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
Pastor threatened with death, historic Methodist sanctuary ransacked, during Holy Week.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, April 16 (Compass Direct News) – Buddhist mobs attacked several churches in Sri Lanka last week, threatening to kill a pastor in the southern province of Hambanthota and ransacking a 150-year-old Methodist church building in the capital.
On April 8, four Buddhist extremists approached the home of pastor Pradeep Kumara in Weeraketiya, Hambanthota district, calling for him to come out and threatening to kill him. The pastor said his wife, at home alone with their two children, phoned him immediately but by the time he returned, the men had left.
Half an hour later, Kumar said, the leader of the group phoned him and again threatened to kill him if he did not leave the village by the following morning. Later that night the group leader returned to the house and ordered the pastor to come out, shouting, “I didn’t bring my gun tonight because if I had it with me, I would use it!”
“My children were frightened,” Kumara said. “I tried to reason with him to go away, but he continued to bang on the door and threaten us.”
Police soon arrived on the scene and arrested the instigator but released him the following day.
Subsequently the attacker gathered Buddhist monks and other villagers together and asked them to sign a petition against the church, Kumar said. Protestors then warned the pastor’s landlord that they would destroy the house if he did not evict the pastor’s family by the end of the month.
Fearing violence, Kumara said he canceled Good Friday and Easter Sunday services and evacuated his children to a safer location.
Methodist Building Ransacked
Earlier, on Palm Sunday (April 5), another group of men broke into the 150-year-old Pepiliyana Methodist Church in Colombo after congregants concluded an Easter procession.
The gang entered through the back door and windows of the building late that night; witnesses said they saw them load goods into a white van parked outside the church early the next morning.
“They removed everything, including valuable musical instruments, a computer, Bibles, hymn books and all the church records,” said the Rev. Surangika Fernando.
The church had no known enemies and enjoyed a good relationship with other villagers, Rev. Fernando said, adding that the break-in appeared to be more than a simple robbery.
“My desk was completely cleaned out,” he said. “They took important documents with details of parishioners such as baptism and marriage records, which are of no value to thieves. They even took what was in my wastepaper basket.”
Local police agreed that robbery was an unlikely motive and that opponents from outside the area were the most likely culprits. Investigations were continuing at press time.
Finally, anti-Christian mobs in Vakarai, eastern Batticaloa district, intimidated church members gathering for several worship services during Holy Week.
“What can we do?” pastor Kanagalingam Muraleetharan told Compass. “The authorities and the police say we have the right to worship, but the reality is that people are threatened.”
The Easter incidents are the latest in a long series of attacks against churches and Christian individuals in recent years, many of them instigated by Buddhist monks who decry the growth of Christianity in the country.
Members of Sri Lanka’s Parliament may soon enact an anti-conversion bill designed to restrict religious conversions. Human rights organizations and Christian groups have criticized the vague terminology of the legislation that, if passed, may invite misapplication against religious activity.
The draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” was referred to a consultative committee of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in February for further deliberation, prior to a final reading and vote. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Parliament to Vote on Anti-Conversion Laws,” Jan. 26.)
According to the most recent government census, Protestant Christians number less than 1 percent of the total population in Sri Lanka, but they remain the primary target of religiously motivated violence and intimidation.
Report from Compass News Direct