A Baptist pastor in the South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan has been found guilty of what supporters say are bogus weapons charges and given "a two-year corrective labor sentence," according to a worldwide Baptist group.
The Virginia-based Baptist World Alliance announced Feb. 20 that Hamid Shabanov, who pastors a house church of approximately 60 members in the town of Aliabad, had been convicted. He was arrested on June 20, 2008, after police claimed to have found an illegal weapon in his home after a raid.
Denying the allegations against Shabanov, and claiming that the weapon was planted by the police, Baptist Union of Azerbaijan General Secretary Elnur Jabiyev said the arrest "was a provocation by the police" and that it was "a deliberately targeted action," according to a BWA press release. Jabiyev claimed "the police’s aim is to halt Baptist activity and close the church in Aliabad.”
Azerbaijan is trying to forge a national identity based on Islam, and any groups that get in the way of this, officially tolerated or not, will be harassed until they no longer effectively exist. This goes to extremes: a store in Aliabad was torn down because it had a roof "shaped like a steeple." This has the amusing side benefit of sidelining ethnic Georgians and others who tend to be less in favor of the current regime than most; indeed, to the extent that there is an opposition party in the Zaqatala region (where Aliabad is located), it tends to be ethnic Georgians who simply have a better sense of what democracy actually means.