by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Two leaders of the Baptist Church in Baku, Pastor SARY MIRZOYEV and his assistant YAHYA MAMEDOV, were freed on 22 September after serving the fifteen-day sentences imposed after a raid on their church, sources in Baku report.

However, local Protestants complain that the press and television campaign against Christians is continuing and particularly targets ethnic Azeri Christians. Most dangerously, the Protestants have been accused of working on behalf of Azerbaijan's enemy, Armenia. `Even though they are free now,' a Protestant reported from Baku in the wake of the releases, `freedom for the Gospel is not full. TV shows the Baptist church with full information about leaders (names, families, cities where they are born...) accusing them of working for Armenia against the Azeri nation.'

Television reports accuse Mirzoyev of receiving $60,000 and a car as a gift from the United States for his work. Programmes have also shown footage of the Baptist Church taken on 5 September, the day of the raid, with what one local Christian describes as `absolutely wrong information'.

On 5 September police and officers from the National Security Ministry raided the Baku Baptist Church during Sunday worship. They arrested some 60 members of the congregation. The church's pastors and about a dozen foreign citizens who were attending the service were taken to the police station for interrogation. Among those arrested were children and young people.

According to the US-based news service Compass Direct, the detained Azeri Christians were reportedly all asked to sign a paper stating they had been attending an `illegal meeting' and promising not to attend the church again. `Some did under duress,' a Baku source told Compass, `but most did not. Those who did not alleged that the 'confessions' were filled out and signed [forged] on their behalf.'

Mirzoyev and Mamedov were charged under Article 174 of the Administrative Code with resisting the police, tried and convicted in a half-hour court hearing on 7 September. They were allowed visitors during their detention.

The following day, 8 September, the court charged eight foreigners who had been detained at the service under Articles 211 and 202. The eight - three from Korea, one each from Norway, Columbia, Mexico, Finland and Iran - were ordered to be deported from the country. Two other foreigners had to pay a fine but were allowed to remain in Azerbaijan as they are students. The ten were accused of `propagating religion', an offence under Azerbaijani law, which allows only Azerbaijani citizens to engage in such activity. A decree signed into law by President HEIDAR ALIYEV on 6 January 1997 specifically banned religious propaganda in Azerbaijan by foreign citizens and those without citizenship. However, the foreigners contend that attending a legally-registered church does not constitute `propagating religion'.

The raid on the Baptist Church took place despite the fact that it has official registration with the Ministry of Justice. Contacted by telephone on 28 September, MUSTAFA IBRAHIMOV, the acting chairman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, confirmed to Keston News Service that the church had registration and that the two Baptist leaders had been freed, but denied that any of the events surrounding the church had any connection with his office. `No one was sentenced for their religious activity,' he told Keston. `If there were some violations of their religious rights, this is a question for the law-enforcement agencies.' He added that he had been busy with other matters in recent weeks and had not been following events surrounding the Baptist Church. However, he said that his Committee had not
received any complaints from church members about recent events.

According to Christians in Baku, the 5 September raid on the Baptist Church is part of a wider pattern. `During the last months illegal operations against Christians have taken place in Azerbaijan,' an early September report declared. `First it started with the Nehemiah church, Pentecostal and then Baptist churches - they came and raided meetings at cinemas where church is renting halls for their services. After that people begun to gather at homes and the government raided these meetings also and take believers to the police. They frighten people and cull their passports. Believers are kept at police stations for few hours and were demanded to believe in Mohammed instead of Jesus, because they are Azeris.'

Local Christians also report television attacks on the Sumgait Pentecostal Church and the Lokbaton Greater Grace Church.