AZERBAIJAN: Baptist Liquidation Hearing Postponed Again.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 7 March 2002

The hearing in the case to liquidate the Love Baptist Church in the Azerbaijani capital Baku was postponed yesterday (6 March) yet again, the church's assistant pastor Yahya Mamedov told Keston News Service from Baku. The Narimanov district court had been due to hear the suit, brought by Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, in the afternoon of 6 March, but the judge Muslim Aliev suggested to both parties that the dispute be resolved amicably. "Why do you need to bring it to court?" Mamedov quoted the judge as telling the two parties. Asked by Keston whether he believed an amicable settlement was possible, Mamedov was doubtful. "We'll see." A further hearing date has tentatively been arranged for 26 March in case no settlement is reached before then.

An earlier hearing due on 23 January was also postponed (see KNS 24 January 2002). It is not clear if the repeated delays are a result of official nervousness at the level of international interest about the case.

The suit to close down the church was initiated last December after Rafik Aliev obtained a tape-recorded copy of a sermon Pastor Sari Mirzoyev had preached the previous month which he said had insulted the dignity of state officials (the traffic police) and insulted Islam. Pastor Mirzoyev vigorously rejects the charges.

However, despite Aliev's claims, the legal case rests solely on whether the church had violated Article 22 of the religion law which requires religious organisations to obtain permission from the State Committee to publish or make copies of religious literature or tapes (a provision that violates Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments). The church acknowledges that sermons were taped without permission, but says this was for internal use only.

Pastor Mamedov claims that the State Committee deliberately fabricated "evidence" to place before the court. "The tape they obtained - we don't know where from - was old and there was only a flimsy paper insert in the box with a simple title in Azeri written in Cyrillic letters," he told Keston in Baku on 1 March. "However, the State Committee copied the recording onto a brand new tape and printed a new cover on nice paper with the title 'God loves you', written in Azeri in the Latin script and with the church's name and address, as if we produce these tapes in large quantities to give out." He says Rafik Aliev refused to show them the tape, but an aide to the judge showed it to him. The State Committee's lawyer also complained to Pastor Mamedov about a small booklet of Bible verses the church had produced at the beginning of 2000.

Speaking to Keston at his home in Baku on 1 March, Pastor Mirzoyev was visibly angry and upset by what he claims is a relentless media and government attack on him and his family. "I'm tired of all this," he declared. "No-one can put up with this. How much longer will I and my family suffer?" He was particularly upset by the media campaign against him and the church in recent months, led by the private television companies ANS and Space TV. "If this is democracy, why am I and my family rubbished on television every day and not even allowed to put my point of view?"

He complained that his daughter and her husband, who is from Kashmir, have been publicly identified in the media without their permission, and that people had written to Kashmir to say that his son-in-law had become a Christian. "They are now trying to kill him," Pastor Mirzoyev claimed.

He complained about the government's aim in bringing the suit against the church. "Rafik Aliev told me he will bury me. He said if we win in court he will take the case to the city court and then to the national court. He said he will force us to close ourselves down. 'Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter,' it says in the Bible. This is what they are doing."

The Love Baptist Church gained registration at the Justice Ministry on 18 March 2000 and has applied for re-registration under the new regulations. It has not received a formal rejection of its re-registration application, but officials of the State Committee have made clear that it will never achieve re-registration. "Their aim is to halt our activity," Pastor Mirzoyev told Keston. "That's why they've begun investigation after investigation."

The centre in Baku of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the local representative of the Council of Europe have told Keston that they are closely following the case. (END)