Azerbaijan (MNN/Forum 18) — There's good news coming out of Azerbaijan concerning imprisoned Baptist Pastor Zuer Balaev.
Slavic Gospel Association's Joel Griffith says, "He has indeed been released on an amnesty by the president of Azerbaijan. And it was in conjunction with a holiday. The government will traditionally do amnesty sometimes on holidays. So Zuer Balaev was one of several prisoners in Azerbaijan who was amnestied."
Azerbaijan is located in Southwestern Asia, bordering the Caspian Sea, between Iran and Russia with a small European portion north of the Caucasus range
After his release, Balaev made the six-hour journey back to his home village of Aliabad in Azerbaijan's remote northwest. "We won! It's a great joy to be free," he said to Forum 18.
"We're all waiting for him!" exclaimed one of his church members.
Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, welcomed the release. "We thank God and those who prayed and supported Zaur," he said. "But there is a lot more work still to be done to defend religious freedom in Azerbaijan."
Balaev's amnesty came under a March 18 decree from President Ilham Aliev, published on the presidential website, which pardoned 58 prisoners and reduced the sentence of one other. Reports indicate former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was among those who appealed for Balaev's release, writing to President Aliev on February 15.
Balaev was arrested in May 2007 and sentenced in August on charges of using violence against state representatives, an accusation church members denied. After his appeal failed in October, Balaev was transferred to a prison in the capital Baku.
While Christians are thanking God for Balaev's releases, that doesn't mean religious freedom is improving. Griffith says, "With any Baptist pastor, evangelical or non-Islamic religious group, they're probably going to be watched very closely. We know from officials over there that other pastors have been threatened with the same kind of treatment if they were to pursue their ministries or plant other congregations."
Griffith is hopeful, however. "Our hope is that the international outcry of the Balaev case will result somehow in the government loosening some of the strings."
Despite their joy at Balaev's release, Griffith says there are still some concerns. "He has indeed been amnestied, but his actual conviction remains in force." The country's Supreme Court has still not responded to Balaev's latest appeal. They're also considering whether or not to move forward with an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over what they regard as an unjust sentence.
It has been difficult and next-to-impossible for evangelical groups to gain legal status from the government. Efforts to register or apply for legal status by Balaev's church and others have been thwarted by local officials. Censorship of religious materials is also common.
Continue to pray for believers in Azerbaijan. Pray that they'll be bold in their witness, strong in their faith and loving to those who persecute them.