Searching for Unity in Kazakhstan

Some Kazakh Evangelicals Seek Unity


Report on a Country with Christian Roots


M o s c o w – The ethnic-Kazakh evangelicals of Kazakhstan sometimes describe their conversion as a return to the roots. They cite the fact that the Turkic peoples in today’s Kazakhstan were largely of the Assyrian Coptic faith from the 2nd century until the forced introduction of Islam by the conqueror Tamerlane (or Timur) in the 14th century. The Kazakhs of today reject Jesus as a Russian god – the god of the colonizers. Yet the Turkic peoples of this region were mostly Christian for well over a 1.000 years - long before the conversion of the Russians in the 10th century. Vestiges of the Christian past remain within Kazakh culture: The death of a person is still mourned for three, seven, and then 40 days. “There is no such tradition within Islam,” one Kazakh evangelical notes.


Yet the programme of Islamisation was thorough and when Kazakhstan regained independence in 1991, the country had no more than 40 evangelical Kazakhs. By then Russian Baptists had been residing in Kazakhstan for over a century – ethnic-German Lutherans and Mennonites even longer. Why had these Christians not been zealous in their efforts to win Kazakhs for the faith? “Russian Baptists did not understand anything about Kazakhs – our cultures are totally different,” a Kazakh states. But the conversion of Kazakhs was a highly-dangerous undertaking also during communist times.


Yet the scores of missionaries which began arriving in 1991 made up for lost time. As many as 100.000 Kazakhs were converted. Due to emigration and unwillingness to count the costs, only 15.000 of these remain active believers in Kazakhstan today. Protestants in the country number roughly 70.000 in 1.000 registered and even more small, unregistered congregations. Most ethnic-Kazakh congregations remain unregistered. The registered Baptist Union of Kazakhstan is one of the few denominations with both Russian and Kazakh members: Of this Union’s 12.000 members, 1.500 are purported to be Kazakh. Approximately 67% of the country’s 16,4 million citizens are Kazakh, another 21% are Russian. Following India and Argentina, Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th-largest country.

Present struggles with the state

Muslim and Russian Orthodox forces have jointly undertaken three campaigns to overturn the tolerant laws on religion as stated in the Kazakh constitution of 1995. The last attempt ground to a halt when President Nursultan Nazarbayev courageously refused to sign legislation in December 2008. The still in-force constitution of 1995 grants equal rights to all religious communities. A leading Kazakh evangelical states categorically: “We believe this original constitution follows the Bible on all points.” The charter of an interdenominational society to which he belongs even states that its members are required to adhere to this constitution.


Therefore, Kazakhstan remains significantly more tolerant than its immediate Central Asian neighbours. Still only 10 members are needed to legally register a congregation – in Kyrgyzstan it is now 200. In Uzbekistan, only one Bible is permitted in one’s own residence; all other religious literature must be kept on church premises. Turkmenistan is considered the least tolerant of the Central Asian republics.


In Kazakhstan, Protestants are accused of sewing discord within the citizenry; a possible civil war between Muslims and Christians similar to the Indonesian one is invoked. The Russian Orthodox and Sunni Muslims have stated openly that they will not do mission among each other’s followers – it is the evangelicals who are refusing to respect existing holdings and boundaries. Most of the country’s 20 Protestant seminaries and Bible schools should be closed by the end of this year. The government is refusing to recognise the degrees of faculty members.


Nevertheless, some evangelicals insist that repression remains subtle and is directed above all at ethnic-Kazakh converts to the Christian faith. Ethnic-Kazakh pastors cannot receive government recognition; converts in general have no chance of obtaining government employment. Their congregations are under police surveillance. Rigid censorship is in place: All imported books must be proven to contain nothing terroristic. It has for ex. also become very difficult to find burial space for a deceased convert in public cemeteries.


One pastor is driven to prove to the leaders the loyalty and dedication of evangelicals to the national government and describes Protestants as vehement defenders of the existing Kazakh constitution. They see themselves as upholding the constitution in the face of local officials acting outside the law. “Government-run newspapers and journals sometimes attack evangelicals. That the government cannot do – it is breaking the law.” Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and Mormons are also defined as “Protestants” in public media. The pastor states: “The Jehovah’s Witnesses have become a heavy burden for us.”


This same pastor adds: „Our biggest problem is not the government – we can deal with that. Our problem is above all the persecution that believers experience within their own families. Families are very close in our culture. We were under Russian rule for 300 years and the only way for us to survive as a culture was to close ranks within our families.” Converts to Christianity are usually ostracized by relatives – a highly painful matter for Kazakhs.


The attempted solution

Outside of the country’s constitution, President Nazarbayev has defined four religious communities as the traditional religions of Kazakhstan: Sunni Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant. “Protestantism” is defined as Lutheran and Russian Baptist.


An interconfessional society recognised by the government has been formed. It now consists essentially of those Protestant groups who are neither Russian Baptist nor Lutheran. It consists of 100 congregations. Its hope is that within three years, 600 of the country’s 1.000 registered congregations will have become members.


The society’s immediate goal is that one of the two recognised Protestant denominations take them under its wing and represent them to government authorities. Its leadership has given up the hope that Russian Baptists will take on this task. Franz Thiessen (or Tissen), who has headed the Baptist Union of Kazakhstan since 1993, is described as a “godly man”. One society representative states: “His congregation in Saran near Karaganda has 2.000 members and is still growing. That indicates for me that he is a man of God.” Yet Thiessen’s Union broke its ties with international Baptist bodies in 2006 and is not close to North America’s conservative and independent “Southern Baptist Convention”. His primary ties are to several former-Kazakh, Russian-German “Aussiedler” groups in Germany. Reports confirm that Thiessen also rejects the theologically-conservative, 1846-founded Evangelical Alliance movement as “ecumenical”. The most memorable event for Kazakh evangelicals ever was the international conference organised by “Global Mission Fellowship” and others in Almaty in September 2006. It brought together pastors and mission workers from 48 countries and resulted in the first-ever, upper-level meetings with government officials. The country’s Baptist Union chose not to attend.


Rare among registered Baptist Unions is that Thiessen’s Union retains strong ties to the unregistered Baptist movement and has defended it in its altercations with the state. Recently, several of its pastors were fined for holding unregistered religious services. Yet no easy resolution is possible, for the unregistered “International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” would not want government registration even if it were offered. Essentially, the IUCECB rejects that which hundreds of Kazakh congregations desire most: government recognition.


Consequently, hopes remain that Yuri Novgorodov (Astana), Bishop of Kazakhstan’s Evangelical-Lutheran Church since 2005, might take on the cause of his country’s unrecognised evangelicals. Yet his church has come into close contact with the separatist, St. Louis-based “Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod”, which also is not a part of Lutheran, mainstream international organisations. Kazakh Lutherans have become very cautious regarding other evangelical groups – charismatics in particular.


A charismatic congregation in Almaty headed by Maxim Maximov has over 2.000 members. Its “CNL” TV-network plays a major role among Christian broadcasters in the Russian-speaking world. It is part of the “New Life” movement founded by Ulf Ekman of Sweden. In Kazakhstan it follows a course highly independent of other evangelical denominations.


The interconfessional society believes the government responds favourably to its efforts, for it would rather negotiate with one or two evangelical bodies than with hundreds. It believes one united evangelical seminary might yet be able to fulfil the sharp demands on accreditation being made by the government.


But the hurdles remain formidable - Kazakhstan still has hundreds of tiny, unregistered denominations and many of their founders do not regard interconfessional cooperation as a priority. Korean believers for ex. remain active in Kazakhstan and there are said to be over 100 Presbyterian denominations in South Korea alone.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Department for External Church Relations, RUECB

Moscow, 06 August 2009


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. Release #09-24, 1.375 words, 9.164 keystrokes and spaces.