|Muslim Background Christian in Azerbaijan: Growing and Suffering|
|Written by Sherry|
|Thursday, 27 March 2008 09:56|
One face of the Muslim Background "new Christian" issue - in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is a small country between Russia and Iran where Islam is a dominant force. Just 17 years ago, there was no church in Azerbaijan. Now, there are more than 18,000 Christians-all of whom are Muslim-background believers.
One courageous church leader now urgently needs our prayers.
When Zaur Balaev gave his life to Jesus in 1992, he was the very first convert in the rural village of Aliabad to turn from Islam to follow Christ. And within a year he began a house church and started leading his neighbors to Christ. Zaur felt called by God to become a pastor, so he attended Bible college and became the first pastor in the Zaqatala region. He then built a small church building in his front yard and started holding two services a week attended by some 50 church members, all between the ages of 20 and 35. But the government would not recognize his church.
And the persecution began. “We’ve asked many times for registration since 1993 but we keep getting denied,” Pastor Zaur explained. “This means we can’t openly talk about our faith and we can’t share Christian literature with people. The local government, the police and the KGB all pressure us.” Pastor Zaur and ten of his church members lost their jobs because of their faith. And a new business that Pastor Zaur has been trying to open for three years has been consistently opposed by officials.“Even when I do exactly what they say, they always find something else wrong,” said Pastor Zaur. “The KGB threatened me saying, ‘We can find something wrong in your life and throw you in jail.’ It’s a constant pressure on me.”Just over a year ago Pastor Zaur pleaded, “Please pray for me. I believe in prayer and if we pray together, God will help.” But when Pastor Zaur shared these words, no one could have known just how much he would need prayer in the days ahead.
Jailed on False Charges
In May 2007, Pastor Zaur was detained by police and in August—despite the absence of evidence—he was sentenced to two years in prison for “violence against a state representative when carrying out official duties.” Pastor Zaur has been jailed in terrible conditions in a cell known as the “frog pool” which has no proper toilet or ventilation. Since his detention, Zaur has suffered two heart attacks and is experiencing kidney pain.
First Generation Church Under Fire
The young church in Azerbaijan is also in need of your prayers. It has only existed since 1990 and is made up entirely of Muslim-background believers. Although Azerbaijan is officially a secular state with religious freedom, Muslims are the dominant force in the government. Christianity is viewed as a threat to the country, and Christians are portrayed as traitors and criminals—often on national television.The government pressures converts by using surveillance, interrogation, arrest, harassment, media attacks and forcing believers out of their jobs. They are closely monitored by the police, KGB and local Islamic authorities. Indirect pressure is also used on the converts’ relatives and employers to try and coerce Christians to return to Islam. This pressure stirs up anti-Christian sentiment resulting in social ostracism and discrimination. It is almost impossible for churches to be granted official registration, so most churches operate illegally. It’s equally difficult to receive authorization for the import or publication of Bibles and Christian literature.
Young and Vulnerable
The church is at a critical stage; it’s a first generation church that is young and vulnerable… experiencing strong opposition from Islam and local authorities without the spiritual and material resources it needs.
Please pray for our very dangerous and secretive work with our Muslim-background brothers and sisters in Azerbaijan.
And please pray for Pastor Zaur and his family during this extremely difficult time.