By BosNewsLife News Center with BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos in Budapest
BAKU/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Devoted Christians and foreign missionaries in Azerbaijan have begun 2011 amid concerns about their future after parliament agreed to increase fines up to 16 times for unauthorized worship and evangelism.
The fines are part of amendments to what officials ironically call ‘laws on religious freedom’. They target those involved in “unregistered” religious gatherings or at venues that do not have state approval, including home churches, BosNewsLife established Monday, January 3.
Additionally, Christians involved in distributing “religious literature” that not passed compulsory government censorship and foreigners who speak of their faith to others will receive increased fines. It was not immediately what the impact would be on Bible distribution in the country.
Besides heavy financial penalties, foreign missionaries and other “persons without citizenship” involved in evangelism may also face deportation from the former Soviet nation, according to the amendments.
Penalties will be increased to 2000 manat ($2,500) for individuals and up to 8000 manat ($10,000) for officials, including apparently pastors. “A fine of 3-5,000 manat is insignificant for those who use religion in their own interests,” parliamentarian Agil Abbas said in remarks published by local media. Christian organizations and other legal entities can also expect thousands of dollars in fines. “Today, one religious structure fall on every 10-15 people in Azerbaijan,” Abbas explained.
AMENDMENTS OF CODE
The amendments to increase fines under two Articles of the Code of Administrative Offenses that create offenses for expressions of religion not approved by the government, Article 299 and Article 300 – were signed into law by President Ilham Aliev on December 29, BosNewsLife learned.
While theoratically all religions are covered under this law, in practice evangelical Christians are believed to be among those targetted, as they often emphazise a “personal relationship with Christ” that goes beyond religious rituals and can involve speaking about faith with other people.
Several evangelical oriented churches have also been refused registration or refuse to be registered in principal ground, forcing them to meet underground often in homes of individual believers, Christians said.
The latest amendements come shortly after over a dozen police officers and state religious affairs officials raided a Saturday morning worship of the Seventh-day Adventist congregation in the town of Sumgait on December 11. Police questioned the ten church members present as to how much they were paid to be Christians, Protestants said.
Reporters with a video camera were seen filming the incident.
Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry reportedly said in a statement that the Adventists represent “a faith prohibited by law”.
The Adventists have denied wrongdoing saying Adventists have lived in the country for more than 100 years and have never been banned.”
Control over different aspects of life, including religion, is often seen as key to the power base of leaders in Central Asia.
President Aliyev won a second term of office in 2008, scoring an overwhelming victory in an election that was boycotted by the main opposition parties. Western observers said that, despite being an improvement on previous votes, it fell short of fully democratic standards.