Kazakh Lutheran Church Formed

-- as the Westward Trek Continues


On May 9, 1993, the "Church of the Evangelical-Lutheran Congregations in the State of Kazakhstan" was officially constituted.  The initial synod of 100 delegates from 60 congregations had just convened in Alma-Ata, the capital of the newly-independent state of Kazakhstan.  The church will be an independent provincial church within the larger, Riga-based ELKROS, the "Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States."  Richard Kratz, a former school director from Pavlodar in northeastern Kazakhstan, was elected Superintendent.  Rev. Harald Kalnins of Riga remains the ELKROS' sole Bishop.


The Commonwealth of Independent States' (CIS') newest Lutheran church is also its' largest: Nearly half of the CIS' 500 Lutheran congregations are located in Kazakhstan.


According to Rev. Heinrich Rathke of Mecklenburg in Germany, who has served as "Visiting Bishop" for Kazakhstan, this synod was "a major event for all.  Until now, they could hardly meet legally.  The believers now understand that they are no longer alone." Thomas Klein, a German journalist, pointed to the creation of a church constitution and added: "This shows that they can now begin to exist as a church.  They no longer need to hide."


Nevertheless, not all delegates supported the creation of a visible and legal existence.  The Lutheran "Brethren" movement has left a strong imprint on Kazakh church life.  Followers of the Brethren movement have strongly opposed a legal arrangement with the state, fearing the faith could be compromised and the church forced under the heel of the state.  Brethren prefer the semi-secret, underground existence which had kept the church alive during decades of Communist repression.


Yet Kazakh fundamentalism survives in two competing forms: The Brethren movement consisted primarily of informal gatherings on Sunday afternoons after worship.  Those more committed to church liturgy and tradition worshiped only on Sunday forenoons.  Brethren prefer little or no liturgy; "Liturgists" desire as much as possible.  The Brethren are least in favor of accommodation with the state.  They are most opposed to theological education and most in favor of lay leadership.  Heiner Koch, a Russian specialist for the Lutheran Church of Hanover/Germany, pointed out that the Brethren "can all state the day and the hour at which they were converted".


Rev. Siegfried Springer from Hanover, the "Visiting Bishop" for the Lutherans of European Russia, sees Superintendent Kratz within the tradition of the forenoon liturgists.  Nevertheless, most observers view Kratz as a compromise candidate capable of mediation between the two groups.


Only after lengthy explanations from a government representative of the Office for Religious Affairs was the new church constitution passed.  Only then did West European observers breath a sigh of relief: It will now be possible for the church to purchase real estate and receive back property confiscated during the Communist era.  Without legal status, the church would not have been able to begin caritative work.  Retirement homes are direly needed: The emigration of Lutheran relatives and neighbors has left many elderly abandoned.  Rev. Springer claimed that "mission and caritative service had been forgotten by the church in recent times," inferring that outside forces were not responsible for their neglect.


Besides the issue of the infallibility of Scripture, women's roles were a topic of debate at the Alma-Ata synod.  A retired, largely uninformed couple from Western Germany had come there intending to help administer the new church while promoting "human and women's rights".  After requesting the synod censure the Apostle Paul for his understanding of women, it became obvious that the couple could not remain in Kazakhstan.


Nevertheless, the women of the Kazakh church are achieving in practice some of what they are lacking on paper: Two of the nine lay preachers ordained at the closing service on May 9 were women.  An additional woman was elected to the synod's presidium.  Rev. Springer called it a dilemma: "The Brethren are most in favor of retaining the German language, but there are too few men left who can recite German well."  In order to remain German, some congregations are being forced to accept women as pastors.  Springer does not believe European liberalism will have a major influence on Kazakh Lutherans.  He predicted: "They will be as immune to liberal theology as they have been to atheism."


The founding of the Kazakh church might appear poorly-timed: It has been founded in an atmosphere of transition and unrest.  Emigration is a major topic: Roughly one-half of Kazakhstan's one million ethnic Germans have already applied to leave.  Heiner Koch believes "the second, third and fourth echelons are now in power in many places, because all of the past movers and shakers have departed.  Even proven church leaders such as superintendents ["Propst" is the German title] have chosen to emigrate."  Last year, 195,000 ethnic Germans moved to Germany from the CIS; 125,000 of those were from Kazakhstan.


Koch finds government rejection of Russian worrisome.  "If the state rigorously enforces its ruling that Kazakh become the official language," he concluded, "then they will sooner or later force out every single German."  Germans are at times under severe pressure to emigrate: Their houses are the targets of speculators hoping to purchase and resell the dwellings at a handsome profit.


But Kazakhstan offers Lutherans neither the worst nor best of conditions.  The rise of militant Islam has doomed the German Lutheran presence elsewhere in Central Asia.  Rev. Springer advises Germans in the war-ravished, neighboring state of Tadzhikistan to "flee as soon as possible."  Pensions have not been paid in months, and even if they were, a monthly pension would hardly pay for a loaf of bread.  According to Rathke, "Those without savings are now facing starvation."  As many as 60,000 Germans may still be in Tadzhikistan.  In the capital, Dushanbe, where hundreds of Lutherans once worshiped, 30-50 parishioners remain.


Though the majority of Kazakh Lutherans are departing for Germany, certain regions of Russia are becoming increasingly attractive.  A government-recognized German enclave near Omsk and another in the Altai region are receiving major German government funding.  The vicinity of Ufa is also enjoying a growing German population.  Best described as Russian-Germans, some of Kazakhstan's Lutherans feel most at home within the boundaries of the present Russian state.


Rev. Rathke has chosen to remain optimistic: "The church of Jesus Christ has often been a dying church.  She certainly was regarded as that in the Stalinist period.  I'd rather be cautious and await further developments.  As long as there are Lutherans in Kazakhstan who regard themselves as Germans, I see it as our responsibility to be near them."  Three couples from Germany's Evangelical Church (EKD) are now active in Kazakhstan.  Even an American, Rev. Roland Meyle of the Missouri Synod, has begun work among the Lutherans of Alma-Ata.  A long-term Missouri-Synod presence in Kazakhstan appears likely.


Bill Yoder

Evanston/Illinois, June 6, 1993


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 1,115 words


Note from February 2021: The German-Latvian Harald Kalnins (1911-1997) became the initial Bishop of the newly-founded Lutheran Church in the USSR in 1988. He resigned due to health issues in 1994. Born in 1928, the now-aged Heinrich Rathke served as Bishop of the “Evangelical-Luthern Church of Mecklenburg” from 1971 to 1984. Siegfried Springer (1930–2019) was Bishop of the Moscow-based Lutheran church in European Russia from 1992 to 2007. Born in the Caucasus, he fled westward from Ukraine with his mother in 1944.