An officially secular state, Azerbaijan is 96% Muslim (mainly Shia). The small Christian population (3%) includes a few thousand converts from Islam. The former community of Armenian Christians has been largely forced out by violence, and those who remain are secret believers.
Azerbaijan’s constitution declares freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. In reality, religious activity within the country is tightly controlled by its 2009 Freedom of Religion Act.
The legislation requires religious groups to register, and each one must provide signatures of 50 members. However, the authorities seem to have enforced a policy of banning all registrations in the last five to seven years. According to figures from the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA), there are only 14 legally functioning churches in a country of ten million people. The law also requires that all printed and published religious literature be assessed and labelled by SCWRA before it can be sold or distributed.
Local police forces harass, raid, detain and fine religious communities for alleged failures to comply with the legislation, although the number of raids decreased in 2019.
One raid was carried out after a head teacher called the police when a six-year-old boy took Christian booklets into school as gifts. This led to the discovery by police that the boy’s parents had held a Christian event for twelve children and given them a party gift of a book about the birth of Jesus. The couple were charged with possessing religious literature that did not bear a government “control mark” and holding a children’s religious meeting in violation of the law. They were each fined 1,500 manats (£700; €785; $880), which is more than three months’ average wages for salaried work in Azerbaijan.
Give thanks for the Christian community in Azerbaijan that is standing firm despite the obstacles placed in its path. Pray that the authorities will see Christians as a force for good in the country and relax the restrictions against their worship.
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