Central Asia

by People International

 

If I were to ask you to locate Central Asia on a world map do you think you could? Sandwiched between Europe and Asia, but not firmly in either, this region has all but fallen from the gaze of the world and, more worryingly, the view of the Church.

 

Firstly, what do we mean by Central Asia? The Turkic- and Persian-speaking peoples encompass an area stretching from Southern Russia to Pakistan and from Turkey across to north-west China. This region of Greater Central Asia accounts for half a billion of the world's population. If we narrow it down to the former Soviet Central Asia, we are really talking about the countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

 

What unites these countries is that they are Muslim states run by post-communist regimes. Their people are not devout in their adherence to orthodox Islam, preferring a more pragmatic folk Islam.

 

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in the early 1990s, a door was opened for workers to meet the very real needs of the people and, at the same time, share the gospel. Churches quickly sprang up over the region, as Tajiks, Uzbeks and others turned to the Lord. However, the political mood changed again and mission workers found themselves persona non grata (not welcome). Turkmenistan was the first to expel mission workers, followed closely by Uzbekistan; it is likely the rest of the region may follow suit at some point.

 

Protestant denominations have always been present despite opposition and repression. Following more than two decades of relative freedom for gospel work, there has been fruit. Churches look very different - some are big, some are small, some sit down to sing while others stand, some are in Russian and others use the local language.

 

Persecution of the church in Central Asia comes from two directions. The first is from relatives and neighbours who consider conversion from Islam a rejection of their religious and national identity. The second is from the state apparatus, such as the security services and departments of religious affairs. Here we might identify three main motives behind persecution. Firstly, it is just the old way of doing business for the government. Many who run these countries did so under the Soviet Union, and it is unthinkable to the security services that they would not have one or two people inside the churches reporting what is going on, or recruiting people in the church to work for them. This is even more true with orthodox or extremist Islamic groups, who are seen as a potential threat to political stability.

 

Secondly, some devout people within government lean towards Islam and oppose Christianity. The region has been majority Muslim for many centuries and religion is intertwined with culture. A person might say, "I am Kazakh and therefore Muslim."

 

Thirdly, there is a fear that evangelical Christianity will stir up change and change is feared. In Central Asia there is no such thing as a former president. If made a president, you die a president. Kyrgyzstan is the only country to have changed presidents and each time the deposed president has fled the country. The president is immune from prosecution as long as he is in office. When he leaves office there is no knowing what corruption might come to light. All power, wealth and authority quickly disappear and are reassigned to the new leader.

 

Persecution is not uniform across the region. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have dealt severely with the church, while Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are more relaxed. However, recent reports suggest that persecution in Kazakhstan is on the increase.

 

There can be open hostility from the security services, through raids on church meetings and the arrest of church leaders. A more insidious and demoralising hostility is found in media propaganda. In Uzbekistan, for example, there is a constant stream of television documentaries and newspaper articles denouncing Protestant Christian groups as sects, and portraying members as deranged and dangerous.

 

In some Central Asian countries it is possible to register a church, creating a legal entity with the official approval of the state. However, to do so you must provide the personal details of 50 or 100 church members. Anyone with a government job, who provides their details in this register, is likely to face a tough choice. One lady, when presented with the choice of keeping her job or denouncing her church, decided it was more important to stand alongside her brothers and sisters.

 

Despite this bleak picture of Central Asia, there is life in the church. Most do not bow to the pressure of persecution. They continue to meet week by week and open the Word of God together. The zeal and rapid growth of the church 20 to 30 years ago has diminished. Generally, at the moment, the church is barely growing numerically. The reasons are manifold: immature leadership, legalism, moral failure and an overdependence on Western finance and methods.

 

For two decades mission agencies have been sending workers with the aim of sharing the gospel and seeing people come to faith. This has produced fruit for which we rejoice. We will continue to send evangelists into this region, but our primary role must be to support the church in Central Asia rather than do its work for it. The quickest way to grow the church is by the slowest route, discipleship: training local believers who do not have to learn the language and culture, and who will not be considered as outsiders.

 

An urgent task that will enable discipleship is the completion of Bible translation into all Central Asian languages. Currently three major languages have the whole Bible, while others are still works in progress. We also need good books for church leaders and general titles for all believers. It is tempting to take our Christian classics and translate them into Tajik or Uzbek. However, it is much more effective if local church leaders are equipped to write books for their own people and we help to publish them.

 

The global Church needs to recognise that Central Asia exists and to pray for its church. Between all of the mission-sending organisations in the UK, no more than five new workers have been sent each year, and sadly more than five people return to the UK from that region within the same time frame.

 

There are two recruiting priorities for Central Asia. Firstly, to recruit 'traditional' mission workers. We need young people who will commit to long-term ministry and be on the field for ten years or more. We also need church leaders and teachers to go to Central Asia, with the aim of discipling young leaders. Secondly, to recruit people with professional skills, who can move to Central Asia and take up paid employment. We have not been as good at reaching people in the professional and ruling classes. To reach these nationals, gospel workers need to be living and working where professional people are based. 

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