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EBF/BWA RELIGIOUS FREEDOM MONITORING GROUP VISIT TO AZERBAIJAN
BY TONY PECK

Like other former Soviet Republics, the State of Azerbaijan, in the Caucasus Region, has faced many
challenges in these past years of its independence. A secular Islamic state and oil-rich, it has nevertheless
struggled to improve its record in human rights and religious freedom.
For some time the European Baptist Federation (EBF) had become increasingly concerned about
the religious freedom situation of the Baptists in Azerbaijan. We received reports of new believers being
discriminated against in their employment and often pressured by the state secret police. We were aware
of difficulties of newer Baptist churches in officially registering their churches, thus remaining outside the
law and vulnerable to harassment and persecution. And we have had the cases of two Baptist pastors, Zaur
Balaev and Hamid Shabanov, arrested and imprisoned on what we believe are false charges. As a result
of an EBF-led campaign, including a letter signed by former United States President Jimmy Carter, along
with strong support from the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), Pastor Zaur was released after some months
in prison.
This formed the background for a joint EBF/BWA Religious Freedom Monitoring Group which
visited Azerbaijan from January 11-15. The visit was made possible because of generous help from the
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Carter Offering for Religious Freedom.
The delegation consisted of Tony Peck, EBF General Secretary and BWA Regional Secretary for
Europe; Christer Daelander, EBF Religious Freedom Representative; Ebbe Holm, a Danish human rights
lawyer; and Parush Parushev, the Academic Dean of International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague
who has established good contacts with the Azerbaijani Embassy in Prague. We were very glad that our
invitation to the BWA to partner our visit meant that Paul Montacute, Director of Baptist World Aid, was
also able to join us.
Careful preparation took place before our visit to ensure that we could meet with the Chair of the
Government Committee on Religious Communities, and with the Baku office of the Organization for
Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). We also arranged meetings with officials of the British,
Norwegian and USA Embassies.
An early meeting with the Chair of the Committee on Religious Communities made clear the official
government view that there were “no problems” with the treatment of the Baptists. We were invited to talk
to other religious communities about their situation and visits were arranged for us with Muslim, Jewish
and Orthodox leaders.
What became clear to us, however, was that having adopted a state model of “secular Islam,” the
Azerbaijani government is very nervous about any religious group whose members actively practice their
faith. They monitor some “Wahabi” Muslim groups where the state is concerned that a strict adherence
to Islam might lead to fanaticism and terrorism. Concerning evangelical Christians such as Baptists, the
question was raised with us as to whether these groups are really good and loyal citizens of Azerbaijan.
Part of our role as a monitoring group was to assure the government that the Baptists in Azerbaijan are
part of a worldwide movement of Baptists who are encouraged to support their national governments and
regularly pray for their political leaders.
During the Soviet period, the few Baptist churches in Azerbaijan were for the Russian population and
the remaining three Russian Baptist churches are registered and have full legal status. But since the early
1990s, a remarkable mission movement has taken place among the indigenous Azeri people, nominally
Muslim, and there are
Photos: Zaur Balaev, imprisoned Baptist pastor, and his wife. Balaev was released in March 2008.
Baptists worshipping in Azerbaijan
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