PICTURE Edition 4: Pray for Azerbaijan

1. History
Situated on the western side of the Caspian Sea and bordering Georgia, Armenia, Russia and Iran, the Azeri people have been a pawn in the history of many large empires throughout history. At the time of Christ it was part of the Persian Empire.

It is believed that the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus came from Armenia over to Azerbaijan and planted the Christian faith, and the first church was erected in the village Kish. The origins and formation of the Azari Church and culture are closely associated with the history of Nestorian Christianity which dominated the Middle East in the early centuries after Christ. Christianity officially became the state religion in this region at the beginning of the 4th century, making Azerbaijan region one of the earliest Christian communities in the world.

However, everything changed in 667 with the invasion of the Arabs. As Islam took off over the next century and became the dominate faith of the Empire, so it seeped into the Azeri Christian community. However, a thousand years later there were still pockets of Armenian Christians in the country. In the 16th century, the first shah of Iran established Shia Islam as the state religion. In 1806 Azerbaijan was occupied and then annexed by the Russian Empire during the Russo-Persian War.

With the Russians came a wave of Orthodox Christians. One group exiled from Russia to Azerbaijan were a group called the Molokin Jumpers. These were the closest thing in Russia to Pentecostal Christians and they incurred the wrath of both the Russian state. One hundred years later Communist atheism also came down from Russia and suppressed all religions in Azerbaijan. (At the same time some of the Molokin Jumpers were divinely led to go to America where they were some of the first to join the Azusa St Revival in San Francisco…wow!)

The world’s first oil boom actually began in Azerbaijan and at one time it produced half the world’s oil. it still lives off oil wealth today. With the exit of Communism and Russia in 1991 there was also an exodus of Russian Orthodox oil workers. The next decade was chaotic and culminated in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which saw Armenian Christians driven into one small province.

2. Today
As with most ex-Russian colonies, the intensity of Islam is low and many are nominal.The 40 or so believers known to exist in 1991 has now grown to at least 10,000 and some say much more than this number. Azeri language literature, Bibles, music and other forms of ministry are beginning to develop, mainly in Baku where most believers live.

Unfortunately Christianity is still associated with Russian imperialism, Armenian hostility and western colonialism in general. The religious freedom experienced after 1991 have dwindled. Yet even with a stagnant population, the number of evangelicals continues to grow by around 4% a year. This would create a church of some 70,000 by 2050. Today there are still 11 communities of Molokins in Azerbaijan.

The government sees all forms of Christianity as a threat, and also sees some elements of Islam as a threat. So it has enacted strict laws on the expression of religion. No foreign involvement, no foreign funding, no expression of ones faith outside the registered building etc. This is forcing the church underground. Some 25% of the Iranian population are actually Azeri’s and many have come to faith in Christ.

3. Evangelism Highlights
Sari Mirzoev was the first Azeri to become a Christian back in 1991. Today he leads the largest evangelical church in Azerbaijan. He is on the record as saying Sometimes we have as many as 30-40 people who accept Christ as their personal Savior in a single service. His vision is to see the whole country won to Jesus. Mission Eurasia is also helping train local leaders for the harvest of souls. Because there is a large Azeri diaspora in surrounding countries, many evangelists are now making trips to Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Iraq to evangelise their own Azeri people in these nations.

4. Prayer Points
Pray for our fellow Christians living out their faith in the face of religious persecution.
Pray for the growing numbers of Azeri believers to become missionaries across the region.
Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in places of darkness. There are reports coming in of supernatural encounters.
Pray for leaders to rise up and stand against these forces of darkness.
Pray for church support organisations in the west who help nurture the Azeri Christians.
Pray with Pastor Sari for the whole nation of 9 million to come to know Jesus.
Pray for the many who are interested in Christianity but who fear the personal consequences.
Pray that the internet will be used to train believers and to reach unbelievers.

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