Azeri Baptist Pastor: The Government Wants to Enslave People
L i s b o n – Zaur Balayev (45), a Baptist pastor imprisoned in Azerbaijan for 10 months, has voiced major criticism of his government. At Council sessions of the European Baptist Federation in Lisbon/Portugal from 24 to 27 September, Balayev stated: “The government are intending to make the country Muslim and to enslave the people.” The pastor had been arrested in the city of Aliabad near the border with Georgia during a church service in May 2007. Public authorities reported that he had resisted being searched. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment for defying government authority. Yet 50 eyewitnesses, 25 of whom were church members, contradicted this description. Balayev stated now that he had been jailed “because they hope to destroy the church”. The Christian faith symbolises freedom, and for that reason, Christians are attacked by the state. Yet even without a pastor, the believers in his Aliabad congregation had continued to gather. He thanked EBF Member Unions for their prayers and support. In prison he had not reckoned to ever again be released - in his papers he had noted an entry stating that he was to remain imprisoned for life. Thousands of Christians throughout the world, including the former US-President and Baptist Jimmy Carter (Plains,USA) had appealed for Balayev’s release. Balayev was finally released after 10 months as part of a larger amnesty.
Balayev admitted that he had been seriously tortured in prison. It was visibly difficult for him to speak about these experiences: “If Jesus had not been with me, then I would have been lost.” Jail keepers repeatedly attempted to provoke him in hopes of finding a cause to increase his sentence.
Balayev also called for prayer for a Baptist colleague: Hamid Shabanov. Following a police search last June, this pastor of a Georgian-speaking Baptist congregation in Aliabad was imprisoned. He was accused of an possessing illegal weapon. Yet Jabijev Elnur (Baku), General-Secretary of Azerbaijan’s Baptist Union, told the European Baptist Press Service he is convinced the weapons were placed in Shabanov’s possession without the Baptist pastor’s knowledge. It was rather a “planned move” intending to “halt the congregation’s work”.
Azerbaijan has 22 Baptist congregation with roughly 3.000 member. Ninety-six percent of the country's eight million inhabitants are Muslims. Most Christians are Russian-Orthodox.