Estonia and the True Pagans of Europe


by Mark Nelson



Isolated communities in the north-eastern corner of the European continent offer prayers and sacrifices in sacred forest groves. These are not the neo-pagans that have appeared recently in the West, trying to revive a faith that died out centuries ago; these people are the real thing. Their ancestors never accepted the Christian faith and they continue an unbroken tradition, proudly calling themselves pagans. 


The Finno-Ugric family of nations are the indigenous peoples of northern Europe, stretching from the Atlantic coast in northern Scandinavia to the Ural Mountains and the western edge of Siberia. Of this family the three largest groups have independent countries - the Estonians, the Finns and their southern cousins, the Hungarians. Aside from these groups, an additional 13 nations live as indigenous peoples within other states, existing alongside a completely foreign culture, language and identity. The most well known are the Sami in Scandinavia and the Livonians, a tiny population inside Latvia. In Russia are the Erzya, Izhorian, Karelians, Khanty, Komi, Mansi, Mari, Moksha, Udmurt, Veps and Votes nations, totalling between 3 and 5 million individuals, all created in the image of God.




Since 2002 Estonian Christians have been developing a partnership with these groups, who are cousin nations within Russia. Specifically, their focus has been upon the Khanty, Komi, Mari and Udmurt peoples.



While the majority of Finno-Ugric nations accepted 'Christianity', either Catholic or Lutheran to the west, or Orthodox to the east, the Khanty, Mansi, Mari and some communities of Udmurts remain opposed. Among the Khanty, wooden idols are spoon-fed with the blood of sacrificed reindeer. A Russian church leader and partner, who serves in this region, described his early attempts to witness to a Khanty man. He had presented the man with a gift of a wooden cross. During his next visit, as they were drinking tea, the man excused himself, and pulled out a bowl of blood and a spoon. To the church leader's shock, the man began to pour the blood onto the cross. In response to the church leader's protests, the man quietly explained, "Well my gods needed to eat, I assumed your god would be hungry as well." This is the reality today.



When we started our relationship with the Khanty in 2003, it was estimated that there were perhaps 50 believers, scattered over a territory larger than Germany. A considerable number of Khanty call themselves Orthodox and have their children baptised. However, the Christian God is popularly referred to as 'Nikolai's god', in reference to the Russian tsar who attempted to use military force to convert the Khanty in the 19th century. Families still have their household idols and paganism remains the dominant faith. 




The relationship between the indigenous minorities and the Russian majority complicates all aspects of life. Very few Udmurts will dare to speak their own language in public because they fear being confronted and told to "stop making those noises and speak like a human." A consequence of this has been that official statistics for the population of minorities in Russia cannot be considered reliable. Many members of ethnic minorities claim to be Russian when the census is taken, since they are ashamed to admit their background.



The problem of shame and a lack of respect for the minorities is prevalent, even among Protestant Christians. Since 2004 we have partnered with a group of Udmurt Christians who have a goal of presenting the gospel to their people in their own Udmurt language, through music and other traditions. Sadly, their greatest challenge has been from other believers who are bitterly opposed to this approach. It is a conflict that threatens to destroy their vital ministry.




The most developed evangelical presence among these nations is found among the Komi people. This group has become strongly Orthodox on account of the 14th-century Komi convert, Stefan of Perm, who began translating Christian texts into the Komi language. His 20th-century counterpart, Vassili Popov, founded a Komi-speaking church and, in 1991, completed the first full translation of the Bible into the Komi language. Now led by the second generation, this church has a network of daughter churches in a number of villages throughout the region, using the language to intentionally reach their own people. However, in 2004 it was estimated that only 0.15% of the population were believers; Orthodoxy dominates, at least in name. The sad reality was demonstrated when a village lady identified herself as an Orthodox believer to one of our Komi partners: "It is good that you believe in God," replied my Komi-Protestant friend, "But can you explain to me, who is Jesus?" The lady responded, "Oh, well, no one knows those kind of details." They may be nominally Orthodox, but this very typical encounter shows that they still need to hear the gospel!




The first challenge facing a mission worker coming into these communities is that centuries of marginalisation have left small nations wary of foreigners. Estonians, however, are also from a small nation who lived under foreign control for many years. Therefore they can instantly understand and relate to many aspects of their psyche, in a way that citizens of large powerful nations find difficult.



Equally importantly, Estonian is related to the languages of these marginalised communities. The result is that Estonians are welcomed as long-lost relatives. Doors are immediately thrown open: "We are family," one elderly Udmurt lady exclaimed as she embraced me. "We just haven't seen each other in the last 10,000 years!" We are blessed with the opportunity to enter the mission relationship with a natural and sincere love for these people and their culture. Respect cannot be feigned. Marginalised and indigenous peoples must be met with honest respect for their culture and language. Only then can the Kingdom of God really take root among these nations.



We began by sending summer mission teams in order to build relationships with the local Khanty, Komi, Mari and Udmurt believers. Consistency is key in short-term mission, and years of visiting the same communities form relationships that provide long-term support and encouragement; such work is critical in local evangelistic efforts among their own people. Since 2008 we have also been running a small Bible school programme for these nations, in an effort to raise up workers and leaders capable of having an impact upon their communities. The goal is to see indigenous groups develop their use of the language and culture, in praise of Him and in outreach to their people.



Slowly, the work of God is progressing. In 2013 we celebrated with the Udmurts as they became the second of these nations to have the complete Bible in their own language. A decade ago there were only isolated believers spread over great distances among the reindeer-herding Khanty people. In 2011 we had the privilege of participating in the first Khanty Christian celebration which drew over 100 people together. Today there are probably close to 200 Khanty believers in the area and more still further south. God is working! Under the direction of the church leader who, a decade ago, witnessed blood being poured over the cross, the Khanty have started forming house groups in isolated villages. Because there are still no Khanty full-time workers, the house groups are led by locals who meet together to study God's Word, pray together and encourage each other in witnessing to their communities. By God's grace, we are seeing the birth of indigenous churches among these peoples!


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