by Chris Jones
Chris has spent 30 years working in the Turkic world, engaged in church planting, mercy ministry and in the formation and facilitation of partnering networks among the unreached. He is the International Facilitator of the Network of Azerbaijani Partnerships.
A few years ago at a conference, I held a large banner that read, ‘Azerbaijanis: God’s gateway people to the Muslim world.’ One quizzical individual pondered for a few minutes before asking me whether this was a real place. Azerbaijanis or, as they are becoming known, Azerbaijani Turks, often get that response.
They are one of a handful of peoples that span numerous countries, encompassing various linguistic and cultural contexts. The Republic of Azerbaijan alone is home to over 9 million Azerbaijanis, but its low profile on the world stage has led many to underestimate its significance. While the exact number of Azerbaijanis worldwide is unknown, estimates range wildly from 30 million to 50 million. The largest concentration of their number is found in Iran, where there are a reported 18 to 30 million Azerbaijanis.
From the mountains of Ararat to the western Azeri region of Naxchevan (named after the old Azeri words Nuh chixan, ‘where Noah came out’), to the highest echelon of power in Iran, where the supreme leader, an Azeri, Ayatollah Khameini rules, Azerbaijani Turks are a people who deserve to be noticed.
Dispersed Among the Nations
Until the early 19th century, the Azerbaijani homelands were considered part of the Persian Empire. Following war and successive treaties, the Persian Empire ceded what is now Azerbaijan to Russia and, along with it, significant Azerbaijani populations in the city of Derbent. As the turmoil of war ravaged the continent in the early years of the 20th century and the Russian Empire dissolved, losing its grip on its Azerbaijani lands, Azerbaijan declared itself an independent state. It was a beacon of democracy in the region, until the Bolshevik army marched in to Baku to take back what the Russian Empire had lost. Many Azerbaijani Turks fled and resettled in the eastern provinces of Turkey. Current estimates of Azerbaijani Turks in Turkey range between 500,000 and 600,000. In Georgia, their numbers range from 240,000 to 400,000. In Russia and the former Soviet Union, 1 million Azerbaijani form a significant minority. And in northern Iraq, the Turcoman, who speak an Azerbaijani dialect, are estimated to number 2.5 million. However, with the recent upheaval of war, migration and unrest among these nations, it is hard to speak accurately of population numbers. Dispersed Azerbaijani Turks speak Azerbaijani, Farsi, Turkish, Russian, Arabic and many other local languages.
Although national boundaries present challenges to Western workers, they are not as problematic to Azerbaijani believers. Nationals from Azerbaijan go freely to Iran to share the good news of the Lord Jesus. Church leaders from Baku went to northern Iraq and were welcomed as brothers rather than foreigners. Azerbaijanis from Baku are free to share their faith with Azeris in Georgia without any government hindrance. Teams of Baku believers have found that they can travel to the North Caucasus, one of the areas least engaged with and most resistant to the gospel, and share their faith with similar linguistic groups. They are welcomed like cousins sharing a common heritage and culture rather than as foreign infiltrators.
In 2009, the current translation of the Bible into Azerbaijani was completed, at last making the whole of God’s Word accessible to believers in their mother tongue. The first Azerbaijani study Bible was published in 2016. To provide access to Scripture on a wider scale, a colloquial translation of the New Testament will soon be available.
Nationals from Azerbaijan go freely to Iran to share the good news of the Lord Jesus
The Azeri people have seen rapid changes to their world and language. Over the last 25 years, they have moved away from a Russian-dominated education and cultural system. Now, as they assert their own identity and language, they are learning what it means to express themselves, create materials in their own language and speak deeply to the Azeri heart. New media are finding ways to connect believers rapidly with those who respond. The challenge is to enable believers to better work together so we can see the church grow and mature in Azerbaijan, and from there to the other nations. God willing, these resources will help Azerbaijani believers mature in their faith and then empower them to continue to take the gospel to other nations.
The Least-Reached Reaching Others
The Azerbaijanis are considered a least-reached people group. Thirty years ago, there were hardly any Azeri believers. Now, conservative estimates range from 7,000 to 17,000 Azerbaijani believers worldwide. A growing number have recently come to faith in Christ. Many understand the unique role they have in reaching their own and other peoples. They play an important part in the work of God.
Idris grew up into a life of violence and crime in Azerbaijan. The night before he was about to commit a serious crime, Christ appeared to him in a dream, exposing his life and the consequences of his path. He informed the gang he had changed his mind; he even warned them not to commit the crime and why, but they thought he was crazy and went ahead without him anyway. All of them were arrested. Idris gave his life to the Lord, and over the years God has used him to help lead a group of small churches reaching his own people, as well as Azeris in Georgia, Iran and Russia.
The Alov (Flame) Network, which Idris helps to lead, has been modelling a new way of church planting. Many of the older established churches were formed on the model of a main leader and a church built to be as large as possible. The basics are essential, but the peripheral issues are not. Smaller house-based churches can be more easily moved if needed, they have smaller overheads, and are more kinship friendly and natural for Azerbaijanis. By this model they have seen their fellowships grow to over 60 in number in recent years. Through plurality of leadership, they have developed a system where younger leaders are welcomed to take part in the decision-making process.
Reza, an Azeri Iranian businessman, came to know the Lord and was immediately bold in his faith to the point that he had to leave Iran and move to Georgia. There he began to faithfully share the gospel and planted an Iranian church. God moved him to meet needs wider than his own. Reza used his business background to train people in business and mission work, so they could support themselves while they preached the gospel. Now he is a citizen of Georgia, has a successful Iranian church, runs a farm to support the ministry, has a Bible and business training school to empower Iranians to return to plant churches and support themselves, and has a publishing facility to provide materials for outreach. God is at work among the Azerbaijani people and others through them.
Recent events have brought new challenges and diminished the free flow of people and ideas in the region. There has been renewed persecution in Iran; sanctions and threats by the US; local fears and insecurities prompted by regional unrest, and Syria and Turkey’s actions against the Kurds; unfavourable news reports about the unjust policies of Azerbaijani leaders; and the threat of renewed hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. An increasing focus on nationalism has led to legislation and business policies that have prompted some expatriate workers to leave.
Nevertheless, we continue to see growth and maturation in Azerbaijan’s church. With their key central location, and branches into the Turkic, Russian, Persian and Arabic worlds, they stand out as God’s gateway people to the Muslim world.
- that God would embolden and empower Azerbaijani believers to reach others for Christ
- for growing unity among the few Azerbaijani churches, and for local believers to be strong in faith and patient in trials
- that believing workers who bring needed skills and professions to Azerbaijan would be given gospel opportunities
- for mission workers and church planters to the Georgian Azeri minority, and for ministries mighty in prayer for spiritually dark places.