the trial had already taken place. The nature of the offense is not clear, while faithful report that the police threatened them with even harsher penalties.

There were about 80 Baptists gathered in the house for Sunday celebrations. Before leaving, the police also cut gas and electricity to the apartment, to prevent them from preparing a festive lunch. Police took the names of the faithful gathered in the house, photographing and filming those present.

Police say it was a "normal" operation against illegal meetings. In this country religious groups must register and seek authorization for any activity, even to get together to pray. Many groups of Baptist Churches refuse to ask for registration, to avoid state interference. However, others say they have applied for recognition but their applications have been blocked for bureaucratic reasons.

Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist community, told Radio Free Europe that the Qusar police frequently arrest and charge members of religious groups, saying they must fight "extremism."

In the country are frequent condemnations of Baptist Christians. In May 2008, the pastor Zauer Balaev was sentenced to two years in prison for a crime based on evidence denounced as false. He 'was released in March 2008 following a formal protest by the World Baptist Alliance and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov was arrested in 2009 on charges of having weapons found by police during a search, although those who know him guarantees that he never had them.

In another case, the court of Baku sentenced a Jehovah's Witness to a hefty fine for offering religious publications to passers-by on the street.
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