Iran is home to some 17 million Azeris. Including historic and more recent emigrations to neighboring countries and beyond, their total global population is thought to be approximately 40 million.
Azeris have a long and complicated history. Islam arrived in the region in the 7th century, with Shia Islam dominating by the 16th century. These displaced centuries of Christian history.
Persians are the majority ethnic group in Iran (60-65%), found mainly in the center of the country. The rest of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities such as the Azeri, located generally in border areas at the periphery. Azeris, Iran’s largest minority group, live mostly in the northwest. The historic city of Tabriz is a center of heavy industry as well as the beautiful handicrafts Azeris are known for.
Though ethnically related to Sunni Muslim Turks, older, rural Iranian Azeris feel a stronger religious bond with their Shia Iranian neighbors. Islam among Azeris is also influenced by folk religion. Younger, urbanized Azeris aren’t as focused on religion at all.
Living in Iran as the country’s largest ethnic minority, Azeris often use the Turkic language of Azerbaijani at home, Persian in school and work, and Arabic for their religious practices. Though they share Iranian citizenship, there are occasional “ethnic brushfires” between Azeris and Persians. Iranian authorities clamp down on dissension and political opposition. Interestingly, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei is an Azeri.
The lingering, deadly disputes between Armenian Christians and Azerbaijani Muslims in the Nagorno-Karabakh border region remain an open wound in the Azeri psyche and an obstacle to some regarding faith. These identity issues, whether nationalistic or religious, impact daily life for Iranian Azeris no matter where they live.
As with most people, Azeris simply want a better life for their children, but Iran’s struggling economy makes this difficult. Globalization has seen a flow of Azeris to major cities across the region and around the world.
Plenty of materials are available for ministry, including Scriptures, the Jesus Film, internet resources, and satellite television programs. There are 10,000-17,000 believers in Azerbaijan, and several churches are reaching out to Azeris in surrounding countries. Sharing the Gospel with Azeris in Iran – or anyone, for that matter – is risky for locals and foreigners alike.
Young Azeris who have traveled to Western countries for education and training are more open to the Gospel. Receptivity is on the rise, and Azeris are coming to the Lord around the world! Those who become believers abroad will often attend a Persian-speaking or Russian-speaking church. However, in one Western European country there is a rare, growing Azeri church.
Though martyrdom is rare among Iranian Azeris, believers experience intense surveillance, social pressure, and loss of relationships when they turn to Christ.