|(Image courtesy of Eurovision)|
Azerbaijan (MNN) ― The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual competition held among active member countries of the European Broadcasting Union.
It is one of the longest-running, most-watched television programs in the world.
This year, Azerbaijan hosts the competition, and Forum 18 News Service notes that freedom of religion or belief and related human rights such as the freedom of expression and of assembly remain highly restricted.
Joel Griffith with the Slavic Gospel Association explains, "This Eurovision Song Contest doesn't necessarily have religious freedom tied to it, but it is a major European event. And Azerbaijan is also a signatory to many conventions when it comes to human rights."
The question is WHY these violated rights are being allowed to pass unchallenged with Eurovision's global scrutiny.
"There just seems to be a real concern--not only with religious freedom groups but with human rights groups and Western governments, in general--that you would have signatories to these conventions that are supposed to guarantee human rights. And then you have a country that's known, in recent years, for cracking down on some of these freedoms."
Azerbaijan is part of the Caucuses with a Muslim-dominated population. It also ranks 25th on this year's Open Doors World Watch List, a compilation of countries known for the persecution of Christians.
The country's record on this issue is not widely known. However, Griffith says, "Since 2003, we've had local and international human rights organizations document cases of fraud, corruption, human rights abuses, and rule of law.
We've just seen a steady increase in reports of religious freedom being violated."
One case in point: as of January 2010, all religious groups were required to renew their registration. Since then, no new churches have been able to register. Congregations without registration are often raided, with church leaders arrested or fined.
Griffith says they saw what was coming and came alongside the church with a Bible institute to help with the training of church leaders prior to the changes. Although they're still working, "What we have to do--not just in Azerbaijan but in any of the former Soviet countries where you have a larger Muslim domination, especially in Central Asia--is try to help churches as discreetly as possible."
The atmosphere seems to more hostile than ever. Azeri believers are considered traitors as Christianity is associated with the country's rival, Armenia. Many Christians are unable to find or keep jobs and are monitored by the secret police.
"The main thing we're able to do right now is try to help as discreetly as we can, and try to raise awareness of the situation. Obviously, intercessory prayer holds a major role in this. Pray for our brothers and sisters there that they would not only be able to obtain freedom to worship but also to proclaim the Gospel."