Nearly 75 percent of Azerbaijan’s revenue comes from its oil and gas exports; therefore, falling oil prices have taken a toll on the nation’s economy, as well as the critical State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which is used for many infrastructure improvement projects. Furthermore, in December 2015, the value of the Manat, Azerbaijan’s national currency, fell by 33 percent. Additionally, the nation’s ongoing conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region saps even more of its energy and income. As a result of rising prices for food, gas, and other goods, social unrest is also becoming more common.
Ranked number 34 on the World Watch List, around 96 percent of Azerbaijan’s population is Muslim, and only about 0.2 percent is evangelical Christian. Following a harsh religion law passed in 2009, religious persecution in Azerbaijan has escalated. For example, in 2012, the government liquidated Greater Grace Church, where we were holding School Without Walls (SWW). Furthermore, all religious groups must register with the government, but this process is very difficult. In 2015, only nine Christian communities were officially registered, and the majority of Protestant denominations are still struggling to receive legal status.
In October 2015, religion law amendments were adopted to require religious groups to file reports on all of their activities and finances, and further amendments adopted in December 2015 now allow the government to strip citizenship from anyone participating in “extremist” religious groups. The government also controls the publication, importation, and distribution of religious literature, which can be suspended at will.
Despite religious persecution, the Evangelical Church in Azerbaijan is still growing. In 1991, there were only 40 evangelical Christians in the nation, but today there are about 10,000! SWW has been steadily growing, and the students are now sharing the gospel in their own communities. There is also a population of almost 30 million ethnic Azeri people in neighboring Iran, and while it is impossible for Western missionaries to reach them, the doors are open for SWW students to share the gospel with their own people in this nation.
- For the Azerbaijani government to overcome corruption and invest its current oil wealth in building infrastructure and other sources of income that will produce lasting benefits for the nation.
- For an end to persecution of evangelical Christians in Azerbaijan, and the freedom to plant new churches, as well as print and distribute Scriptures and other Christian literature.
- For SWW students and graduates to be bold in their witness, protected by God’s hand, and to grow as leaders for their churches and nation.
- For the church in Azerbaijan to grow in spiritual maturity and help lead their Muslim neighbors to Christ, both in their communities and in nearby countries.
Shirkhan was first invited to church by a female friend, and he soon started attending regularly. At first he was afraid to tell his parents, thinking that they would oppose him becoming a Christian. However, he could not hide the ways that Jesus was transforming him, and eventually his parents asked him what was responsible for the positive changes they were seeing in his life. Eventually someone in his church invited him to study in SWW, and it was through SWW that he was able to overcome his fear of sharing his faith that had kept him from sharing with his parents. When SWW gave him the motivation and tools to share the gospel with others, he started witnessing and sharing his testimony freely.
“I am very grateful and praise God for the opportunity to participate in SWW,” Shirkhan shared. “The sessions have answered many of my questions, and leave me wishing they took place more often.”
Shirkhan is now a missionary and evangelist. And what about the girl who first invited him to church? She is now his wife.