Azerbaijani court overturns religion-based deportation orders

US and Norway heavily lobbied this oil-rich country in need of foreign

Eight expatriates charged with proselytizing after police in Baku raided their Baptist Church in September will not be deported as ordered, diplomatic sources said this week.

The orders had been seen as threatening the predominantly Muslim former Soviet state's movement toward the West.

The Supreme Court overturned the orders late last week, according to sources at the US Embassy here. The ruling came after heavy lobbying aimed at Azeri President Heidar Aliev by US Ambassador Stanley Escudero and Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, who is also the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The embassy received written confirmation of the move as Azerbaijan took part in the OSCE's high-profile summit in Turkey. But diplomatic officials declined to speculate on whether the ruling was politically timed.

"We're very encouraged by President Aliev's confirmation of his country's commitment to religious freedoms," one US diplomatic official says. The embassy had paid close attention to the case even though no Americans were ordered to leave.

In a meeting with Mr. Escudero earlier this month, Aliev said his administration would "take the necessary steps" to overturn the deportation orders and pledged that "similar incidents will not be repeated."

Aliev also met with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious leaders and reiterated his commitment to religious freedom in Azerbaijan. The meetings came on the heels of at least five raids on churches in and around Baku in the past three months.

The incidents occurred as Azerbaijan is trying to align itself with Europe and America, luring foreign investment to help lift it out of its post-Soviet lethargy. During the OSCE summit, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkmenistan signed accords aimed at making Caspian Sea oil and gas resources available to Western markets - a project strongly backed by the US.

At the same time, Baku is hoping Congress will repeal Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, a measure seen here preventing direct government-to-government aid to Azerbaijan. Further complicating matters is a new US law that requires diplomatic missions to compile reports on religious freedoms around the globe. Unfavorable reports, some fear, could jeopardize future business in, or aid to, Azerbaijan.

Members of the Evangelical Christian Baptist Church, a 100-year-old parish that boasts regular attendance of 400, said they were stunned when police interrupted an afternoon service on Sept. 5. Officers rounded up 60 worshippers, including a half-dozen women and children, and took them to a local police station for four hours of questioning.

A lower court judge ruled three days later that eight foreigners among those detained had "spread illegal propaganda" and "propagated against the Islamic religion and tried to draw people away from this religion." One local television station reported that ministers were preaching "Muhammad is pagan," although church leaders deny ever referring to Islam.

In Baku, expatriates divided over the flap, with some finding it difficult to fault Azeri authorities.

Bill Reynolds, editor of the Baku Sun, an English language weekly, says outside religious groups here are "a mixed bag."

"Some keep to themselves, and some are aggressive in seeking converts," he says. "For Americans, it's probably the equivalent of fundamentalist Islamic missionaries going to the Midwest for converts."

Trond Langen of Norway was among those ordered to leave. He still hasn't received official confirmation that the order was lifted and has been waiting weeks for his work visa to be renewed. "If it's true, well, that's good news for me," he says. "But after all this ... I'm not going to breathe out until this visa thing is over."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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