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Azerbaijan: Pastor Dreams for 9 Million Muslims to Believe in Christ

03-02-2017
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BAKU, Azerbaijan Fifteen countries made up the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Among them is the Republic of Azerbaijan.

It's an overwhelmingly Muslim country where the freedom to practice any other faith often comes with a price.

CBN News traveled to the capital city of Baku for a closer look at what life is like for the country's small Christian population.

The moment one lands at the Heydar Aliyev International airport, you realize just how far this nation has come after 70 years of Soviet occupation.

Watch this video produced by Azerbaijan's Ministry of Tourism

Tiny Country; Strategic Location

Slightly smaller than Maine, Azerbaijan is the 93rd largest country in the world.

Its location on the western edge of the Caspian Sea gives it strategic prominence: Iran flanks its southern border. Turkey lies to the west. Russia to the north.

The capital city Baku is a thriving, modern metropolis, thanks largely to the country's oil wealth. At one time, Azerbaijan produced more than half of the world's oil supply.

Now, 26 years after gaining independence, the government is trying to shed its communist past in exchange for closer ties with the west.

Azerbaijan is home to roughly 9 million people. The majority of them are Muslim.

Watch this video produced by Azerbaijan's Ministry of Tourism

Muslims Turn to Christ

No one knows for sure the exact numbers, but the estimates are that only ten thousand are evangelical Christians.

Sari Mirzoev should know.

"I was the first Azeri person to accept Christ," Mirzoev told CBN News.

In 1991, shortly after the Soviet collapse, Sari Mirzoev became the first Azeri Muslim to convert to Christianity.

"Nobody understood why I did this, but as I saw God at work in my life, I realized that everyone around me was spiritually dead."

He accepted Christ while attending a Russian congregation. At the time, there wasn't a single church for ethnic Azeri people.

"All the believers that I knew were Russian."

In 1995, Mirzoev says God gave him a prophetic word that Azeri Muslims would come to Christ as a result of his testimony.

"The Lord said that, even though the church at that time was made up of mostly Russian people, soon it would be filled with Azeri people, and the Lord would do it through me."

Twenty-two years later, he leads the largest Azeri evangelical church in the country called Love Baptist Church.  

Mirzoev invited CBN News to attend a weekly Friday Noon service. The majority of those in attendance are Muslim converts.

"Sometimes we have as many as 30-40 people who accept Christ as their personal Savior in a single service."

A Tough Climate for Christians

Establishing this church hasn't been easy.

While the constitution allows for religious freedom, people of faith, particularly Christians and other missionaries who routinely engage in evangelism, face some form of harrassment and intimidation.

Mirzoev says religious laws passed in recent years have made it more difficult to register a church, print Christian literature and openly proselytize.

Alan Bedoev works with a network of unregistered house churches outside the capital city.

"It wouldn't be possible for anyone to effectively share the Gospel without God's wisdom and the help of the Holy Spirit," said Bedoev, who works with the Illinois-based Mission Eurasia, an organization that equips young church leaders in 13 countries of the former Soviet Union.

Bedoev says in the countryside, sharing one's faith can lead to fines or imprisonment.

"Preaching the Gospel here is never easy."

One evening, CBN News joined a secret gathering of young Azeri believers. We've masked faces to protect their identities.

Hafiz is part of an outreach called School Without Walls that focuses on reaching Muslim families.

"Muslims often notice that we live joyful lives, and they wonder where our joy comes from," Hafiz related to CBN News. "We tell them that we are Christians, and by seeing how our lives have been changed, Muslims can see the Gospel."

Ali, another convert, uses the School Without Walls program to also minister to young people searching for meaning in life.

He says the home-setting makes it a little easier to talk about faith.

"It's convenient and an easy way to study the Bible. Young people can talk face-to-face and ask each other questions--all in a safe environment," said Ali.

God's Word in the Heart Language

And being able to read the Bible in the native Azeri language has done much to expand the growth of the church here.

Gulshan Huseynova runs the country's only Christian publishing company.

"Before, people could not even find a Bible, but now they have the Holy Scriptures in their hands," said Huseynova, director of Kitab Shirketi publishing.

In 1995, the government gave her permission to print Christian literature.

"We started by translating the Bible so people could have God's Word in their own language. From there we moved to producing books for children and various other Christian literature."

Back in the capital city, pastor Mirzoev's congregation faces constant surveillance.

The church has been shut down in the past and he's been arrested numerous times.

"Our path is challenging, but we overcome through Christ, who loves us," Mirzoev said. "We are committed to praying for our president and our country."

And in a dominantly Muslim country, where the evangelical Christian population numbers about 10,000, Mirzoev says he's believing God for his nation.

"We want to see all 9 million Azeri people come to believe and know Christ. This is our dream."  

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