Quiet Before the Storm
Kyrgyz Baptists are reckoning with a difficult autumn
B e r l i n – In late Summer 2008, Alexander Shumilin, General-Secretary of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Kyrgyzstan, feels as if he were in the quiet before a storm. Because of opposition, the Kyrgyz parliament postponed last spring the passing of new, very rigid laws on religion. That legislation will be back on the table when the parliament reconvenes on 1 September. The very strict laws cover real estate and the education of church members; they permit only the registration of congregations with more than 200 members. This would make it impossible for newly-founded congregations to achieve legal status.
Pastor Shumilin, who is an ethnic Russian, could have chosen an easier route. Though he was born in the town of Kant/Kyrgyzstan in 1959, he spent 17 years in the Russian capital. He studied in Moscow and achieved the status of doctoral candidate in a technical profession. But he accepted Christ in his town of birth in 1988. He became a pastor and decided to return to his native country in 1993. “The Lord called me,” the single, white-haired pastor explained in a conversation in Bad Blankenburg/Germany in early August. “I didn’t have any other choice.” He continued his theological training-by-extension in St. Petersburg and at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. He received a Masters degree in theological from that institution in 2002. He has been head of the Kyrgyz Union of Baptists since 2003.
The pastor reports that the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics have apparently formulated a joint policy on religion. These agreements allow the two largest religious communities to carve up the populace between themselves: The Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate is responsible for all “Europeans”, Islam, for all “Asians”. The multi-ethnic Protestant communities jumble and confuse this unofficial “division of labour”. A fifth of those Baptists remaining in the country are Kyrgyz; a number of strictly Kyrgyz congregations exist. They will likely face the most serious obstacles in the coming years. Being that the 19.000 ethnic-Korean natives of Kyrgyzstan qualify neither as Europeans nor Central Asians, they are one of the minority groups best-equipped to demand an exceptional religious status for themselves. Shumilin notes that conditions for Protestants have been most critical in Uzbekistan.
State pressure resulted in the creation of an Evangelical Alliance in November 2006. It evolved into an “Association of Evangelical Churches of Kyrgyzstan” in July 2008. The transition was necessary in part because Kyrgyzstan’s roughly 200 Lutherans believed that the foreign office of Germany’s EKD (Evangelical Church of Germany) would not approve of cooperation with the theologically-conservative Alliance. Though the Association is without legal status, it sees its calling in the formulation of joint, unified positions for all Protestant denominations. Alexander Shumilin, who had headed the Alliance and now also heads the Association, stresses that this organisation is not striving for theological unity. He maintains: “We hold no common church services and do not interfere with the theological teachings of other denominations. We are rather a kind of roundtable committed to formulating a common position vis-à-vis the state.” In light of the convictions of the Baptist Diaspora from Kyrgyzstan in Germany, stronger interdenominational cooperation is not advisable.
Yet Pastor Shumilin is well-versed in the dialogue with other national and foreign church bodies, for he is also Chairman of the interdenominational “Central Asian Coordination Council” (TsAKS). He reports: “We have close relations with churches in the other Central Asia countries. We meet several times annually and agree on evangelistic meetings and prayer services, on joint women’s and youth conferences.” Last April, the pastor from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek formally ended his term as President of the loosely-structured “Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” in the CIS-countries.
The General-Secretary adds that groups, congregations and denominations would be very welcome to issue statements of concern during the coming days. Letters appealing for religious freedom could be sent to the Kyrgyz embassy in one’s own country or to the embassy of one’s own country in Bishkek. German Baptists stemming from Kyrgyzstan have already done so – they probably care most about this thinly-populated, mountainous country in Central Asia.
The departure of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh Unions from the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Prague-based European Baptist Federation (EBF) in 2006 has left behind a wound among the Baptists of Europe. Shumilin attributes the break to the position of Westerners on issues such as homosexuality, Biblical infallibility, the leadership role of women and charismatic gifts. He believes the theological dialogue on these topics was broken off prematurely by the EBF. “Our departure from the BWA and EBF was no abrupt and unexpected move. But we remain open for discussion on the issues which alarm us. We would like to continue explaining our position.” In any case, the contacts of these two Unions to the EBF and its Prague educational institution, the „International Baptist Theological Seminary“ (IBTS), remain strong. Shumilin himself is working to receive a doctorate from IBTS.
The Kyrgyz General-Secretary describes the relationship of his Union to the US-American „Southern Baptist Conventions“ as „not deep”. Only one missionary is continually involved with Kyrgyzstan. But Shumilin regrets that his church was unable to visit the SBC-sponsored conference in Lemgo, Germany last April. A visit by Morris Chapman (Nashville), President of the SBC’s Executive Committee, to Kyrgyzstan is still planned. In 2004 the SBC, the largest Protestant congregation in North America, also parted ways with the BWA.
Yet one of the Union’s primary difficulties – emigration – has little to do with church politics. The General-Secretary reports that membership in his Union has dropped from 13.000 in 1987 to 3.000. The population of Kyrgyzstan was once 45% Russian – now down to 10%. He attributes the exodus primarily to a weak economy and the policies on national minorities. Though only 66% of the country’s 5,08 million residents are of Kyrgyz nationality, usage of the Kyrgyz language is being forced.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 19 August 2008
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. May be published freely. Release #08-38, 976 words.