Azerbaijan: Adventist congregation questioned, told to suspend church services

By: Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN
Date: 12/21/07
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Five Seventh-day Adventists and three visitors were allegedly questioned, fined and warned not to meet again after what the small congregation is calling a government "raid" on their meeting hall in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku Saturday.

The church members said seven men in police uniforms and six wearing plainclothes interrupted Sabbath services mid-morning on December 8, initially demanding passports of those attending, they reported. The 13 officials searched the premises. They confiscated books and other religious materials and arrested the worshippers, accusing them of meeting without state registration.

The incident follows a similar intrusion earlier this year.

Norway-based Forum 18 News Service reported from Oslo December 10 that the officials attempted to force the members to sign statements denying their faith. They were held for 5 hours at the local police station, then fined and released.

Rasim Bakhshiyev, the congregation's pastor, told Forum 18 the officers threatened imprisonment if the church members continued to meet. Upon release, Bakhshiyev was fined 16.50 manats (US$20) and the others members were fined 11 manats.

The Adventist congregation meets in a privately owned building in Baku, which church leaders there said falls under the registration of the city's central Adventist Church. Registration is required in order to hold legal church services in Azerbaijan.

Jonathan Gallagher, Adventist Church liaison to the United Nations, said securing individual registrations for church groups in Azerbaijan is a case-by-case process fraught with delays and denials. Other Protestant denominations in the country face similar challenges to religious liberty, he said.

"Given all our attempts to develop a good relationship with the government of Azerbaijan," Gallagher said, "we are very disappointed they have chosen to treat our members in such a way."

Victor Vitko, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the church's Euro-Asia region, is planning to meet with government representatives and religious leaders in Azerbaijan at the end of the month.

Nearly 700 Adventists worship in the country of 8.5 million.
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