Seventh-day Adventists in Azerbaijan hope a recent meeting between church leaders and state officials will ease tensions and help the church gain official recognition for its congregations under Azerbaijani law.
The January 31 meeting with representatives of the Azerbaijan State Committee on Religious Associations came a month after reports that government officials disrupted an Adventist worship service in the city of Sumgait, questioning worshipers and confiscating DVDs and literature.
The tone of last week's meeting was both positive and professional, said Vasiliy Stolyar, vice president of the Adventist Church's Euro-Asia Division, who attended along with three other local church leaders.
Stolyar said the state representatives "confirmed their belief that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a law-abiding religious organization," and offered their support in helping the church work through the process of gaining registration for its congregations under Azerbaijani law.
Religious freedom is constitutionally protected in Azerbaijan, but only for groups that are accorded legal recognition. For the past eight years, local Adventists have been unsuccessful in their efforts to register the Sumgait congregation, church leaders there said.
The meeting represents a step forward in the ongoing struggle for substantive religious freedom in Azerbaijan, said John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association.
"This is a positive development," said Graz, who also serves as director of the Adventist world church's department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty.
"We're hopeful it will signal a greater commitment on the part of the Azerbaijan government to protect the freedoms of all its citizens to practice their faith, no matter what their religious tradition," he said.