Azerbaijan (MNN) — Azerbaijan plans to increase minimum fines for illegal religious activity by 15 times as a matter of national security.
Last week, amendments were proposed to the Administrative Violations Code of the Azerbaijan Republic to increase fines for religious offenses from 100-300 Manats (125-375 US Dollars) to 1,500-2,000 Manats (1,879-2,505 US Dollars). Fines for officials will rise from 200-500 Manats (250-620 US Dollars) to 7,000-8,000 Manats.
According to Forum 18, the chair of parliament's Legal Policy and State Building Committee Ali Huseynov says parliament will not be seeking expert assistance in reviewing the proposed amendments. He and the chair of parliament's Human Rights Committee, Rabiyat Aslanova, both agree that the matter is "a question of national security."
"We know that they're defending these punishments for ‘violating unregistered religious activity on the grounds of national security.' But when you ask them to give definitions or exactly what they think is a problem with national security, you basically get the run-around," explains Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association.
Besides allusions to national safety, other reasons for the changes include Aslanova's insistence that "this is connected with religious communities which have failed to gain re-registration but still function." Forum 18 reports Aslanova's frustration that violators seem to "pay the fine and just carry on."
Violations primarily include those who worship in an unregistered religious body.
Forced registration for all religious groups was introduced to Azerbaijan in 2009. Since then, however, only 510 religious communities have been officially recognized. Griffith says that evangelical Christians, in particular, are eager to follow the law but are continuously rejected in applying for registration.
"It's a classic Catch 22," says Griffith. "They have official religious freedom on the books on their constitution, and then they impose these registration regulations or laws. Then when the church tries to follow the law to get registered, they find all sorts of games and hoops to make them jump through. Sometimes they increase the number of people needed to have an official registered church or religious group. They really do find a lot of difficulty in trying to meet the requirements."
Forum 18 reports that so far, Azerbaijan's only Catholic Church, almost all of its Protestant churches, all Jehovah's Witness groups, and a number of Sunni Muslim mosques remain absent from the State Committee list of registered religious groups.
The government denies that any suspicious activity is taking place. "If any community prepares documents in accordance with the law, there is no reason for them not to get registration," claims Aslanova.
The crackdown is troubling, but not altogether surprising, Griffith notes. Practically all religious peoples in Azerbaijan have been feeling the oppression. Just Friday, Muslims gathered to protest a school uniform that doesn't allow for Muslim girls to wear headscarves. The country has been moving toward secularization for years, and new legislation just appears to add one more rung to the ladder.
New amendments could indeed make life far more difficult for Christians in Azerbaijan. Yet, there is good reason to believe that God will use whatever happens for His glory.
"Another thing that we've noticed for churches that are in difficult positions like this: it seems like the more that they tighten the screws, the more the Lord is glorified and the more opportunities open up for the Gospel."
Pray that the Gospel will indeed move forward. Pray for boldness for believers and evangelical churches, but also for protection. Pray that all turmoil would be avoided by a change of heart in the Azeri administration. Pray for international attention, but rejoice in knowing that the Gospel will not be stopped.