ISTANBUL (Compass) -- Two Christians were sent to jail on April 10 for seven days on charges of "disobeying the police" in the town of Ismailly, 120 miles west of the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.
Asif Mardanov and Azer Gasymov were arrested at their homes three days after police had detained them and five other Azerbaijani Christians for several hours. Gasymov was reportedly fired from his job because of the first detention.
The seven Christians were picnicking together near Ismailly on April 7 when they were accused by the police of conducting "mass evangelism." No villagers in the area were known to have complained to the authorities, Baku church sources said.
The Christians are members of a house church in Ismailly linked with Baku's Greater Grace Church. Pastor Roman Abramov, an Azeri citizen of Jewish descent who converted to Christianity some nine years ago, was among those detained.
When apprehended, the four men and three women had their bags, cars and pockets searched by police without a legal search warrant, as required by Azeri law. Their personal belongings were confiscated, including notebooks, mobile telephones, audio and video cassettes of the "Jesus" film and various legal documents.
The seven Christians were held for seven hours on April 7 before police returned their mobile telephones and said they were "temporarily released." They were told they could recover all their belongings on Monday, April 9. According to a church source, "The policemen were rude, and they would provoke, mock and abuse."
The Ismailly house fellowship, now numbering some 24 members, has faced growing pressures from local police, government officials and Muslim leaders over the past two years, a church leader confirmed from Baku.
In December, Ismailly police began to harass Abramov regularly, demanding that he leave the city, stop distributing Christian literature and discontinue meetings with Christian believers. The authorities based their demand on the repeated premise, "Azerbaijan is a Muslim country."
The pastor politely declined to stop his activities, saying that the church was operating within the rights of religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution of Azerbaijan.
When it was clear the pastor would not be dissuaded, a group of mullahs (Muslim religious leaders) filed an official complaint on February 5 with local police, who forwarded it with their own accusations to the regional prosecutor. The documents accused Abramov of violating Article 168 of the Criminal Code, which calls for a three-year jail sentence if convicted.
When the prosecutor's office found Abramov not guilty and refused to register the accompanying police accusation, the Ismailly police notified the pastor that he must pay a fine, claiming his distribution of Christian literature had violated Clause 22 of the laws on religious freedom.
The pastor refused to pay the minimal fine as a matter of principle. He then sent a letter of protest on April 7 to the Interior Minister, requesting that local authorities stop their illegal campaign of harassment against his church. The picnic detention occurred later that same day.
"There is great pressure from the government, police and mass media," an Azeri Christian leader said on April 10. He emphasized that over the past year, members of the Ismailly house church have been so intimidated by repeated summons to police headquarters for interrogation that they are becoming frightened to attend church services.