May 10, 20001
Jailed Azeri Christian Forced To Quit Job
Local Pastor Calls Court-Ordered Fine 'Illegal'
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, May 3 (Compass) -- An Azeri Christian jailed for 10 days for allegedly "disobeying police orders" in the town of Ismailly has since been forced to resign from his accounting job at a local hospital.

Azer Gasymov, 21, was released April 20 from prison in Ismailly, about 120 miles west of Baku. But as soon as he returned to his job as assistant accountant at Ismailly's Central Hospital, Gasymov came under considerable pressure from his director and fellow employees to resign.

"They said it would be better if he writes his own resignation," a local church source told Compass yesterday. "Anyway it would be hard to stay there, because everyone is just mocking and pointing at him, putting him under a lot of pressure." Gasymov reportedly submitted the requested letter of resignation at the end of April.

According to a representative of Baku's Greater Grace Church who met Gasymov last week, the convert was not physically mistreated during his prison detention. "What happened was that he just shared the gospel with the people there in prison," the source said.

Together with fellow Christian Akif Mardanov, Gasymov had been accused on April 10 of committing an "administrative misdemeanor" against a police officer. The alleged incident occurred on April 7, when seven members of their house church were arrested during a picnic and held for seven hours.

"The court proceedings were very fast," recalled Gasymov's pastor, Roman Abramov, who was present in the courtroom on April 10 after the two believers were re-arrested at their homes. "The judge didn't listen to the objections of the attorney and rendered a decision according to the request of the police."

Mardonov was given a seven-day jail sentence at the same hearing, despite his protest to the judge that he suffered from diabetes. However, his court-appointed lawyer promptly appealed the decision, and several hours later, Mardonov was called back to court and informed that due to his diabetic condition, his sentence had been commuted to a fine.

Only a few days later, on April 13, Mardonov's home was robbed by unknown thieves, who made off with most of his mother's kitchen pots and pans when no one was at home. "Such utensils are very precious in the village environment," a church source noted. "We don't know who did it, but we decided to report it to the police."

To date, Mardonov has received no notification of any specific fine he has been ordered to pay in lieu of his confinement.

Meanwhile, Pastor Abramov has refused to pay a fine assessed against him by the local prosecutor's office on April 5. He was fined 55,000 manats ($12) for violating Clause 22 of the national law on religious freedom.

Although the public prosecutor found Abramov not guilty of violating Article 168 of the Criminal Code, as charged by his police accusers, he ruled that the pastor's distribution of Christian literature was illegal, since he had failed to get permission from local authorities.

"I disagree with that," Abramov wrote in a letter of complaint to Interior Minister Ramil Usubov on April 7.

"I ask you to reverse the illegal resolution of the Police Department of Ismailly region on March 28," Abramov continued, "as it does not have a legal basis and contradicts the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, international accords and the legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan."

According to a Baku church source, Abramov was distributing Azeri-language New Testaments, all of which had been brought into the country in 1997 by permission of the Council of Ministers. "So this administrative fine is not right," the source said. "He did not violate any law."

The April 7 arrest of Abramov and six others appeared to be a reaction to the pastor's refusal two days earlier to pay the fine, as a matter of principle.

"The main accusation which we heard from the chief of the criminal police division, Tagiev, and from Major Askerov, was our service to God in spreading our faith in Jesus Christ among the population of Azerbaijan," Pastor Abramov said in a written statement forwarded to Compass.

Abramov said Major Askerov handled Gasymov roughly during the April 7 arrest, hitting him twice in the head after isolating him in a room away from the others. "Major Askerov spoke with us very cruelly, and even yelled at us when we said that they, the police, were breaking the law."

Complaints against Abramov's "dissemination of the Christian religion" throughout the Ismailly region had been filed on February 5 by Yusif Asadaga Mamedov, mullah of the Dzhuma Mosque. According to his accusations, which were corroborated by three other Muslim prayer leaders, Abramov was enlisting people to distribute Christian literature, carrying on meetings in many places and delivering religious sermons.

However, the Muslim leaders admitted that the Christian pastor had not contradicted the tenets of Islam, nor had he violated citizens' rights or exerted financial enticements, as forbidden by law.

Ismailly's two-dozen-member house church has been subjected to growing harassment by local police and government officials for the past two years. It is affiliated with the Greater Grace Church, which has been registered as a legal Christian denomination by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Justice since 1993.

According to last year's religious freedom report from the U.S. State Department, quasi-government harassment of Christian activities in traditionally Muslim Azerbaijan "appeared to reflect the strong popular prejudice against ethnic Azerbaijanis who have converted to Christianity."