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Despite the increasing pressures faced by Christians in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, the Gospel is spreading and the church is growing, reports Release International’s TOM HARDIE…

Since his arrest and imprisonment for evangelism in 2009, Azerbaijani pastor ‘Izzat’ has made the decision
not to marry and have children. In a country where family is foundational it’s not an easy sacrifice − but one he feels ready to make if necessary.

‘If I am imprisoned again, who is going to look after my wife and children?’ he asks matter of factly. And it’s not just while he’s in jail: prisoners, especially Christians, also find it hard to obtain work after they are released.

However, Izzat recognises the price that has to be paid if the Gospel is to spread in his nation.

“They openly told me: ‘If you stop acting as a Christian evangelist we won’t put you in prison, but if you continue your activities as a Christian we are going to accuse you of having illegal guns at your home.’ I told them that I would continue to do this because it was God’s work.”

– Azerbaijani pastor ‘Izzat’.

“Before I was arrested I was spreading the teaching of Jesus throughout our district and I was helping some brothers to build up the church. Several times the police stopped me and warned me that it was illegal to spread the words of Jesus Christ in Azerbaijan. The mosque leaders had complained to the police that this guy was putting out some literature about Jesus and Christianity.”

In May, 2009, about 30 police officers and other officials turned up at his house and searched the premises for five hours.

“They took all of my books and DVDs and CDs and arrested me. They openly told me: ‘If you stop acting as a Christian evangelist we won’t put you in prison, but if you continue your activities as a Christian we are going to accuse you of having illegal guns at your home.’ I told them that I would continue to do this because it was God’s work.”

As a result, Izzat found himself in front of a judge. “I actually had three court cases and two false witnesses said they had found weapons at my house. In the first case the judge invited my father and asked him for a lot of money; and in the second court case again the judge wanted to have some money from me.

“On the third occasion I said to my parents that we are not going to give them any money because I never had guns at home. In July I had the third case and I was (sentenced to) 18 months. At the appeal court the judge wanted lots of money from me.”

Izzat’s case highlights the endemic corruption in Azerbaijan but is also symptomatic of the pressures that Christians are under in this small oil-rich Islamic republic that was once part of the former Soviet Union, but is now trying to establish itself on the international stage.

In a country where a driver’s licence and a university degree can be bought, those who refuse to give or take bribes no longer fit into the system.

Clamp down
However, the biggest problem facing churches in Azerbaijan today is the issue of registration. The Government, afraid of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism spreading over the border from Iran, is clamping down on all religious organisations – including churches.

An amendment to the law in 2009 that requires religious organisations to re-register with the authorities may seem reasonable in theory, but in practice the new registration is often not granted, thereby making churches, even ones that previously were registered, illegal. Even before 2009 the whole issue of registration was a problem for some congregations, but since then it has intensified.

Pastor Iliya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, explains the consequences: “At any moment the pastor of a church can be imprisoned. In 2007 police raided a Sunday meeting and the pastor was jailed for two years and in 2008 another pastor was sent to prison for meeting without registration. To be an unregistered church in Azerbaijan means you have no support from the constitutional law.

“On the other hand, if you are registered you can only have meetings at your legal address and today if you would like to have registration you must have 50 founding members. If a government official comes and counts the people in attendance and it’s [less than this] then they can shut down your church.

“The constitution gives us lots of freedom to have meetings but the new law of religious freedom [2009] is against the constitution.”

Another church leader, ‘John’, showed us the pile of papers involved in his church’s application. “We tried to get registered in 2006 but were rejected. We resubmitted, but there was no response. After a year they said we had to change our bylaws. So we changed the bylaws and resubmitted. We are still waiting six years after our initial application.”

John added: “If we don’t get registration the police can fine the leader $1,000 (the average wage is just $300 a month). If this is not paid the church leader can go to prison and have his apartment confiscated. The secret police said that, if we carried on, the fine would be doubled and then we would go to jail.”

‘Azad’, a human rights lawyer, told us: “There is one church that has been in Azerbaijan for 150 years and has always had registration. Now, after the change to the Religion Law (in 2009) it’s almost impossible for them to get registered.”

He said that the fines had increased significantly since 2009 and believers could not afford to pay.

“Azerbaijan is a democratic country and people are free to be Muslim or Christian. Our rules and our law are very good but the fact is these rules and laws don’t work,” he said. “They are just simple words. No one in government pays any attention to these rules. According to our law no one is allowed to give or take a bribe but every day millions of people give and take bribes.

“The Government is afraid of religious extremism. They are afraid that people can believe in Jesus, become a Christian and then they will be against the Government.”

– ‘Azad’, a human rights lawyer

“The Government is afraid of religious extremism. They are afraid that people can believe in Jesus, become a Christian and then they will be against the Government. After 1991, when Azerbaijan gained its independence, the Government was afraid that many Azerbaijanis who were Muslims would change their religion. They are afraid that if people (become Christians) they would prefer the interests of Russia over those of Azerbaijan, while fundamentalist Muslims would prefer the interests of Iran.”

He added that if believers did appear in court it was very difficult to get proper representation. “Barristers are afraid to represent and defend the rights of Christians because their colleagues will say, ‘You are Christian; you defend the rights of Christians in a Muslim country.’ And if they agree to represent the rights of Christians or Jews they will ask for big money, which believers don’t have.”

Yet despite all these pressures the Azerbaijan church, which until the country’s independence in 1991 barely existed beyond the Russian Orthodox Church, is growing steadily.

It has been estimated that in 1990 there were only 40 Azerbaijani evangelical Christians in the whole world, with very few living inside the country. ‘Now, however, there are thought to be about 10,000 native Azerbaijani evangelicals.

Please pray
“Please pray for us, pray for freedom in our country, that believers can come together without being afraid of the Government, the police or local extremists,” said one Christian. “Pray that Christians will be able to find work as many are jobless, and pray too that there will be those who can represent and defend the rights of believers in Azerbaijan.”

Release International, a UK-based organisation which exists to serve the persecuted church in more than 30 countries around the world, have launched a DVD about the pressures being faced by Christians in Azerbaijan. For more information, see

Tom Hardie works for Release International. This article was first published in Release Magazine.


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