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OSLO, Norway (BP) -- Police in Azerbaijan raided the homes of two Baptist pastors who are former prisoners of conscience.

On Nov. 7, about 10 police officers arrived at the home of Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev in Aliabad, where eight local church members were gathered. Balaev and his wife were in Moscow at the time, getting treatment for her cancer, according to Norway-based religious freedom monitor Forum 18.

Police produced a search warrant, took pictures of the house and seized more than a dozen Christian literature items, including New Testaments.

"They told us it is illegal to meet without registration," Ramiz Osmanov, a fellow Baptist, told Forum 18, noting that the officers were respectful. "They said they would check the books by sending them for religious expert analysis by the State Committee in the capital Baku and would return them if there is nothing harmful."

Authorities forced Osmanov and another woman to write a statement about what church members were doing. Police then took Osmanov to a police station for questioning, releasing him after an hour and a half. They did not say if any charges would be filed against those meeting at the house.

Balaev was imprisoned from May 2007 to March 2008 on charges of using violence against state representatives -- charges he and his community say were fabricated to punish him for his religious practices, Forum 18 reported.

At about the same time as the Nov. 7 raid on Balaev's house, police raided the nearby home of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov while only he and his wife were there, according to Forum 18. Officers confiscated New Testaments and Bibles as well as Christian literature and cassettes.

"They told us we meet for worship illegally as we have no registration," Shabanov told Forum 18.

He said police made a list of the books they seized and told him they would send the literature to the State Committee in Baku.

"They told me that if the books were legal, they would be returned. If they were not, I would be fined," he told Forum 18.

Shabanov was taken to the police station, where he was held until 5 p.m. His wife chose to join him, and they were both required to write statements.

According to Forum 18, police had arrested Shabanov in June 2008, holding him in pre-trial detention until he was convicted in February 2009 of possessing an illegal weapon and handed a two-year suspended sentence. Shabanov and fellow Baptists say the charges were fabricated to punish him for his religion.

As evidence of that, Shabanov told Forum 18 that the district police chief's deputy, Kamandar Hasanov, threatened him a month before his arrest, warning Shabanov that if he and his fellow Baptists did not abandon their faith, he would force them to do so.

"My lawyer asked him about this in court but he denied ever saying it," Shabanov told Forum 18.

According to Forum 18's April 2012 religious freedom survey, Azerbaijan is trying to make exercising religious rights contingent upon state permission. Key issues include unfair trials, increased restrictions on exercising freedom of religion or belief, restrictive censorship, closure of worship places and jailing of prisoners of conscience.

Among Azerbaijan's religious restrictions, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations conducts strict censorship of all religious literature produced, imported and distributed, with religious literature frequently seized from private individuals.

"Maybe there is something in these books -- we don't know what's in them," a State Committee spokesperson told Forum 18, arguing that since literature is returned if nothing illegal is found, the practice does not amount to censorship. The spokesman confirmed to Forum 18 that the State Committee keeps a list of banned religious books.

Baptists in Aliabad have long sought to register with the state to make their congregation legal, but Forum 18 reports they have been repeatedly thwarted.

In 2011, the government changed registration rules so that religious communities need at least 50 adult citizens to apply, a threshold difficult to reach for smaller communities. No Baptists or Jehovah's Witness communities have been able to re-register, and Muslim communities not under state backing are banned.

The State Committee spokesperson rejected the idea that the agency prevents communities it does not like from re-registering.

"It is not true -- there is no discrimination," he told Forum 18.

Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net

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