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19 July 2013

Covert Christianity in Azerbaijan – interview with Rev Elnur Jabiyev

Covert Christianity in Azerbaijan – interview with Rev Elnur Jabiyev

Since 2009 Rev Elnur Jabiyev, former general secretary of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan, has lived in the UK with his wife and two children. He cannot return home due to persecution, but remains passionate about training and encouraging Christians in his homeland. Here he shares what life is like for Christians in Azerbaijan.

What is it like to live as a Christian in Azerbaijan?
It is very difficult for Christians to survive. In the wider society people think that you are insulting the Muslim faith by becoming a Christian. Christianity is seen as a foreign faith and you become the enemy to everyone – people are afraid to even talk to you.

Relationships between the extended family are very close in Azerbaijan, but when you become a Christian your whole family feel ashamed. They isolate you and do not want to see you anymore. Often Christians are fired from their jobs, and if people know that you are a Christian you will never be offered a job.

When I became a Christian in 2001 I lost my job and all my colleagues turned their backs on me straight away. An agent from internal affairs put photos in front of me showing me entering a church, and said that they were firing me because I am Christian. I said to him that this was against the law as the constitution says we are free to exercise any faith. He replied that this was a Muslim country so he did not care. Everyone was against me.

What did you do after you lost your job?
Thankfully my church asked me to work there in several ministries, and I became a pastor and later the general secretary of the Baptist Union in Azerbaijan. I worked with support from outside the country.

As general secretary I was responsible for looking after the 25 Baptist churches. We were a member of the Baptist World Alliance and European Baptist Federation.

Are Bibles available in Azerbaijan?
We used to only have the New Testament in our own language, but nine years ago the Old Testament was also translated into Azeri. The Baptist Church was able to legally bring 2,000 copies into the country a few years ago, and recently a church was granted permission to bring another 3,500 copies. Bibles cannot be printed in Azerbaijan as it is very expensive and any legal printing house would probably refuse to print them due to fear.

If you are found with a bible for personal use it is not taken from you, but if you bring any Christian literature from outside and the authorities find out you will face difficulties - possibly tremendous fines or imprisonment. Last year the law about religious literature changed, meaning it is now very difficult to bring even your own literature without permission.

In Azerbaijan there is not much literature available for Christians. My prayer and huge concern is for Bible commentaries in my language. We need God to open the door for these to be provided so that those who cannot speak English have access to materials to prepare their sermons.

The faith is new to our people – Azerbaijan has only had 23 years of Christianity among Azeri people – so we still need to develop our training and Christian education system. I am developing something to help people to be trained, and some of us go to another country to train people from Azerbaijan, but training is not largely available.

Can Christians worship together in Azerbaijan?
There were about eight to nine evangelical churches in the capital of Baku which were registered for gatherings of 200-300 people. But about three years ago all religious institutions were required to reregister, and none of the evangelical churches were allowed to. Greater Grace Church is an example, and they are now banned from gathering together.

Christians outside of Baku are not allowed to gather together. If they are discovered meeting together in houses they face arrest or loosing their jobs.

Have any of your Christian friends in Azerbaijan been persecuted for their faith?
Everyday my friends are persecuted, especially if they are actively involved in ministry. There are different types of persecution: from society, family and government. One young family who ran a Christian bookstore were severely beaten and nearly died, meaning they had to flee the country.

Is the number of Christians there rising?
Yes lots of people are becoming Christians. Every Sunday my church in Azerbaijan has two to three people coming to Christ - God is working amazingly. At least half of the people in the church are 'evangelists', although they don't see it as a special gift – for them it is natural to share their faith with others. In Azerbaijan we challenge one another, and if someone has not spoken to others about Christ in the last two months we will ask them what is wrong with their Christian life.

Do you have hope that the situation in Azerbaijan will change?
God is great, and I put all my hope in Him. When I lost my job my pregnant wife and I stood on the street, wondering where we would live or what we would eat, and Jesus said to us: "I will be with you." He has been faithful ever since.

I believe and hope that this amazing God will change the situation in the country. I'm calling on all my brothers and sisters to pray for this change. When we pray we move God's hand. I hope that we will pass this persecution at some point, and be able to send missionaries around the world.

Find out more

Please pray for Elnur and the situation in Azerbaijan. If you would like to get in touch with Elnur and support his ministry to reach Turkic speaking nations please contact Lucy Olofinjana at l.olofinjana@eauk.org.

Read about Elnur's experience living in Britain in our second interview.

Member organisation Release International also recently interviewed Elnur. Click here to watch Elnur's interview.