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Published on 04 January, 2010

Deadline for re-registration passes

Eastern
Europe (MNN) — 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. 

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 obtained by Forum 18 News.

"‘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."

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