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Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Young but growing community of former Muslims says Armenian warnings about genocide in Nagorno-Karabakh hurt the spread of the gospel.
Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War
Image: Tofik Babayev / AFP / Getty Images
A woman walks past a building with a painting of the Azerbaijani flag on its wall in Baku on October 14, 2020, amid the ongoing military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Editor’s note: CT’s complete coverage of Armenian Christians is here.

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

Donning his Azerbaijani uniform 17 years ago, the ethnic Russian took his post to defend Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave bordering Turkey and separated from their countrymen by the nation of Armenia.

Known in both the Armenian and Azeri languages as “the place of descent,” referring to Noah’s landing on nearby Mt. Ararat, Nakhchivan is a geographical reminder of the mixed ethnic composition of the Caucasus Mountains.

As is Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.

Its etymology is also a reminder of the region’s diversity. Nagorno is Russian for mountains, while Karabakh combines the Turkic for black and the Persian for garden.

Armenians call it Artsakh, the name of a province in their ancient kingdom. For the last three weeks, they have been defending their de facto control of the region as Azerbaijan fights to reassert its sovereignty.

As Melnikov did decades ago in Nakhchivan. Armenian soldiers crossed into Azeri mountain villages, before his unit drove them out.

This was one of the many border conflicts that followed a war of demography. But in the years before and after the 1991 independence of both nations, about 30,000 people were killed as hundreds of thousands on both sides fled or were driven to their lands of ethnic majority.

A 1994 ceasefire established the status quo, and the Minsk Group—headed by Russia, France, and the United States—preside over negotiations.

Despite the previous ethnic violence, Azerbaijan boasts that it remains a nation of multicultural tolerance. Of its 10 million population, 96 percent are Muslim—roughly two-thirds Shiite and one-third Sunni. Russian Orthodox represent two-thirds of the Christian population, while over 15,000 Jews date back to the Old Testament era.

Melnikov is part of the 0.26 percent evangelical community. And on behalf of their nation, eight churches and the Azerbaijan Bible Society wrote an open letter to decry the popular conception that this conflict pits Muslims against Christians. (More than 770 Armenian soldiers have been killed so far. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties.)

“The war which has been between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the last 30 years is purely political confrontation, it has no religious context,” they wrote.

“In fact, this history and [the] continuous attempts of Armenia to present this war as a religious one, can become a stumbling block for many Azerbaijani people, who hear [the] gospel nowadays.”

An earlier letter by leaders of Azerbaijan’s Muslim, Jewish, and Russian Orthodox communities communicated similarly—minus the gospel reference—while congratulating President Ilham Aliyev over initial military successes.

Raised Orthodox in the capital city of Baku, Melnikov learned the faith from his mother, despite official Soviet efforts at suppression. But he spoke of a Russian Baptist village and its dairy industry, which he liked to visit. It was exempted from government taxes, to encourage his ethnic community to remain in Azerbaijan.

“Being a Russian and a Christian, the president is very good to us,” Melnikov said. “I have seen good times and bad, but today there is more freedom than ever before in our history.”

Melnikov became a believer in a nondenominational church in 1992. But by the late 1990s, he said, evangelical churches were banned in Azerbaijan.

Today, however, he pastors 1 of 14 home fellowships connected to the Vineyard church in Baku. Consisting of about 200 people, they baptized 50 converts last summer—almost entirely Azeri Muslim. In fact, about 90 percent of evangelicals are of a Muslim background, he said.

But this identity is held very loosely.

“There are Quranic verses on the wall, a Christmas tree in the corner, and vodka on the table” of the typical Azeri home, said Brian Gilson, head of Oklahoma-based P28 Global Ministries, whose doctoral research is on the evangelical movement in Azerbaijan.

“Not only are most Azeris not religious, but the government’s main concern is to counter violent extremism.”

President Aliyev is authoritarian, Gilson said, but the state does not interfere in the private lives of citizens. It is good for Azerbaijan’s public image to allow churches of all varieties to operate freely.

Meanwhile, it can be “draconian” toward Muslim groups, said Chris Jones, executive director for the North American Azerbaijan Network. Having served in country from 1994 to 2002, he now oversees ministry partnerships extending the gospel to Azeris in Europe, the Caucasus nation of Georgia, and Iran—where they constitute up to 25 percent of the population.

While foreign Christian evangelists keep a low profile, the government actively clamps down on unauthorized religious outreach from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The 2019 US State Department’s religious freedom report stated there were around 50 religious activists detained as political prisoners. (The nation does not rank on Open Doors’s watch list of the world’s 50 worst persecutors of Christians.)

“Demonizing Azerbaijan as a jihadi puppet of Turkey is just nonsense,” Jones said, referring to Armenian fears of a renewed genocide.

As Armenians tend to blame Turkey for interfering in the region, Azerbaijanis blame Russia. The superpower to the north likes to keep the Caucasus “slightly unstable,” said Gilson, to keep everyone dependent on Moscow.

Since Baku has developed an independent foreign policy, Gilson attributes the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to Russia, pushing Armenia, as it is squeezed out of a recent gas pipeline project now flowing through Georgia into Turkey en route to Eastern Europe.

Yet if reconciled with Azerbaijan, the ethnic enclave might yet prosper. Aliyev has promised not only to let Armenians stay in their homes as citizens, but to develop the area economically. (Nagorno-Karabakh, despite having a 75-percent Armenian majority in 1925, was assigned to Azerbaijan as part of Joseph Stalin’s efforts to divide ethnic communities under Russian rule.)

Home to abundant natural resources, Azerbaijan has prospered while Nagorno-Karabakh has remained poor. A Gallup poll in 2013 found 72 percent of the region’s residents “struggling,” with an additional 16 percent “suffering.” Only 13 percent described themselves as “thriving.”

While both nations were long officially atheist, Armenia held to its ancient faith. The first nation to accept Christianity in 301 AD, revival came when the Soviet Union began to crumble.

But in Azerbaijan, then-USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost [openness] stirred spiritual questioning among many, even as he cracked down on the independence movement.

A few early European and Korean pastors led several of the current evangelical leaders to Christ, with churches that mirrored the diversity of the nation. Azeris, Russians, and even converted Jews worshiped together—with Armenians.

But when the Armenians took control of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeris were humbled, Jones said. From England, his family came with a subsequent wave of foreign workers, planting churches and providing hospital and community-based care to the displaced in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city.

Today it is subject to bombing in the current conflict, as both sides accuse each other of hitting civilian areas. Jones has friends in Ganja whose relatives have died.

Meanwhile, the evangelical churches were undergoing a shift. Moving away from the model of pastor-centered leadership, Azeris instituted grassroots networks of house churches.

“As an Azeri, I felt a call to reach my own people,” said Mushfig Bayramov, one of the early evangelical leaders. “If I don’t, who will?”

Originally a “Muslim atheist” from a well-educated family, he was saved in 1991 after following a beautiful girl and her mysterious leather-bound book to a Bible study. Within a year, he was assistant pastor, and in 1997 he was ordained a minister in the Greater Grace Christian movement.

In the early 2000s, he led a church plant in a city outside Baku, distributing tracts on the street and hosting gospel discussion groups in tea houses.

Within two years, 70 Azeris were saved.

“People were very broken,” Bayramov said. “The gospel was a balm to their soul.”

But as the church grew, a problem arose. In the mind of most Azeris, Xrystian meant Armenian.

Bayramov pushed forward anyway, embracing the official translation. His testimony appeared in the local newspapers, and he went on TV to debate a Muslim. Those who were uncomfortable he called “cowards,” saying they were ashamed of Christ.

Over time, Bayramov realized his judgmentalism, developing more sympathy for those who instead called themselves Messichi. Meaning “follower of the Messiah,” the term would be admirable to many Azeris.

Jones said this was not to hide their new identity, but to respect their family honor. To be a Xrystian would be akin to national betrayal, and identification with the warmongering Armenians who seized their land.

Today, about 70 percent of evangelicals call themselves Messichi. While all view themselves as one in Christ, Bayramov still considers it a mistake. Eventually, Muslim Azeris will see them together in meetings with the Western Xrystians and conclude they are all the same.

Earlier periods of oppression against evangelicals waned when Western nations intervened, looking for signs of liberalization along with economic energy interests. In 2009, a new period of registration began, which now totals 24 Christian religious communities in 14 official churches.

Azerbaijani leaders say there are many more, and count about 50,000 believers.

But it was within the last few years, in conjunction with the new gas pipeline, that the government began to openly accommodate evangelical Christians.

Gilson spoke of one well-known underground movement that was given a church building, at the expense of the state. “We know what you are doing,” they were told, “and we want you to register.” Bayramov spoke of agents of the secret police who would come to his services, pretending to be seekers.

“This is the communist playbook 101, to keep control,” said Jones. “Of course they try to infiltrate churches, to keep an eye on things.

“This is normal for the region.”

In the beginning, the government didn’t know what to do with all the foreigners. Since then, sources indicated that unlike the suspected anti-government extremism of some Muslim movements, evangelicals have demonstrated that they support their nation.

“I want to show Azeris that Christians can be patriotic,” said Bayramov, now residing in Hungary.

“But also to help Armenians, to see that they are doing a disservice to Christ.”

Unable to understand their “Christian” mission, he asked why Armenians seize and fight for land, instead of evangelizing their neighbors.

He has never experienced any of them reaching out in love.

“Many Armenians portray this conflict as Muslim versus Christian,” said the Azeri evangelical. “If that is so, then who is to blame?”

Perhaps many? There is disservice to Christ on all sides.

Like many mutual atrocities exchanged between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the 1992 Khojaly incident is disputed in its details. But among the contested total of between 161 and 613 dead, Melnikov remembers hearing of children with crosses inserted in their mouths.

Armenians have their memories also. They recall the 1988 Sumgait killings in Azerbaijan, resulting in between 26 and over 200 dead. And in 2004, an Azeri murdered his fellow Armenian student in a NATO-sponsored English class. After eight years in a European prison, he was extradited home, only to be pardoned amid a hero’s welcome.

Of current accusations, Azeri sources demur.

Azerbaijan takes care of its Armenian heritage. One can view their cathedral in Baku, and walk among the graveyards. But reports say that in Nakhchivan, ancient khachars—ornately carved headstones from Christian tombs—have been destroyed. Azerbaijan reverses the allegations.

The attack on the Armenian cathedral in Shusha—if from an Azerbaijani missile—was certainly a mistake.

The Azeri evangelicals CT interviewed have no reports about Syrian mercenaries, and if present, that would be Turkey. The government has no patience for extremists, while the national military does not need the help.

Weapons from Turkey, however, have increased six-fold this year.

But while Ankara may be pushing the conflict for its own interests, they say, the drive comes from the people.

Nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s land is occupied by ethnic Armenians. A whole generation has passed since Azeris were pushed out of their homes, whether in Armenia proper, Nagorno-Karabakh, or its surrounding occupied territories.

The displaced constitute up to 10 percent of Azerbaijan’s population.

Thus the current war is a popular one.

“I have never seen the country so united,” Melnikov said. “But with so much bloodshed, people are saying don’t stop until we recover everything.”

Citizens are volunteering for the front lines. Relief supplies are amply donated. They are tired of Minsk Group failures. They want to win.

But above all, Azerbaijani evangelicals want to make one thing clear: The conflict is not religious.

“Let us not mix sacred with not-sacred,” stated their open letter.

“This is a political war; it has nothing to do with Christianity.”

Correction: The Sumgait killings took place in 1988, not 1998.

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