The following links are to articles reporting on the latest persecution news coming from Azerbaijan, including religious book censorship and the closing of a Christian church.
The following article reports on the latest persecution news out of Azerbaijan.
The following article reports on the forced closure of a church in Azerbaijan.
Due to legislative innovations and ensuing bureaucratic obstacles many religious communities in Azerbaijan failed to re-register within the prescribed period before January 1, 2010, reports The Institute of Religious Freedom. As a result, most of them have been banned from conducting any of the religious activities and threatened with liquidation the status of “juridical entity”, said the Institute of Religious Freedom, Kyiv based on the documents obtained from city Baku.
According to the IRF, the official refusal to renew the registration in order to comply with the new edition of the Azerbaijani “Law on Religion” was issued to the “Nehemiah” Church, "Cathedral of Praise” Church in Baku as well as the Seventh Day Adventists, Baptist and Pentecostal Churches in Azerbaijan.
The biggest obstacle to religious freedom in Azerbaijan became the new procedure of state registration of religious communities. The amendments into the Law made it overly cumbersome and now it consists of more requirements to the founders, than ever before. From now on a religious community must submit a certificate of the date of its occurrence, information about religious education and relations toward secular education.
Moreover, it is prohibited for a religious community to use for its official registration a personal address of a believer. Legislative changes have also limited a congregation’s activity to only the territory where it is officially registered.
However under Article 12 of the Azerbaijani “Law on Religion” religious communities can conduct their activities only at the legal address. Such a rule is often used by the State Committee of Azerbaijan on Relations with Religious Organizations to prohibit a church to perform it’s activity in leased premises. As a result, the religious communities which do not own premises for worship remained outside the law.
A striking example of infringement of religious freedom in Azerbaijan on the basis of the new “Law on Religion” is the situation with the "Cathedral of Praise" Evangelical Church in city Baku.
This religious community provided all the necessary documents for re-registration in time. However in May 2010 it received a copy of an official refusal adopted by the State Committee two months ago. Other Christian Protestant communities also faced similar situation.
The "Cathedral of Praise" Evangelical Church was the first one to object and file an appeal against the refusal of registration in the judiciary. However, representatives of the authorities referred to the formal inconsistency of information about the founders of the community with the data submitted during the initial registration in 2001. On the 30th of July to the utmost surprise of believers, their appeal was turned down. In spite of the complete absence of the necessary documentary evidences the court supported the position of the authorities.
Following on January 2010 the place where the "Cathedral of Praise" Church in Baku worshiped was completely destroyed by fire.
Prior to this in the end of 2008, the building of the Protestant community which was purchased by the believers was confiscated. This happened without any compensation and as a result of a rather questionable trial in favor of the local oil refinery “Azerneftyag”.
The "Cathedral of Praise" Evangelical Church was founded in Baku in 1994 and currently has about 1000 members. At the same time according to official data the majority of Azerbaijan’s population confesses Shia Islam along with its other developments.
In February 2010, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted the deteriorating situation in Azerbaijan during the past five years. These legislative changes, hastily adopted in Azerbaijan in May 2009, were particularly alarming for experts and defenders.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Ati News, a site belonging to Morteza Talaee who is the previous head of the security forces and the current member of the Tehran’s city council, in its usual anti-Christian propaganda reported that their social-life reporter had disclosed that shipments of so called, "Perverted Torah and Gospels" had entered Iran through its Western borders, reports FCNN.
Two days later, on May 31st, the same report was reiterated by the official anti-crime website of the Pasdaran Army called "Gerdaub" that a large shipment of Jewish and Christian Scriptures has entered Iran through the Western Azerbaijan province and according to security officials of that province the "occupier forces" that operate in the Western regions of Iraq were responsible for such activities.
Gerdaub, the official website of the Pasdaran Army continued its report by quoting the security official who had stated that:
Some of these books are distributed locally, but most of the books are smuggled and distributed all over the country. In just the last few months, hundreds of such "perverted Bibles" have been seized and burned in the border town of Sardasht.
The same unidentified security source adds that his intention has been to inform and enlighten people.
While the depiction of the Prophet of Islam and other historical religious leaders, whether in good or bad taste, has caused uproar and violent protests, threats of retaliation and assassinations, closure of embassies, long and mournful marches in various parts of countries of the world such as Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, its quite interesting that the official website of the most powerful military wing of the Islamic Republic of Iran engages in the shameful act of reporting the burning
Of course, the security officials have not clarified the difference between these so called "perverted Bibles" and those that are commonly used by people around the world – including Iran.
These officials shamefully label the Holy Scriptures of the Christians contraband without realizing the over two billion people around the world and at least five hundred thousand people in Iran revere and consider holy. This action is no different than what the government has wrongfully accused many Christians of insulting the sacred beliefs of Islam.
On the hand the defenders of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the international organizations and human rights forums claim that religious minorities such as Jews and Christians enjoy constitutional protection and the adherents of these religions not only can elect their own representatives to the parliament, but exercise their religious rights freely and openly. But, as with many other rights and freedoms granted to the people in the constitution, this fundamental right has also been violated
and repressed by the Islamic government.
The leaders of the Islamic Republic not only use the weapon of their pre-selected parliamentary candidates to control who gets into the legislature, but severely suppresses the religious minorities by demanding the names of those attending church services, banning the entry of Farsi-speaking members into church building and any preaching in the Farsi language, rejecting any building permits for church buildings, and the publishing of Bibles and other Christian literature which amounts to nothing
but direct interference in the religious affairs of the very people it claims to be protecting.
For these reasons Christians have taken refuge at homes and congregate in home-style churches form small home-based churches. Even then, many of these Christians are harassed and often pursued by security agents and are arrested and detained. Many Christian leaders have been detained for long periods of time in undisclosed locations and often very expensive bails have to be posted to secure their freedom.
The question remains as to how long the Christian community outside of Iran can tolerate such persecutions and atrocities? Moreover, and not withstanding the fact that Iranian Christians do not have the right to publish their holy scriptures, those Christians from around the world who donate Bibles to their brothers and sisters inside Iran are insulted by labeling their donated Bibles as contraband and burned by the security agents.
It is only appropriate that the official website of the Pasdaran army that has published this report and has confirmed the validity of this news through one of its security agents be condemned by the international Christian community and the world to demand the identification of those perpetrated this shameful act.
Such insults and offensive actions in burning the Christian Bible coincides with the Islamic community’s full enjoyment, freedom, and the blessings of the Western nations that allow them to publish the Islamic Holy Book, the Quran, and to build as many mosques as its needed in various European and North America cities.
The Quran states that the Torah and the Gospels are Holy Scriptures as well. Nevertheless, the Islamic leaders claim that the Bibles used by Christians and Jews are not the authentic scriptures but have been changed by the church. Considering the fact that the Quran also states that no man can destroy the word of God, the question remains that if the currently used Bible is, as the Islamic leaders so claim, a changed and untrustworthy document where is the real Torah and the Gospels?
If the Quranic claim that the word of God can never be perverted and changed, then there must be a copy of the real Torah and the Gospels somewhere. To this question Muslims have not credible answers. There is no such difference or variance between today’s Scriptures and the original writings. Our modern Bibles go back to the very ancient copies of the scriptures that in some cases date back to only 50 years from Christ Himself. There are even copies of the Old Testament that date several hundred
years before Christ.
Definitely and for sure, one can not find any ancient writings that have been as carefully and precisely copied and preserved as the Bible has been. There are thousands of ancient manuscripts in world museums that testify to this fact. Therefore the claim that the Bible is a changed and false scripture is totally baseless and is nothing but a ploy to confuse and mislead people by the Islamic leaders.
In any event, the burning of any book, especially one that is honored and revered by a great majority of people around the world, is an unacceptable and immoral act and must be condemned by the world community.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Oppressive new laws in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan required religious communities to re-register with the government by January 1, 2010 or face illegal status. As of December 16, only about 100 of Azerbaijan’s 534 religious communities had been able to do so. Fewer than half of Tajikistan’s religious communities re-registered, reports MNN.
According to Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association, officials place obstructions in the paths of churches trying to re-register.
"They will find some technicality or basically any reason to deny registration. So even if some of the groups actually follow the law to the letter and meet the requirements, it just seems very arbitrary and capricious as to whether the officials will agree to register to not," he explained.
It’s unclear how strictly the governments of the two nations will enforce their laws.
"In the worst case scenario…they could basically close congregations down and impose pretty stiff penalties," Griffith said. "In the best case scenario…unless they agree to fully repeal these statues or amend these laws, I think we need to just hope and pray that even though they’re on the books, these things won’t be enforced."
That’s often the case in countries that have similar laws. The new laws include other burdensome requirements in addition to the re-registration mandate. Azerbaijan’s law requires religious communities to provide more information for registration and to obtain approval to build or rebuild places of worship. It also prohibits the sale of religious literature in unapproved locations and religious activity outside registered addresses.
Tajikistan’s religion law censors religious literature, bans state officials from founding religious communities, requires state approval to invite foreigners for religious visits or to travel abroad for religious events, and restricts children’s religious activity and education.
Christians in Azerbaijan are especially concerned about how courts might interpret unclear provisions in the law. They fear a loose interpretation could penalize "peaceful religious activity." Griffith quoted a passage from the law and explained the issue.
"‘The community formulates its relations with other religious confessions on the basis of religious toleration (tolerance), respect and the avoidance of conflict,’ and the community cannot use violence or the threat of violence in proclaiming its faith. Well, if you don’t define those terms, such as ‘respect and the avoidance of conflict’…you could almost say that Christian evangelism could even be illegal under a formulation like that."
Since Christians believe in only one means of salvation — Jesus Christ — it would be entirely possible for disagreement with other religious groups to be interpreted as "conflict." However, Christians are not the only people worried about the potential impact of the law.
"It’s not just Christians that are concerned; we’ve got Muslim groups that are concerned. These are largely Muslim nations," Griffith said. "I think there are a number of people that are concerned about what this will possibly do down the road."
No matter what does happen, the Christian church will remain committed to the Gospel.
"Regardless of what happens in these countries, the churches still have their marching orders from the Lord: to proclaim the Gospel," Griffith said. "And no matter what man does, they’re going to continue to proclaim the Gospel."
Christians in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan need the prayers and support of their fellow believers. SGA has been supporting churches in the former Soviet Union for 75 years, and it continues to support churches in these two countries.
"It’s important to help them take advantage of every open door they can find to share the Gospel," Griffith said. "It might be through supporting a church-planting missionary; it might be through providing Russian-language Bibles and literature; it may be through helping to support in-country training, and sometimes that training has to take place quietly…. But for churches here in the West that have the resources, it’s important to support our brothers and sisters there who don’t have the resources that we do."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Azerbaijan’s repressive new Religion Law slid in under the radar, reports MNN.
Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association says it’s been modified since the last time they saw it. “It appears that this is a little bit worse than what we thought it was going to be. Just looking at parts of this legislation, now in force as of May 31, it seems like there have been some new offenses that have been added to it as well as some new penalties.”
Some of the changes include severe censorship and harsher punishments. These were introduced for religious activities and agencies the government does not like.
Griffith went on to say that all registered religious organizations must re-register by 1 January 2010, the third time re-registration has been demanded in less than twenty years. Earlier re-registration rounds saw many churches and ministries fail to regain their legal status.
He agrees with the assessment of Forum 18, that the wording implies unregistered organizations are illegal.
As it is, under the existing rules, Griffith says they’ve already felt the heat. “We’ve had several evangelical pastors jailed because of their ministry. So it seems, at least within Azerbaijan, that there is an intent to try to crack down on evangelical churches.”
However, there are some unexpected allies. According to Forum 18, Parliamentary Deputy Fazil Gazanfarolgu Mustafaev said, “the new Religion Law will limitpeople’s rights to freedom of conscience – that is clear.”
Gazanfarolgu added that public pressure may force parliamentary deputies to take another look at the Religion Law, given public unhappiness over the way religion is controlled.
Griffith adds that while it looks bad, it’s too early to know how much evangelistic work could be at risk. “How this new law is going to be enforced, only time will tell. As I say, we have seen at least some in Parliament who are wanting to believe that there will be some public pressure brought to bear to have this re-examined, so I think this needs to be our chief hope and prayer.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Azerbaijan is apparently rushing restrictive amendments to its Religion Law through parliament, Forum 18 News Service has learnt.
“Only the parliamentary deputies have the text, and it will only be published after its adoption,” a parliamentary aide told Forum 18. The amendments – which reportedly include a ban on unregistered religious activity – have not been made public, and the full parliament is due to begin consideration of them on Friday 8 May.
The refusal to make the text public denies the opportunity for public discussion of the proposals, complains Eldar Zeynalov of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan. “Everything prepared in top secrecy is bad for human rights,” he told Forum 18.
Parliamentary Deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova, who chairs one of two committees which prepared the draft, told Forum 18 that state registration will be compulsory, but claimed that: “No one will be punished for practicing without registration, as long as they don’t preach against the national interest or denigrate the dignity of others.” She declined to discuss what this means, and confirmed that religious communities will have to re-register. Religious communities – especially of minority faiths – have struggled to re-register after previous changes.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Azerbaijan’s wide-ranging religious literature censorship system has started to affect evangelical leaders in the country, reports MNN.
Vice President of Russian Ministries Sergey Rakhuba was just in the country and says, “Two Baptist pastors were traveling between neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan — authorities confiscated Azerbaijani Bibles.”
According to Forum 18 News, an official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations said, “Our society doesn’t need books that don’t suit our laws and our beliefs.” He claimed that unspecified religious literature could cause unspecified “social harm and possibly inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence.”
Rakhuba says an amendment allowing strict censorship will be heading for a referendum this month. He says believers may face raids reminiscent of the Cold War if the censorship issue continues. “Local police will be searching homes of evangelical leaders, and they will take all their Christian literature away from them.”
This will mean little, says Rakhuba. “Basically there is a dictatorship in Azerbaijan,” he says.
Russian Ministries works to empower the national evangelical church. They intend to do that despite the persecution. “We’re very much considering and praying and evaluating our resources to see how we can start our School Without Walls program for the next academic year in the fall.”
School without Walls is a program that helps train next generation church leaders, and Rakhuba says their work must continue. “The church is not scared. The church is growing. The church needs a lot more support to continue their ministry in the circumstances like that.”
Support comes in the form of prayer and dollars. Rakhuba says financial support is wide ranging. “The church needs support for training resources, to have more Bibles, to have more Christian literature. All of this is not allowed there, but they know how to smuggle it to Azerbaijan and make it available.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Slavic Gospel Association has been following the trial of a persecuted Azerbaijani pastor who was arrested and held on false charges. SGA’s Joel Griffith says they just got the verdict, reports MNN. “Pastor Hamid Shabanov was actually convicted on the false charge of possessing an illegal weapon.”
Unless Shabanov’s conviction is quashed, he will have a criminal record. Griffith says, “He’s insisting that he’s innocent. He’s going to continue fighting to clear his name.”
The court gave Shabanov a two-year corrective labour sentence. However, because imprisonment counts as three times’ corrective labour, Shabanov’s sentence is the equivalent of eight months’ imprisonment. As he was in pre-trial detention or house arrest for just over seven months, he has 27 days more to serve from February 11.
Griffith says there’s a question as to whether Shabanov will have to go back to jail at all. He was also fined 20 percent of his salary for the remaining 27 days of his sentence. But Shabanov does not have a job, therefore he does not have a salary.
It’s interesting to note that the conviction might have been an acknowledgment of Shabanov’s innocence. “If he had actually been found innocent, then that reflects poorly on the police and the authorities, and it could get them into some sort of legal ‘hot water.’ So it’s assumed that convicting him but not sending him to jail was sort of a way for the local authorities to ‘save face.'”
Pastor Shabanov told Forum 18 that at the trial, he repeatedly said that he was being prosecuted to punish him for his Christian faith. His ministry has gotten particularly close scrutiny. Although SGA supports work in the region, there is much opposition.
Report from the Christian Telegraph