Amendments threaten religious freedom

By May 21, 2009

(MNN) — Azerbaijani Christians face a serious loss of religious freedom, as
the government completes the process of amending the country's religion

The presidential administration prepared the amendments, and
parliament passed them at the beginning of May. President Ilham Aliev was expected to sign the amendments on May
18. As of this writing, there is no word
on whether he has. 

"Since these amendments came out of the presidential
administration, it doesn't look too promising at the moment," said Joel
Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association

The government has not been very transparent about the
amendments or the amendment process. It
has not yet released the final text of the amendments. According to Forum 18 News, religious leaders
learned of the amendments only a few days before parliament adopted them. 

"It's probably causing religious groups and human rights agencies
around the world some concern. This
situation appears just to have cropped up unexpectedly," Griffith said. "This whole thing was done pretty much in lack
of public scrutiny, so there's been a lot of concern over that." 

Religious and human rights groups have been able to learn some
of the amendments' contents, however. They will require every religious body to register with the government,
including groups that have already registered.
They will also limit the locations where people may sell religious

The process of registering a religious body is extremely
difficult.  According to an anonymous letter
received by Forum 18 News, applications for registration can languish in
bureaucratic offices for indefinite periods of time. The amendments do not explicitly state that
unregistered churches are illegal, but Forum 18 said it implies as much. 

"It appears that religious communities that are already
registered will have to re-register again, and it's kind of a difficult and
expensive process for this to happen," Griffith
said. "So there is a lot of concern over

The amendment's vague requirements give the government
fertile ground for reasons to ban religious bodies, Forum 18 said. For instance, religious bodies may not engage in "creating racial, national, religious,
social hostility and enmity," "violating social order or social rules," or
"inciting people to refuse to execute duties required by the law."

Ilya Zenchenko, the head of the Azerbaijan Baptist Union, has criticized the
amendments. He would like the president
to decide not to sign  them into law. 

"He's basically urging the president of Azerbaijan to look at the constitution, which is
supposed to guarantee freedom of religion, and reject the law," Griffith said. 

Griffith said that religious
freedom has been under increased attack in Eastern Europe. "This seems to be a growing pattern across
the former Soviet Union, especially in the countries where Islam is the
dominant religion, such as the republics of central Asia,"
he explained. "It just seems to be
something that's cropping up more and more, and it should be a matter of
concern for all of us."

SGA's ministry in Azerbaijan is not extensive. It supports church planters in the country,
as well as running Baku Bible Institute in the capital city. Well over 90 percent of the country's
population is Muslim, and 2.5 percent is Russian Orthodox, according to the

"We certainly need to hold this matter up in prayer because
of the potential impact not only on evangelical churches, but religious
freedom in general," Griffith
said. "We're obviously concerned that
the Bible-preaching churches we serve would continue to have the freedom not
only to worship but also to proclaim the Gospel, and when restrictions like this come
into play, depending on how vigorously they are enforced, they can have a very
chilling effect on the ministry of churches there."

However, Griffith
said that the Azerbaijani church's reaction to oppression is inspiring. It has a lot of experience with persecution,
having survived many years under Soviet Communism. The sometimes high cost of serving the Lord
does not deter these believers.  

"They just trust the Lord to enable them to do whatever it
is they need to do," Griffith
said. "I sometimes think we take our freedom here in
the West for granted, and who knows how long our freedom will last. I think the churches that we serve there have
a lot to teach us here in the West about how to respond to adversity."

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