Love Will Set You Free in Azerbaijan - or Will It?
Eurovision opens up scrutiny of the country's poor human rights - including harsh religious censorship
As Azerbaijan prepares to host the Eurovision Song Contest this Saturday (26 May), and British hopes rest on Engelbert Humperdinck and the song "Love will set you free", the spotlight has fallen not on the singers and their songs but on the country's poor human rights record and government limitations on freedom of expression, including harsh religious censorship.
Human rights groups have called on the country to stop stifling dissent and free speech and have asked organisers of the contest to put pressure on the host nation.
Several journalists, it is alleged, have been "frequently subject to harassment, intimidation and physical attacks". Two are currently in prison and five are in pre-trial detention.
Ahead of the contest, thousands of residents in Baku, the capital, were evicted from their homes in freezing winter temperatures, which were then demolished to make way for the new concert hall.
Compensation amounted to less than half the market value.
But journalists and residents of Baku aren't the only ones suffering for the right to speak out. The government has tightened restrictions on religious groups.
Opposition to Religious Groups
Christian work is increasingly opposed. Azerbaijan is a secular country with a Muslim identity. The 'Christian' population is almost entirely Armenian and Russian (together 3.3% of the population) while the 'Muslim' population is mostly ethnic Azeri (Azeris making up around 90 per cent of the population).
In 2001 the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) was formed. This committee demands the registration of religious communities and censors religious literature.
Religious law was first made in 1992 but has been amended several times, the latest being in 2010. A new law was passed in 2009 requiring active religious communities to re-register.
Established groups who previously had registration have now been denied re-registration. This includes the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan. Until they are re-registered, they meet illegally and face closure.
BMS and Azerbaijan
BMS World Mission works in partnership with the European Baptist Federation (EBF) in helping national workers in Azerbaijan, supporting church plants and campaigning for religious freedom.
This is no easy task and, for reasons of security, we cannot name workers or the cities they work in.
An EBF/BMS-funded worker wrote in 2011, "The group in [a central city] needs special prayers since it is a city full of idolatry. Please pray that all refugees whom we work with may be given apartments, because they live in harsh conditions. It is very difficult to visit them and openly share the gospel.
"Pray for the Christian leaders as the authorities threaten them with fines from US$2,000-$8,000 if they are found to lead home groups and even pastors of churches [are affected]." Another visitor spoke of major problems, being "the lack of registration and loss of jobs by Christian believers".
The EBF has also been persistent in campaigning for religious freedom, particularly for Baptist pastors, arrested and imprisoned, they believe, for being a Baptist Christian.
The cases of two Christian leaders, Zaur Balayev and Hamid Shabanov, have become well-known internationally. Pastor Balayev was arrested in 2007 and convicted of beating up five policemen and damaging a police car door - charges which have always been disputed.
Shabanov, a deacon who led church services, was arrested in 2008 and found guilty of possessing an illegal weapon, which his fellow townspeople insist was planted.
Balayev was released in 2008 and Shabanov was released in 2009 after spending seven months in prison or under house arrest.
Partly as a response to these cases, the EBF's General Secretary Tony Peck wrote to the President and the Azerbaijani Ambassador and, in January 2009, an EBF delegation went to Azerbaijan and met with government, diplomatic and religious leaders.
Licences for Religious Books
In April 2012 an SCWRA official admitted that around 100 shops wishing to sell religious books were still waiting for their necessary licences - only 16 such licences have been issued since the system was introduced in 2009.
Selling religious books without a licence risks a maximum punishment for a first offence of two years' imprisonment.
Will all this stop you watching Eurovision? Probably not. But as you watch it, spare some time to pray for the nation and the plight of Christians and others there. Perhaps you'll find it a good way of using the interlude.