Baptists in Azerbaijan's northwestern Zakatala [Zaqatala] region have faced forced unemployment, postal censorship, literature restrictions, threats and intimidation ever since the church was founded in 1993, a religious persecution watchdog group reported Thursday. According to Norway-based Forum 18, the problems faced by the Baptists are in addition to the authorities' refusal either to register their church or permit a church to be built.
Aliabad is a small town of some 10,000 people almost entirely made up of members of the Ingilo minority, ethnic Georgians who were converted to Islam several centuries ago. Hamid Shabanov, a local church pastor, told Forum 18 how in 1994, after he converted to Christianity from Islam, he was summoned to the secret police in Zakatala, where officers beat him. He said meetings were organized at the town mosque to denounce Christians.
"Our first problem is the lack of registration: we need to get this problem solved before anything else," said Zaur Balayev, a pastors of a congregation belonging to the Azerbaijani Baptist Union.
Balayev told Forum 18. Registration is "very important", he added, as even if they are interested, townspeople would not come to a service in a private house. Although services have not been raided by the police and local authorities since 1996, Balayev claims that people who have come to Baptist services are still threatened with the loss of their jobs, a powerful threat in a region where work is hard to come by.
"The second problem is the expulsion of church members from their jobs: the authorities won't give them their jobs back or any other jobs in state-run institutions," Balevev added.
About a half-dozen other Baptists reported that they had been kicked out of their jobs in state institutions in the first half of the 1990s, when the authorities learnt they had become Baptist Christians. "I worked for the local television in Zakatala for 18 years," Shabanov told Forum 18. "When I was kicked out they refused to give me a reason at first, then they said it was because I had converted."
Tamila Suleimanova, another church member, told Forum 18 that in 1994 she had been fired from her job as director of a kindergarten where she had worked for seven years. "The director of the regional education department came down and said they had no complaints about my work," she recalled. "But as you've become a Baptist we have to remove you, they told me." She said the police were also present when she was dismissed.
However, the head of the town administration strenuously denied that any Baptists had been dismissed from their jobs, or that there is a de facto ban on employing Baptists in state jobs. "Suleimanova was not sacked that's not true," he insisted to Forum 18. "They're not telling you the truth. They say that their faith doesn't allow them to slander people, but look what they're saying."
The third problem, according to Balevev, is solving the problems over registering children's births with Christian names."
Forum 18 reports that only after repeated pressures have some church members been allowed to register their children's births with names they choose. Without birth certificates, children cannot go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital or travel abroad.
Balevev also reported that the head of the local police summoned him this past summer to warn that the church was not allowed to hold a Sunday school for children. "I told him we have every right to teach our faith to our children if the parents agree," Balayev reported. "He said we had no right to drag our children into religious practice and said no children under 16 attend the mosque."
Forum 18 also reported that Aliabad's Baptists like all religious believers in Azerbaijan are not able to receive religious literature sent by mail. Under Azerbaijan's compulsory religious censorship system, customs impound the literature in Baku and release it only once an individual or religious organization has gained specific authorization from the State Committee.
As Georgian speakers and living very close to the border with Georgia, the Baptists said they would also like to be able to import religious literature from Georgia, but to do so is almost impossible. Anything more than a few religious books for personal use is confiscated.
In one incident 2000, Pastor Shabanov and a colleague were detained for undertaking an evangelistic trip to a nearby town with tapes, New Testaments and tracts. According to Shabanove, the Zakatala regional police then searched his house and confiscated all the religious literature they could find and 300,000 Azeri Manats (61 US Dollars), funds that the community had gathered towards the cost of building a church. "The books were returned two months later, but they never returned the money," Shabanov told Forum 18. The average monthly salary in Azerbaijan is around 30 US Dollars (147,300 Azeri Manats).
"Our constitution guarantees us freedom of religion and belief, but in reality we don't have it," Eyvazov told Forum 18. "We rely on God. If we're persecuted for the name of Christ we're blessed."
Balayev who claims local officials are deliberately obstructing him from opening a grocery shop to be able to earn a living says the Baptists are not going to give up. "If I didn't believe in God or Christ, I'd have left here long ago," he told Forum 18, "but we're not afraid."
On the Open Doors World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians suffer most, Azerbaijan was listed as 20.