AZERBAIJAN: A HOT-SPOT GETTING HOTTER

Azerbaijan is a religious fault-line country. Northern Azerbaijan borders Chechnya and Dagestan and is largely Sunni Muslim. Southern Azerbaijan borders Iran and is mostly Shia. To the west Azerbaijan borders the Christian nations of Armenia (its traditional 'enemy') and Georgia. To the east is the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan's population of nearly 8 million is 83 percent Muslim and around 4.6 percent Christian, most of whom are Armenian or Russian. Due to a history of war and occupation Azerbaijanis tend to view Christianity as the religion of the Russian and Armenian 'enemy'.

There is growing sectarian tension between the Muslim 30 percent minority Sunnis and the 70 percent majority Shiites who are however not pro-Iranian. They are Turkic Azeri Shiites who mostly appreciate the secular nature of their government and look to Turkey, Israel and the West. Their mosques are visited primarily by the older generation. The Sunnis though are mostly from ethnic minorities. They are embracing the extreme fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam from Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Azeri Shiite domination and Iranian influence. Wahhabi Islam has only infiltrated Azerbaijan in the past decade through migration of mostly Wahhabi Chechen and Dagestani Muslims as well as the Russian military's push of thousands of Chechen rebels and militants into Azerbaijan during the second Chechen war. However, the current Wahhabi advancement is due to the vast number of highly active Wahhabi missionaries from the Arab Gulf states. Flush with oil funds they are building mosques and distributing Wahhabi literature and propaganda, as well as training and funding local Wahhabi activists.

Wahhabis control at least 150 of the northern Sunni mosques which attract mostly the younger generation. Of these the Abu Bakr mosque in the capital Baku is the largest mosque in Azerbaijan. Whilst Azerbaijan's mosques mostly attract around 300 to Friday prayers, the Abu Bakr mosque typically has 5000 to 7000 worshippers. The Wahhabi Sunnis are becoming more and more politically active, threatening the government and the Shiites whom they regard as heretics. The most radical and militant Sunnis tend to meet in cells in homes. The threat of domestic terrorism looms large. The risk of Iranian intervention is also real. Around 20 million ethnic Azeris live in Iran, more than double Azerbaijan's population.

Iran's Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is an ethnic Azeri. The theocrats in Iran who view the Wahhabi as their inveterate enemy would be keen to crush any Wahhabist threat in oil- rich Azerbaijan.

So Azerbaijan is in danger of domestic terrorism directed at the government and across sectarian lines, incited by mostly foreign or foreign-backed Sunni and Shia missionaries and activists.

Meanwhile, Forum 18 reports amendments to Azerbaijan's already repressive Religion Law aimed at clamping down on 'destructive sects' will be debated in the parliamentary sitting commencing in September. When Christians are already viewed with contempt and suspicion - particularly the small non-Orthodox minority, a number of whom are Azeri converts from Islam - it is difficult to imagine they could avoid becoming victims of Azerbaijan's genuine security concerns.

PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR GOD TO:

* open the eyes of the parliament and its advisors to the non- political, non-threatening, peaceful nature of Christian worship and fellowship.

* grant the government the insight and courage to disregard political correctness and historical bias to justly differentiate between the evident Islamist threat and the peaceful exercise of Christianity, praying particularly for Ms Rabiyyat Aslanova, chairing the working group drafting the amendments to the Religion Law, and for President Ilhan Aliyev.

* bless Azerbaijan's churches with great spiritual wisdom and grace, and especially with divine brotherly love and spiritual solidarity that dissolves denominational and ethnic barriers, which is beautiful to see. 'My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.' (John 15:12 NIV)

~~~~

SUMMARY TO USE IN BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE:

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

AZERBAIJAN - A HOT-SPOT GETTING HOTTER

Northern Azerbaijan borders Chechnya and Dagestan and is largely Sunni Muslim. Southern Azerbaijan borders Iran and is mainly Shiite. Unlike Iranian Shiites, Turkic Azeri Shiites mostly embrace secular government and look to Turkey, Israel and the West. However the Sunnis who are mostly ethnic minorities are widely adopting the extreme Islamist Wahhabism and becoming politically active and threatening. Azerbaijan's Christian minority is mostly Russian or Armenian so Azerbaijanis tend to view Christianity as the religion of the Russian and Armenian 'enemy'. Due to security issues arising from political Islam, Azerbaijan is now amending its already repressive Religion Law. With all 'sects' under scrutiny, Christians, especially Protestants, are likely to be targeted.

Please pray for wisdom for the government and for the Church.