By BosNewsLife News Center
BAKU/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- A Baptist pastor in Azerbaijan is facing a two-year prison sentence in a forced labor camp, after an appeals court refused to overturn the conviction, a rights group monitoring the case confirmed to BosNewsLife Tuesday, October 23.
"Pastor Zaur Balaev's appeal of his recent conviction was denied," added Jubilee Campaign USA, which was involved in defending the church leader. "Jubilee Campaign has been following his case and staff personally visited the Azerbaijan embassy [in Washington] on behalf of this pastor who was arrested and convicted, not because of criminal behavior but because of his Christian activities," the group said in a statement.
Baptists in Azerbaijan are reportedly "in shock" following the October 3 ruling by the appeals court in Sheki, a city in North-west Azerbaijan, 325 km (200 miles) from the capital Baku. "We're stunned at the result the court handed down half an hour ago," the head of the Baptist Union, Ilya Zenchenko, said in remarks published by advocacy group Forum 18. "We don't know what to do. It is a tragedy for his wife and children."
Balaev was detained May 20 after police raided what they said was an "illegal" religious gathering. Police reportedly alleged he had attacked them. They said he was prosecuted under legislation that punishes "the application or threat of application of violence" against officials on duty, apparently because he resisted the police raid on his church.
The 44-year-old Balaev led a Baptist congregation in the small town of Aliabad in the far north-west of Azerbaijan, near the border with Georgia. "Like most of the population of the village, he is from the Georgian-speaking Ingilo minority. The congregation has repeatedly over many years had its applications for legal status refused," said Forum 18, which investigates reports of religious persecution. "It has faced years of harassment from the local authorities," apparently backed by locals and Islamic leaders in the area.
Other Baptists in the region have apparently also been targeted. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has reportedly said it is following Balaev's case "closely" and has been in contact with authorities. The US State Department in its International Religious Freedom Report 2006 has expressed concerns about what it sees as "popular prejudice against Muslims who convert to non-Islamic faiths and hostility towards groups that proselytize," in Azerbaijan, "particularly [towards] evangelical Christian and missionary groups."
Azerbaijan has been ruled by President Ilham Aliyev, who took over as head of state from his father, Heydar, in 2003. When his father died, Ilham was already prime minister, vice chairman of the state oil company and deputy leader of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (NAP). Although he won the 2003 presidential ballot by a landslide, Western observers criticized the election campaign which they said had been marred by voter intimidation, violence and media bias. Opposition demonstrations were met with police violence and there many arrests. Christians are among the many people detained in the country, several groups have suggested. (With reporting from Azerbaijan).
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