Azerbaijan Press Attacks Protestant Christian Groups

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    Azerbaijan Press Attacks Protestant Christian Groups: Government Steps Up Opposition to Foreign Missionary Activity


    Felix Corley, Compass Direct (, Country: Azerbaijan. Region: Central Asia. Used by permission of Compass Direct. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, printed for distribution or mirrored at other sites without written permission from the copyright owner(s). For hardcopy reprints, please contact their website.

    Church and state; Religious registration
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    LONDON (Compass)–Various Azerbaijani newspapers have again run articles during the past two months attacking the work of Protestant Christian groups in Azerbaijan, following a presidential decree in January banning foreign missionary activity in the Central Asian state.

    The direct press attacks accused several churches of being “engaged more in pseudo-propaganda than in restoring the religious sentiment which had been stifled for decades,” and of following Armenian plans to undermine Azerbaijani statehood.

    Reports that Protestant Christians in Azerbaijan might be promoting a pro-Armenian agenda would easily inflame hostility against them, since Azerbaijan has ended up the loser in its fight which broke out in 1988 with separatist Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

    In a May 20 article, the Turkish-funded newspaper “Hurriyyat” singled out the Baku congregation of Greater Grace Church, which has its headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. The paper declared it the largest Christian church in Baku, with 1,200 members, and said it was publishing papers in both the Russian and Azeri languages. It also stated that the church had been denied registration by the Ministry of Justice.

    According to the article, its activity was doubly illegal, not just because it was not registered, but because it violated the decree on “banning the activity of foreigners in the sphere of religion,” signed into law by Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev on January 6.
    “Its activities should be considered as illegal…since its leaders and preachers are foreign citizens,” “Hurriyyat” journalist Movsum Mammadli wrote. He made reference to Finnish pastor Matti Servio, giving an Armenian twist to his name by calling him “Mattiyan.”
    The writer expressed concern that the group met in the former German church, whose premises now belong to the Ministry of Culture. “How on earth was a place found for this organization which is engaged in illegal activity?” he asked. Church pastor Jashar Mishaliev reportedly told Mammadli that the leasing agreement had been concluded by Rajan Aliev, director of the Ministry of Culture’s international relations department.

    Compass confirmed that Greater Grace Church in fact only averages 400 in its weekly services, with some 300 members. Although the church was well established in the capital until Hurriyyat began a steady slander campaign against its activities last year, its Baku Bible Institute, training 250 Azeri students, has been refused legal status and forced to move its premises eight times since January.

    Mammadli complained that “some connections the church leaders have give grounds for suspicion about who they are working in concert with.” He referenced a meeting reportedly held by one of the church’s pastors, Mushvig Bayramov, with representatives of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the United States.

    In what appears to be another attempt to smear Christians, local people have been calling newspaper offices, claiming that Christian missionaries have published an edition of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel “The Satanic Verses” in Azeri. Many Muslims regard the novel as blasphemous. One paper, “Yeddi Gun,” reported such an anonymous call on May 20, but was skeptical about the veracity of the rumor. However, merely reporting such claims causes suspicions to linger in the public mind.
    In a June 18 article published by “Chag” newspaper, Mammadli complained that after six years of work and $20 million, Christian missionaries had “ensnared” more than 7,000 Azerbaijanis.

    He quoted a report prepared by the Religious Studies Center, a Baku-based Islamic anti-missionary body, claiming that Christian missionaries were implementing a plan called “Evangelization 2000” which aimed to convert 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s population, about 1.5 million people.

    The Religious Studies Center has as its aims “to prevent the spread of foreign sects in Azerbaijan, to present the public with objective information about totalitarian sects, and to propagandize the Islamic religion and Islamic education.”

    The center claims that its research has shown that Christian missionaries are calling on members of the armed forces to lay down their arms, urging the development of fraternal relations with the Armenians and fostering a spirit of separatism among other ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan. It also claims that representatives of the Baku Bible Institute have gone to Gabala in north central Azerbaijan, which is populated by the Udin minority. The 6,000-strong Udins are traditionally of Christian origin.

    According to Mammadli, officials from the center believe that “this is the planned work of Armenian organizations, and their goal is to destroy Azerbaijani statehood.” He claims that they aim to stir up Christian-Muslim tensions, reviving a slogan current among Armenians in the 1980s, ‘Turn Baku into Beirut!’
    Mammadli also repeated his claims made in May in “Hurriyyat,” declaring that Christian missionaries from various organizations were violating the January presidential decree banning foreigners from religious work in Azerbaijan.

    Questioned by Compass at a May 7 press conference in Istanbul, Azeri President Aliyev stated, “There are no problems at all in the area of religious freedom. We have Muslims, Jews and Christians in Azerbaijan. Of course the majority are Muslim. But we have religious minorities, and they all have freedom of worship according to our Constitution. There are equal rights for all these communities.” Aliyev admitted, however, ‘We are worried about missionaries’-

    Before 1993, there were less than 50 known Azeri Christians worldwide, although current estimates now number approximately 6,000.

    In a further development in mid June, a 63-page booklet appeared for sale in Baku bookshops and kiosks, reporting exact details of all known Christian activities of local and expatriate Christians living in Azerbaijan. In both Russian and Azeri versions, the report from the government’s Council of Religious Affairs listed the names, addresses and precise data of all the organized churches and some 10 Christian organizations working in the country.

    “It’s a threat especially for the ordinary believers mentioned in the book,’ a frequent visitor to Azerbaijan noted. ‘To give their names and addresses, I think it’s worrying, because it encourages fanatic Muslims to go find them and beat them up,’ the visitor said. Several Azeri believers have been subjected to such treatment in the past year, with at least one known to have been jailed this spring for two weeks. It may also mean the days are numbered for expatriate Christian workers, who may be either asked to leave the country or be refused re-entry the next time they travel outside Azerbaijan. But on the positive side, the observer noted, ‘Now Azeris who are wanting to become Christians can find out where they can go!’ ____________________

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