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Whatever your faith, be a patriot

14 June 2024

On his recent visit to Azerbaijan, Andrew Brown discovered the diversity of belief


Vadim Melnikov

Vadim Melnikov

MANY Christians feel that they have been touched by Jesus; very few have felt him kick them in the bottom. I recently heard the story of one who had, in a café in Baku, Azerbaijan, where Vadim Melnikov told me the story of his friend and pastor, Emil Panahov.

Emil was raised Baptist, but, when he was 15, and Azerbaijan was at war with Armenia, he left the church for Islam. Telling the story, Mr Melnikov puts scare quotes around “Christian” when he applies it to Armenians.

As a Wahhabi Muslim, Emil attended for some years a large mosque in central Baku, which was in those days so popular that the congregation spilled out on to the streets at Friday prayers; but, on this particular Friday, Emil was inside the building, performing the prescribed prostrations with everybody else, when he was interrupted by the voice of Jesus. “Get out,” the voice said. Emil did not doubt that it was the voice of Jesus, but this was a most embarrassing moment for a revelation. “As soon as prayers are over,” he replied in his head, and continued to move through the ritual postures of the prayers.

But, as he bowed along with everyone else, he felt the kick in his bottom. All the men around him were bowing, too. None could have kicked him. “Get out! Now!” said the voice he heard, and he jumped. He kept jumping over 20 rows of men kneeling as they prayed, and fled into the street without his shoes on. So much for Islam in his life. He now leads a Vineyard congregation in the city.

Vadim himself had a much less dramatic conversion experience. When he was 12, and the Soviet Union collapsed, his mother, a weakly Orthodox woman, decided that he should be baptised. She took him to a priest, who put bread and wine in his mouth, daubed him with water, and announced that he was now a Christian. He had been all keyed up for a spiritual experience, and he felt nothing at all.

So, he decided that there was no God, and nothing in Christianity. Then, “On 2 May 1992, when I was 13, the librarian came to our class to share about Jesus. She said, ‘I’m a practical person, and I am here to tell you that he died for you; he died to forgive sins and to bring you life, and he wants to have a personal relationship with you. You don’t have to go to church. You can pray wherever you are.’ So, I went home; I prayed. I felt joy, and I felt peace in my heart.”

This experience was part of the great upwelling of religious and supernaturalist belief after the Soviet Union broke up. It was a traumatic period for newly independent Azerbaijan. After the loss of a war with neighbouring Armenia, and a brief experiment with democracy, the country settled down under the rule of the Aliyev dynasty — Heydar Aliyev the elder had risen through the ranks of the Azerbaijani KGB all the way to a seat on the politburo in Moscow in the ’80s. After Gorbachev sacked him for egregious corruption, he retreated to Azerbaijan and reinvented himself as a nationalist. He took power after a coup in 1993. When the old man died, in 2003, his son Ilham took over and inherited his father’s remarkable knack of winning elections by 90 per cent or more.


AZERBAIJAN is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, but one less hostile to Evangelical Christianity than most; the government promotes its version of multiculturalism and suppresses even-handedly all forms of religion which might threaten its control. The big Wahhabi mosque that Emil had attended was shut down for “restoration” a couple of years later, and never regained its former popularity after reopening.

In most majority Muslim countries, nationalism is officially subordinated to religion, but the Aliyevs’ Azerbaijan subordinates all religions to nationalist fervour. The long history of mutual atrocity between Armenia and Azerbaijan is officially rehearsed in terms that cast Azerbaijanis only as victims. On a recent freebie around the country, we were shown the ruins of a township in Nagorno Karabakh which had been captured by the Armenians in the war of 1990 and emptied of its Azerbaijani inhabitants; but we were also driven without apology through the ghost city of Stepanakert, with the signs still in Armenian script outside the pillaged shops and empty apartment blocks, from which 80,000 Armenians were driven out in three days last year, at the end of the most recent war.

On the Armenian side, the war is represented as a battle between Islam and Christianity, but, in Azerbaijan, it is seen as an ethnic or nationalist conflict. In several of the synagogues that we visited — Azerbaijan enjoys excellent relations with Israel — there were memorial tablets to Jews who had fought in the various wars. Ethnically Russian Christians, too, have been happy to fight against the Armenians.

Vadim argues that this is the best situation possible for Christians in Central Asia: “Islam, whatever some people say, is not a tolerant religion. And, if a true democracy is allowed here, that would mean that Islamic parties would come to power, like it happened in Iran. The only serious opposition that can be against radical Islam is nationalism. And, obviously, that is what is happening in Azerbaijan; but the Azerbaijani type of nationalism is multicultural, which is inclusive.

“It means you can be a Russian Christian, or Azeri Christian, or Azeri Baha’i, or it doesn’t really matter what ethnicity you are. You can still be a patriot. You can still love the culture and the history of your country and your people. So, in that sense, I feel very comfortable living here. There is less freedom in Russia nowadays than there is here. Here, I’m free to express my religious beliefs; I am free to share with people what I believe in. I am free to worship in the churches, and my children are free to come there, too.”

In Tajikistan, he says, the church will be fined as soon as a single child under 18 attends, but in Baku there are Sunday schools, and children can sing songs in church. “Christians, especially in Baku, feel safe.”

It has not always been so. After the first efflorescence of free churches in the 1990s, the State cracked down in 1997: all churches had to be registered, but only those that owned their own buildings were eligible. At a stroke, this made illegal most of the Charismatic congregations, some of which had flourished — the Greater Grace Baptists, for instance, had opened a Bible college, which had to shut down. The great marquee in which the Word of Life church had worshipped burned down mysteriously.

“Probably due to the issues with the government, right? And they had to leave. There was a court case about it, but people say it’s not a good idea to file for the court, against the government. It’s better to talk to the officials rather than fight them,” Mr Melnikov said.

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