By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
BUDAPEST/BAKU (BosNewsLife)– Scores of Evangelical Christians in Azerbaijan were without Bibles Saturday, May 28, after security forces raided two churches in the seaside city of Sumgai where they also fined church members for unauthorized worship, Christians said.
The problems began on May 15 when police reportedly raided the Sunday morning service of Praise Church, taking place at a local restaurant in Sumgait, some 31 kilometers (20 miles) outside the capital Baku.
Following the raid by up to 15 police officers, two church members were fined about two weeks’average local wages, said religious rights group Forum 18, which has close contacts with the Christians. Officially monthly wages hover around 440 US Dollars, although many earn far less, according to observers.
Police also went to the home of another local pastor and questioned him about his Christian activity, the group added.
Additionally, on May 17, some 20 police and officials of the local State Committee reportedly raided the home of a South Korean citizen, seizing about 60 books, including Bibles, during a church gathering.
Those present were reportedly questioned by police and forced to write confession statements. There were no reports Saturday, May 28, that the books had been returned.
In statements, officials defended the raids. “You can’t meet for religious purposes in a restaurant – there are mosques and synagogues for that,” an Interior Ministry official said in a statement distributed by Forum 18 News service. He reportedly refused to give his name saying
“I don’t know who you are. You might be a terrorist or Azerbaijan’s enemy number one.”
The latest raids come amid mounting concerns within the opposition about President Ilham Aliyev’s commitment to political and religious rights in the predominantly Islamic nation of nearly nine million people. He took over as president of the former Soviet republic from his father, Heydar, in 2003.
Officials said Aliyev won a second term of office in 2008, scoring an overwhelming victory in an election that was boycotted by the main opposition parties. However despite being an improvement on previous votes, it fell short of fully democratic standards, Western observers said at the time.
The country is expected to come under the international spotlight after winning the 56th Eurovision Song Contest this month, Europe’s annual pop extravaganza watched by tens of millions of people.
It will now have to host the next contest, and rights activists hope that event will help force the nation to release pro-democracy activists, including a young opposition supporter who was jailed for two and half years on drugs charges after using social networking website Facebook to call for an uprising like those in the Arab world.
The governing party of President Ilham Aliyev says that a discredited and unpopular opposition has been trying to stir up confrontation which could damage the country.