Emil Panahov has a vision.
“I want to see 96 percent of Azerbaijanis confess their faith in Christ, and revival often began when the king became a believer,” he said. “But our God is the president of presidents, so the government does not rule over me.”
He has a long way to go.
Panahov, founder of the Vineyard church in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, arrives at his target by inverting his homeland’s estimated proportion of Christians: 4 percent. Most of these are Russian Orthodox, holdovers from when the Caucasus nation of 10 million was part of the Soviet Union.
But the Azerbaijan Bible Society estimates that 20,000 Azeris have become evangelicals, most within the past two decades. And the government—despite being panned for widespread human rights violations in politics—has earned local plaudits for its level of religious freedom, especially toward Christians and Jews.
Panahov’s own story supports his optimism. But is it wise? Orthodox, Catholic, and Presbyterian leaders offer a word of caution.
From an Azeri Muslim family with a communist father, in 1989 Panahov came to faith at the age of 12 through a local Russian Baptist church. But as he grew interested in the arts and dancing, the conservative Christian community could not accept such worldly activity.
Panahov fell away from the faith as he performed professionally around the world—until in 2007 he tore his meniscus. Doctors in Turkey, where he lived at the time, told him he would never dance again.
It was then he recalled Jesus—whom he said spoke a word of healing to him. But through his Turkish pastor, God also gave him a commission: Return to Azerbaijan, and share what God has done for you.
Panahov was reluctant, knowing his artistic passion was a spiritual offense. But trusting God, he went back and eventually found a new church home. Over the next seven years he worshiped comfortably, started a family, and even found work as a dance instructor. But then he heard again the voice that healed him: Go out and start a house church.
He left his fellowship with tears but knew to obey. In the beginning he met mostly with believing relatives, but four years later their number grew to the 50 required by the authorities for registration. Similar miracles have marked many in the movement, which according to Panahov counts 350 believers in 16 cell groups, spread throughout his Caspian Sea country.
And God has used his artistic talent. His team has drawn hundreds to gospel-themed performances in downtown Baku, the nation’s capital. Media and filmmaking have put the message on the internet. The Vineyard church baptized 64 new Christians during the pandemic, he said, and 36 during Azerbaijan’s victorious war with neighboring Armenia.
“Two years ago, the churches did not believe opportunities for evangelism could reach such a level,” Panahov said. “But I know it is from God, because I don’t have the brains for it.”
It is also from the government, which following many years of suppression now works with church leaders to legalize their fellowships. While noting a positive trend, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom still recommends Azerbaijan for inclusion on the State Department’s Special Watch List for religious freedom violators.
Of concern is the legislation that requires 50 people before legal registration. Many evangelicals celebrate the freedom they do have—and the movement of the Holy Spirit to far surpass this number. But some notice…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today on April 1, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.