Three years ago, Azerbaijan passed a law requiring the re-registration of all religious organizations. All organizations which fail to obtain a new permit must be liquidated and their members could be subject to criminal investigation if they continue to practice their faith.
Now, on April 25, after a 15-minute final hearing in the Church’s absence, a court ruled to liquidate the Greater Grace Church in the capital city of Baku — one of the Azerbaijani churches where Russian Ministries is active through School Without Walls and other outreaches.
Greater Grace Church has been legally registered as a church since 1993 by the Ministry of Justice and has served the community for 19 years. But as the Forum 18 News Service — a watchdog for religious freedom at www.forum18.org — reports, Judge Tahira Asadova upheld the suit lodged by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations. The church has until May 25, one month after the decision, to appeal.
Wade Kusak, Russian Ministries’ Project Manager for Religious Freedom Issues in Eurasia, says, “They were denied for very unclear reasons. The judge didn’t explain what the requirements were, or why Greater Grace Church didn’t meet them. This is a very scary situation, because the government is testing the reaction from the West and from churches to this action. If there is no reaction, they will go further.”
Nor does the persecution end with the church’s liquidation. Wade explains, “If the members of this liquidated church continue to meet together, even two or three at a time, it will be illegal religious activity, and they can be arrested and jailed for up to four years.”
This is the first known open attack on a Christian church in Azerbaijan, and if the decision stands, sets a very dangerous precedent — not only in Azerbaijan, but in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and other nearby nations closely watching the situation.
Much of the persecution in Azerbaijan already follows the example set by Uzbekistan. Since a massacre in 2005, Uzbekistan has conducted a war against their religious minority. Christian literature, including Bibles, is often confiscated and destroyed for “illegal religious activity.” Believers are beaten up during raids on their homes, and courts impose excessive penalties.
The government is also intent on vilifying Christians to the public. Government-controlled mass media accuses believers of occult practices, hypnosis, and extremism, while newspaper articles encourage discrimination and physical abuse of Christians and other minorities.
Convert Tokhar Haydarov is one of around 1,000 believers sentenced to prison or various penalties for their faith. Tokhar is serving 10 years in a labor camp on a false charge of drug production. Fellow believers report that he was tortured and forced to sign the accusation against himself. It’s as if we are back in the old Soviet Union.
Life in many parts of the former Soviet Union has become increasingly difficult for everyone, as the four terrorist bombs that took eight lives in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine on April 27 show. But much of the current persecution against Christians violates their Constitutional rights, demonstrating how serious governments are about ending this “threat.”
Here are some steps you can take right now to support Greater Grace Church and persecuted Christians across the former Soviet Union:
1. Pray for God’s protection for all believers in the FSU, for His intervention in the governments of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and other persecuting nations, and for freedom of religion and revival in the region.
2. Give to Russian Ministries to help support national leaders in their fight for religious freedom by continuing to provide Christian literature, training, and support to Christians, and especially pastors, in persecuted regions.
3. Contact the Embassy of Azerbaijan in the U.S. to protest the closure of Greater Grace Church and all other attempts to eradicate Christianity from their country, before the church’s month of appeal runs out:
By email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
By phone: 1 202 337 35 00
By fax: 1 202 337 59 11
By mail: 2741 34th Street NW, Washington, DC 20008
4. Learn more ways you can help persecuted believers in the former Soviet Union by contacting Wade Kusak, Russian Ministries’ Project Manager for Religious Freedom Issues in Eurasia, at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For an interview Wade recently gave on Mission Network News, visit this link: http://mnnonline.org/interviews/date/2012/04.