Tensions between Seventh-day Adventists and government authorities in Azerbaijan increased last month when officials interrupted a church worship service in Sumgait to question members.
State authorities reportedly searched the meeting place, confiscating church property -- including hundreds of books and DVDs -- and accusing members of meeting illegally. Officials have conducted similar seizures of church property in recent years.
Religious liberty advocates said the incident stems from a recent parliamentary vote, which sharply increases fines for unauthorized worship and evangelism in the country. State officials told Forum 18 News that the congregation did not have the required permission to meet.
Azerbaijan's constitution allows for religious freedom, but only for registered faith groups whose churches have official permission to meet. While Adventists have sought registration for the Sumgait congregation since 2003, the process is fraught with delays and denials, local religious liberty advocates said.
Despite repeated meetings with authorities, registration applications are always returned or met with silence, they said.
Next, local church leaders plan to meet with Azerbaijan's Secretary of Religious Affairs, hoping to find a solution.
"We hope that the authorities will recognize the right of a community of believers -- which is not a threat to the security of the state -- to exist and worship according to its traditions," said John Graz, director of the Adventist world church's department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty.