„We are Experiencing a Time of Blessing“
Reports on Central Asia in Moscow
M o s c o w – „We are experiencing a time of blessing,“ concluded Rev. Genrikh (Heinrich) Foth, President of the persecuted Baptist Union of Kyrgyzstan, at this year’s 53rd session of the “Euro-Asian Federation of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. The event was held at Moscow Theological Seminary from 22-24 April. “We have no idea what tomorrow will bring, but we know, what we are called to do”, he continued. “We are experiencing wonderful opportunities to proclaim the Gospel.”
The Protestants of the five Central Asian states once belonging to the Soviet Union share a similar fate. They all suffer persecution at the hands of Muslim governments seeking to emulate the models of Iran and Saudi Arabia. “Mosques are sprouting like mushrooms,” Pastor Foth reported. According to him, Kyrgyzstan’s 150 Protestant chapels are confronted with an increasing number of mosques – presently approximately 3.000. “We feel the pressure of Muslims from all corners.” A number of church leaders, including Vassily Korobov from the Turkmen Baptist Union, are no longer permitted foreign travel. The three Uzbek Baptists sentenced to heavy fines in 2009 (Pavel Peichev, Dimitry Pitirimov and Yelena Kurbatova) are barred from leaving their country for three years.
In several countries, vists by guests in residential high-rises are watched closely. A guest from Turkmenistan reported that even private discussions at home around the coffee table can irk the police. Persons participating in such gatherings are consequently trained to make all suspicious objects (e.g. Bibles) disappear when the doorbell is rung. “It’s much worse than during Soviet times,” the guest concluded.
The import of Christian literature has become nearly impossible and the erasing of hard drives and flash sticks at border crossings, commonplace. “I keep seeing terrific Christian literature here in Russia,” a guest from Uzbekistan reported. “But how can I get it back to my country?” In most cases, work among children and youth is only unofficially possible.
Uzbekistan, for one, also produces highly-defamatory, anti-Protestant propaganda. National TV repeatedly sends a report on a converted, ex-Muslim woman, who, after being killed in a road accident, could not be buried in a Muslim cemetery. In the end, she was reportedly left behind in an open field as fodder for jackals. The report’s commentator concludes: “This will happen to every Muslim who changes his faith.” A second programme shows the country’s leading Baptists interspersed with scenes of Charismatics in a state of ecstasy. In no way are the two groups distinguished from each other.
In view of their common context, Franz Tissen of Saran, the President of the Kazakh Baptist Union, intends to hold a conference in May for workers from all five countries. One-hundred-fifty are expected to attend. Only a few weeks later, regional conferences reaching as many as 7.000 active believers are to take place in these countries. This is to occur despite significant political instability – for ex. the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is still closed.
Repressive measures differ though in execution and intensity. Without bothering with proper legislation, the Uzbek government launched a series of anti-Protestant court cases in early 2009. But in Kyrgyzstan, an official legal framework containing draconian measures intending to crush proselytism was passed in January of last year. However, Genrikh Foth reported that law enforcement has since then been too occupied with weightier matters to concern itself with small-and-struggling Protestant communities. “Presidential elections took place in June 2009, so we were able to enjoy freedom until July. Then vacation time began and we had peace into September. Then the political opposition raised its head and the state was once again occupied elsewhere.” This unrest was of longer duration and finally led to the overthrow of the Kurmanbek Bakiyev-led government on 7 April 2010. In Moscow, Rev. Foth reported: “Following the unrests, we went into the hospitals, supplied the injured with food packages and testified to hospital staff. We are even more active in evangelism than previously.” Children’s camps are planned. “It will be a good year.”
Nevertheless, Kyrgyz Protestants are not particularly optimistic regarding the new, Roza Otunbayeva-led government. “They’re lacking a clear concept,” Foth maintained. “The old government leaders had only wanted to line their own pockets. We have no clear indication yet that the new government will be doing anything differently.”
An Uzbek guest reported taking his cues directly from the Apostle Paul in Acts 18:9: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” Public evangelism is forbidden, but speaking with colleagues on the job can hardly be stopped. “Our situation is complicated, but we want always to be there where we should be.”
The church deacon from Turkmenistan assured that his church had adjusted to the new conditions and kept up its work. “That is my fatherland, and we will manage also under these new conditions.” Only 400 Baptists are still living in small, far-flung clusters throughout the country. A traveling preacher is faced with significant logistic difficulties when attempting to visit his flock.
The above guest from Uzbekistan reported with great satisfaction that the recent wave of repression has lead to a closing of the ranks between registered and unregistered Baptists. “Earlier we were always fighting with each other. But now we are on the receiving end of the same repression. What hits them, hits us, too. The government is no longer distinguishing between us.”
Yet the chasm between them and Charismatic circles has as a rule not been overcome. Non-Charismatics continue to feel that Charismatics insist on retaining their traditional style irregardless of local government and cultural considerations. When Genrikh Foth was asked about the number of Kyrgyz Protestants, he cited the number 10.000 – without including Charismatics.
What can Christians with much more comfortable lives do to support these churches? The guests gathered in Moscow agreed that notes of protest or concern directed at the governments in question are welcome. Both the state and the Christians themselves need to understand that friends and supporters in other countries are not forgetting them. Visits from foreigners are also very welcome – the results from letters and visits are similar.
The host for this conference, the Euro-Asian Federation, could be described as a surviving remnant of the „All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“, which unravelled in 1991. Many miss the old, broad and comprehensive structures – especially those in the tiny Unions of Central Asia. Until recently, one mused about the possibility of closing down this Federation. Yet the needs of these small unions have led Moscow and Kiev to reconsider. In addition, a lively, international, Russian-language Baptist youth work has sprung up under Federation auspices during the past three years.
This Federation’s Secretary is the Moscow-based Rev. Yuri Apatov; its current President is Vyacheslav Nesturuk (Kiev), President of Ukraine’s largest Baptist Union. Being that only two of the region’s five unions (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) belong to Prague’s “European Baptist Federation”, the Euro-Asian Federation remains a necessary platform for dialogue between former members of the enormous, Soviet-era church union. Further information can be found under: „www.e-af.org“.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 30 April 2010
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
Release #10-12, 1.155 words, 7.524 keystrokes and spaces.
Note from August 2020: Yuri Apatov emigrated to Israel in late 2015. The Euro-Asian Federation's current general-secretary is Pastor Leonid Mikhovich from Minsk.