by Felix Corley, Keston News Service
Amid growing pressure on Protestant congregations, two leaders of the unregistered Pentecostal church Living Stones have been arrested and given fifteen-day prison terms, Protestant sources in the Azerbaijani capital Baku have told Keston News Service. The two - Yusuf Farkhadov and Kasym Kasymov - were detained in Sumgait, a town close to Baku, when police and National Security Ministry officers raided a prayer meeting last Friday (18 January) held in a private flat in the town's 9th micro-district. The two were given the two-week prison term under Article 310 of the Administrative Code, which punishes "petty hooliganism". "All they were doing was praying," one church member told Keston. They are serving their term in police detention cells in Sumgait.
"At about 3 p.m. ten to fifteen police and security ministry officers burst into the flat where the prayer meeting was going on," one of the church's leaders told Keston from Baku on 21 January. "They searched the flat and took away all the religious literature they could find. Ten of those attending the meeting were taken to the local police station, where they were interrogated about the life of the church and pressured to write statements. All were then freed except Farkhadov and Kasymov. They were sentenced by 6 p.m. that evening."
The Living Stones church has unsuccessfully tried to register with the authorities to gain legal status. "We gave in the application and it lay around for a year and a half," the church leader told Keston. "Then last autumn it was returned. They said there were errors in the application." The church is also listed as a branch of the Nehemiah Protestant church, which does have registration. However, when they showed the certificate to the officers raiding the meeting "they weren't interested".
The church has encountered frequent hostility from the Sumgait authorities. In 1999, during the last wave of anti-Protestant activity, members were detained and fined. The authorities have stepped up such measures recently. Another member of the Sumgait church was imprisoned for fifteen days last autumn, while yet another was fined 75,000 manats (16 US dollars or 11 British pounds) late last year.
The Azerbaijani authorities seem intent on closing down many Protestant churches. The compulsory re-registration drive now underway is likely to see the majority lose their registration (see KNS 12 December 2001). Many Protestant churches have been vilified on independent television stations. One Protestant source told Keston that journalists from such stations appear to have lists of the locations where Protestants meet from Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations.
On 23 January the Narimanov district of Baku will hear the case brought by the State Committee to liquidate the city's Love Baptist church.