By BosNewsLife Special Correspondent Eric Leijenaar reporting from the Netherlands with BosNewsLifeâ€™s Stefan J. Bos in Budapest
BAKU/BUDAPEST/AMSTERDAM (BosNewsLife) -- Authorities in Azerbaijan have launched a crackdown on a church movement of ex-Muslims which grew from 40 to 18,000 members since the former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991, an organization supporting the reportedly persecuted Christian converts said Thursday, February 1.
"Even if you just show a little bit interest in Christianity the government and your family will take action," said Jeno Sebok, spokesman of the Netherlands' based Open Doors group which investigated the situation of former Muslims-turned-Christians.
In in a statement to BosNewsLife from Open Doors' headquarters in the Dutch town of Ermelo. Sebok said his organization has established that authorities try to prevent "potential conversions" as "Christianity is seen as the religion of Azerbaijan's archenemy, Armenia." After becoming independent sixteen years ago, predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan fought against mainly Christian Armenia in a bloody war over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Although a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, tensions remained, analysts say. Sebok stressed that therefore someone "who becomes a Christian is immediately seen as a traitor," in Azerbaijan. A reverend, he said, reported that a television network "aired one month, five times a day, slander about him." Because of the media pressure, about 200 church members left his congregation, Sebok claimed.
In addition authorities have begun to put known Christians under police surveillance or to harass them, Open Doors said. Several new believers have been arrested or dismissed from jobs under pressure from the government and state-controlled media, Christian investigators said. Family members and employees reportedly also pressure converts to return to Islam.
Besides, it has become almost impossible for churches to be officially recognized while even "officially registered" denominations are often raided by security forces, Open Doors' investigators established. It is reportedly also difficult to obtain permission to distribute Bibles and other Christian literature.
There are also other practical difficulties as the Bible's Old Testament is only available in the local Azeri language since 2004. "The Christians are very enthusiastic about Gods Word and to spread the Gospel. But there is not much knowledge about the Bible," Sebok explained, adding that Open Doors is involved in Bible and Christian literature distribution.
The latest developments resemble the era till 1991 when all Christian activities were forbidden, Christian observers said. Despite these limitations, Russian Christians apparently managed to spread the Gospel in limited areas, which formed the basis for a rapidly growing church movement in the 1990's and this century.
Azerbaijan is a relative small nation sandwiched between Russia and Iran with roughly eight million people. For centuries it was occupied by different nations. Despite its independence and oil wealth, nearly half of the population live below the poverty line, adding to difficulties of Christians. Sebok said that Open Doors is therefore involved in "social-economic programs to help believers facing difficulties."
The country has been ruled by Ilham Aliyev who took over as president from his father, Heydar, in 2003. When his father died, Ilham was already prime minister, vice chairman of the state oil company and deputy leader of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (NAP).
Although he won the 2003 presidential elections by a landslide, Western observers said the campaign was overshadowed by voter intimidation, violence and media bias. Opposition demonstrations were met with police violence and there were many reported arrests.
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