Religious freedom getting worse in Azerbaijan

By August 30, 2007

Azerbaijan (MNN) — A pastor in Northern Azerbaijan continues to be held in jail, and details of his arrest are just coming out. Pastor Zaur Balaev was arrested for holding "illegal meetings"–religious activity without state registration, and for using violence against a state.

President of Slavic Gospel Association Bob Provost says those charges are simply ludicrous. Balaev has spent years trying to register his church, reports Provost. "Every time he has tried to register, he has been refused because he can't find a notary who is willing to validate his membership roll. Without a membership roll that is notarized, he can't register the church." The 35-member church had been meeting in his home until his arrest in May.

Provost says the other allegation is also unfounded. "They accused him of beating up five policemen and damaging a police car. There's not a grain of truth to it."

An appeal is planned, and SGA is helping, but prayer is needed most right now.

Provost expects the situation to get worse for Christians there. "There are 22 Baptist churches in Azerbaijan, and only three have been able to gain the registration that grants them the legal rights to worship."

Will the other churches begin feeling the pressure? Provost says, "I have no doubt. I'm sure they're already being pressured. The opposition in Azerbaijan is very strong. The door of opportunity is closing, and freedom is diminishing."

He believes that is the case in Russia, too. Provost says that's why they're stepping up their efforts. "Here at SGA we're going to be trying to mount a major final push campaign, so we can help the churches there become as strong as they can be before it's too late."

In the meantime, financial help is needed for Balaev's family. With the pastor in jail, his wife and two children are struggling to make ends meet.

If you'd like to help the Balaev family, click here.

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