Hope and rest comes to harassed church leaders in Azerbaijan

By November 14, 2008

Azerbaijan (MNN) — Christians
across Azerbaijan live under the threat of government harassment. The country's religion laws can be harsh,
imposing severe penalties on violators. Many church leaders encounter legal problems
and jail time.  

Take, for example, the recent case
of Pastor Hamid Shabanov, charged with allegedly holding an illegal weapon — an
accusation strongly refuted by his congregation. Authorities transferred Shabanov from prison
to house arrest shortly after a November 5th hearing at the Zakatala
District Court in northwestern Azerbaijan.
After multiple delays, Forum 18 indicates the trial is scheduled to
resume November 17.   

Shabanov's difficulties are not
unusual. The government forbids expatriate
Christians to engage in what they call "religious propaganda," and there are
severe restrictions on distribution of literature for
"nontraditional" religious groups.

Only Islam, Russian Orthodoxy and
Judaism are considered "traditional" religions, and there has been a
push by the government and state-controlled media for the Azeri people to
return to Islam.

Despite the obstacles these
restrictions impose on ministry teams, president of Global Advance David Shibley says they
held a Frontline Shepherd's Conference for 197 weary church leaders this past
spring. The pastoral conference was the
largest the country has hosted, he notes. Their timing could not have been better. "They (pastors and church
leaders) sensed that this would be a long struggle against erratic enforcement,
sometimes, of even non-existent, purported laws that are against the

According to Shibley, each leader
was eager for training, evidenced by the furious note-taking during the
seminars. Team members say the
evangelical church in Azerbaijan is still small. It is believed there are only about 60
congregations (with an active membership of roughly 10,000) in the country,
outside of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The aim of the conference was to provide national
pastors and church leaders with a vision for the advance of the Gospel. Shibley says they're making plans to return
in the Fall of 2009. 

In the meantime, with the
government cracking down on pastors, prayer is critical. "I know that our brothers and sisters in
Azerbaijan would have us pray that the Lord would grant them grace, strength,
energy, continued focus and continued boldness to share the Lord Jesus."

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