Azerbaijan (MNN) — A court in Azerbaijan has fined a pastor and church worker, another blow to religious freedom in the country. Azerbaijan has restricted religious freedom over the last decade, refusing registration for evangelical churches and restricting churches from holding services.
Pastor Zaur Balaev was arrested and charged on trumped up changes in 2007. This appears to be another attempt to persecute him. This time Balaev and church worker, Hinayat Shabanova, were fined more than $1,900.
Spokesman for Slavic Gospel Association Joel Griffith says the fines are just another trial for Balaev. "His wife, Nunuka, developed pancreatic cancer, so he's been in the middle of trying to make sure she gets treated for her serious illness. Then, to have to face these legal difficulties is just doubly tragic."
Pastor Balaev's church has been seeking registration since 1994. Forum 18 reports that's the longest known period for any religious community in Azerbaijan. "Now, in light of them continuing to meet, obviously, and worship as a church–even though they've not been able to get legal registration, authorities have moved in now and decided to levy these very severe fines," says Griffith.
Griffith says Christians in the West need to be wise in their response to this. "We don't want to do anything that would cause any harm to come to any of our missionary pastors or any of the churches there. We've seen sometimes where western pressure has the opposite result, and they end up cracking down even harder."
Christians are being asked to pray on behalf of pastors in Central Asia. "We think of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan–so many of these Muslim-dominated regions where believers are having a very tough time. They need our intercessory prayer," Griffith says.
He continues, "Pray that the Lord would raise up resources to help in this situation. Certainly it's not just going to be Pastors Balaev and Shabanov; there are others that may need help."
The Azeri Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists is appealing the fines to a higher court. In the meantime, Griffith says, "Our sponsor church planters are going to be doing all we can to come alongside and support [them]."
Despite the fines and persecution, the churches are growing in these nations.