By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- Two Baptist pastors in two former Soviet republics faced legal challenges Monday, November 3, because they continued worship services despite opposition from local authorities, Christians and rights watchers said.
In Kazakhstan a court in Akmola Region punished Baptist pastor Andrei Blok with 150 hours compulsory labor "for refusing to pay fines imposed to punish him for leading unregistered worship," said Forum 18, a major human rights group.
In Azerbaijan Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov was preparing for his next appearance in court in Zakatala region this week on charges of "illegal possession of a weapon." The long-delayed trial is due to resume on 5 November, his lawyer and family said. "The charges carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison," Forum 18 added.
Church members say police planted the weapon in the pastor's home to punish him for his leadership of the church. "There has not been any explanation of why Shabanov is still being held when the court-ordered the detention period expired on October 21, nor why the police did not bring him to the court for a scheduled hearing on October 28," added Forum 18.
"They are deliberately drawing this out as they don't want Shabanov to go to court," his lawyer Mirman Aliev said in published remarks. "They want to hold him for as long as they can." He complained of the "crude violations" of the law. Shabanov's brother complains of the authorities' attempt to prosecute the second of the church's pastors. "They want to imprison the leader and see the community fall apart."
Family members of pastor Blok in Kazakhstan suggested they have mixed feelings about his compulsory community service, but made clear it could have been worse. "If not for many telephone calls to the court and city officials from around the world Andrei could have been put into prison for several months," his family said in a statement.
Forum 18 quoted Yuliya Merkel of the local Justice Department as saying that Blok "needs" to register his church, and apparently refused to say what would happen if the church continues to worship without registration.
Other religious groups have also been targeted in the former Soviet Union, Forum 18 said. In Kazakhstan "a Jehovah's Witness community in the Caspian port city of Atyrau is preparing to complain in court against the Atyrau Justice Department, which has rejected its eighth registration application in seven years," Forum 18 said. "Meanwhile Karasai District Court in Almaty Region on October 28 resumed the twice-postponed hearing over the demolition of the only Hare Krishna temple in Kazakhstan." The next was due this weekend, but the community said it saw "first signs the court was trying to get a decision against" them "at any cost."
A Muslim community also faced challenges in Azerbaijan. "Five days after ruling that the closed Abu-Bekr mosque in Baku should be allowed to reopen, the same judge overturned his own decision," Forum 18 said, citing the mosque's lawyer Javanshir Suleymanov. Police reportedly claim the mosque faces a threat of attack. "This is just stupid. They don't have the right to scare people like that," Suleymanov reportedly said. Authorities had no comment.
It comes amid concerns among US officials over the religious rights situation in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. "The Kazakh parliament has moved decisively toward passage of a draft law governing religious communities that would restrict rather than strengthen protections of freedom of religion or belief," said the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. "The law follows the example of other former Soviet republics that have increased legal and other restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief."
In Azerbaijan, the situation remains difficult for Christians and other religious groups, said the US State Department last month. "There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government...Some religious groups reported delays in and denials of registration."
It said that although, "Most religious groups met without government interference; local authorities monitored religious services, and officials at times harassed and detained members of Islamic and "nontraditional" religious groups.â€
Rights groups have suggested that autocratic government in the region, often see non-traditional religious groups as a threat to their power base. Officials in the region have denied religious rights abuses, saying everyone is entitled to worship within the laws of the land.
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