By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - Christians expressed concerns Thursday about new religious legislation in Azerbaijan that bars churches from naming leaders without state approval.
The new rules require the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations to allow the appointment of all non-Islamic religious leaders in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.
President Ilham Aliyev signed the amendments on June 16 despite international criticism. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) warned the legislation would limit the activities of religious minorities.
It expressed concern that the restrictions on religious leaders limit the ability of Christian congregations to operate normally.
In addition, many events and ceremonies organized by Churches and other places of worship must have a state-recognized “religious center, ” Worthy News learned.
The “religious center” is also necessary to apply for permission to appoint foreign-born ministers or invite foreigners to lead meetings.
Advocacy activists say that the position of foreign-led Christian congregations without a religious center remains uncertain.
The amendments do not clarify how churches may apply for the recognition of a religious center. “Smaller churches may be unable to gain such recognition and may be declared illegal,” commented Barnabas Fund, a Christian charity.
Even organizing a “meeting to pray together in a private home has become potentially illegal,” the group added.
The developments come amid broader concerns about government crackdowns in devoted Christians across the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan was part of the Russia-led Soviet Union till its collapse in the early 1990s.