KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 18 January 2002.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

AZERBAIJAN: BAPTIST PASTOR VOWS TO FIGHT COURT
LIQUIDATION. Sary Mirzoyev, pastor of the Love Baptist Church in the
Azerbaijani capital Baku, told Keston News Service on 18 January that he
will fight attempts next week to liquidate his church as a legal entity. It is
alleged that Pastor Mirzoyev preached against Islam and that therefore the
church has violated the country's religion law and should be liquidated.
Mirzoyev believes the allegations are an excuse not to re-register the
church. "They don't want us to function.� he told Keston. �They don't like
the fact that the church is made up of Azerbaijanis and holds services in
Azeri." The hearing begins on 23 January at the court of Baku's
Narimanov district.

AZERBAIJAN: BAPTIST PASTOR VOWS TO FIGHT COURT
LIQUIDATION

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Sary Mirzoyev, pastor of the Love Baptist Church in the Azerbaijani
capital Baku, has told Keston News Service that he will fight attempts
next week to liquidate his church as a legal entity. The hearing in the
liquidation suit, brought by Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee
for Relations with Religious Organisations, begins on 23 January at the
court of Baku's Narimanov district. Aliev is alleging that Pastor Mirzoyev
preached against Islam and that therefore the church has violated the
country's religion law and should be liquidated. "They have alleged that
we are arousing religious hatred," Pastor Mirzoyev told Keston from
Baku on 18 January. "I said nothing against Islam or against Muslims."

The Love Baptist congregation meets in the same church building in
Narimanov district as the Russian-language congregation, which is not
affected by the case to liquidate its sister-congregation.

Mirzoyev told Keston his church has still not found a lawyer to defend
them and even then has no money to pay for one.

The case to liquidate the church was lodged on 25 December, "the day of
Christ's birth" Mirzoyev noted. The state committee's case is based on
remarks made by Pastor Mirzoyev in a sermon last December, shortly
after the church lodged its re-registration application under the
compulsory re-registration round now underway (see KNS 12 December
2001). "We record all our sermons on tape, and one of these tapes fell into
their hands," Mirzoyev told Keston. "I was preaching on Chapter 58 of
the Book of Isaiah about fasting and I took the example of two people
talking, one of them a Muslim. They could have been people of any faith.
I was not insulting their faith."

Mirzoyev believes the allegations against him over his remarks are an
excuse not to re-register the church. "We had only just given in our re-
registration documents and everything was in order with them," he told
Keston. "They don't want us to function. They don't like the fact that the
church is made up of Azerbaijanis and holds services in Azeri." He
pointed out that it was only under international pressure that the church
originally gained registration in 1999 after he and fellow pastor Yahya
Mamedov spent 15 days in prison (see KNS 1 October 1999).

Mirzoyev reported that after attacks on the church surfaced in the local
media in early December, accusing the church of inciting hatred towards
Islam, Aliev phoned him to arrange a meeting. Mirzoyev went to visit
him on 7 December. "During a two-minute discussion, Aliev said he
wanted to help us so that nothing bad would happen to us," Mirzoyev
reported. "Then he launched the case to liquidate us."

Aliev was unavailable on 18 January at the state committee, so Keston
was unable to find out whether official dislike of Azeri-language
Christian churches was behind the move. Reached by telephone on 18
January, state committee deputy chairman Namik Allahverdiyev declined
absolutely to discuss the liquidation case. Also refusing to discuss it was
an official of the committee's legal department. "We don't answer
questions by telephone," she declared. "You must submit an official
request."

In an earlier interview, Aliev complained about the church. "They offend
Muslims and make fun of them," he told Keston on 11 December, four
days after his brief conversation with Mirzoyev. "I listened to the cassette
of the sermon. They said that Muslims who observe the Ramadan fast
were not correct, that fasting was not necessary and that only Christian
fasts were right. They are deceiving God and the people. They're against
the state and the people. Anyone can say that another religion is not
correct, but this is crude. It was not said in the proper way." He said the
church had been given a warning, which he said Mirzoyev had accepted,
and had not been banned. "I have given them 10 days to correct their
violation of the law."

Both officials and the media have engaged in strong criticism and
allegations against Christian minority churches in recent months,
especially those with large numbers of Azerbaijani adherents. The tape of
Mirzoyev's sermon was broadcast by the private ANS television station in
Baku, which has frequently led attacks on converts to Christianity. When
the Baptist church was attacked by an apparently drunk man late on 16
December, some media reports alleged that it was being financed by
Armenian organisations (Azerbaijan and Armenia have been disputing the
Nagorno-Karabakh enclave since 1988).

National Security Minister Namiq Abbasov claimed in an interview with
national television on 9 October that the overwhelming majority of
missionary organisations working in Azerbaijan are a front for the
"special services of interested states". He alleged that Matti Sirvio,
formerly pastor of the Baku Greater Grace Protestant church, had been
deported from "for espionage for a foreign state". He also accused the
Adventist relief organisation ADRA of conducting proselytism on behalf
of the Adventist faith, allegations that the organisation has strenuously
denied.

It remains unclear whether the media attacks are designed to put pressure
on the state not to register some minority religious communities in the
new registration round. It is already clear that the majority of religious
groups that already have registration will lose it. Aliev told the Baku-
based Turan news agency on 15 January that of the 407 religious groups
that have registration (out of a total of some 2,000), only 150 have
submitted new applications that are still being considered. He said 200
groups have had their applications returned "in view of incorrect
composition or violation of the law on freedom of conscience". He
admitted that even the country's biggest religious organisation, the
Caucasian Muslim Board, has failed to submit its registration application.
He said that in view of this slow response to the re-registration process,
the deadline had been extended from 31 December to 1 February. (END)

Copyright (c) 2002 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.