The Lutheran Future in Central Asia

Not the Worst of Times


The future of Lutheranism in Central Asia


M o s c o w -- The weak strains of aged female voices still waft through Omsk, Siberia’s Lutheran church during its German-language Sunday service. No organ is desired and the 20-or-so women sing from hymnals printed in the Gothic script and vernacular of imperial Germany.


Elderly women remain significant players in Russia. Lutheran discussion on the role of women wanders all over the map. Yet the need for church leaders in remote areas remains desperate and lay grandmothers are still baptizing and burying in the wilds of Siberia and Central Asia. The Omsk-based German national Otto Schaude is the retired pedagogue-turned-bishop of the world’s geographically-largest Lutheran church, the 4,000-member “Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia and the Far East”. He assured: “We are attempting to restrict the celebration of communion to ordained clergy.” The kindly grandmothers in Omsk concede that their “Brethren” form of church life will disappear along with their own passing.


Though German-speaking “babushki” continue to meet at Lutheran headquarters in neighboring Kazakhstan’s glittering capital, Astana, local clergy insist that youth are also present within the church. “We can’t get any smaller than we already are”, joked Zhanibek Batenov, a native-Kazakh pastor in the capital. “The only alternative left is growth!” Until 1990, his country was home to nearly a million ethnic Germans, two-thirds of whom regarded themselves as “somehow Lutheran”. Thanks to emigration, that total has shriveled to 150,000. Yuri Novgorodov, the Lutheran bishop of Kazakhstan since 2005, now lists 52 official congregations with an active membership of 2,000. In addition, three Missouri Synod congregations in the vicinity of Almaty and several ultra-traditionalist Brethren congregations exist.


Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, is nearly four times the size of Texas. In September, Novgorodov traveled 2,400 miles to visit five congregations within eight days. He attempts to visit all congregations twice annually and expects his 10 salaried pastors to visit their five or six congregations no less than once a month. Thanks to few airports, a swift car and very poor roads, Novgorodov probably traverses more potholes per year than any other Lutheran pastor in the world. The Bishop explains: “One always notices that one is needed; that people have been waiting when one shows up. That gives me a great deal of strength. I know all of the congregations and they know me.”


The Lutheran presence is even weaker elsewhere in Central Asia. The Lutheran World Federation lists 17 congregations and 1,000 members in Kyrgyzstan; Uzbekistan (home to 45% of the population of Central Asia) has only 500 members in three congregations. Tiny remnants remain in Tadzhikistan and Turkmenistan, probably the most repressive of the five Central Asian governments. They lack any registered Lutheran denominations.


Central Asia faces a double whammy: The exodus leads not only to the West, but also to Russia and Ukraine. This is due in part to the government demand that one learn the national, non-Russian language and to ethnic pressures. Eastern Europe and Central Asia are far from color-blind: Very few – if any – racially-European policeman remain active in Kazakhstan. On the other hand, the Kremlin’s honor guards consist only of white faces.


Distance between Lutheran headquarters in St. Petersburg and Central Asia may also be increasing. Due to government sensibilities, the 20,000-member, St. Petersburg-based “Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia” (ELCR – once ELCROS) ceased serving as an official union of the churches in the ex-USSR (outside of the Baltics) in November 2010. Outside of Russia, the ELCR now plays only a consultative role. Remaining as head of the consultative “Bishop’s Council” is Alfred Eichholz, bishop of Kyrgyzstan. (Dietrich Brauer of Moscow has been serving as the intermediate archbishop of ELCR since September 2012.)


The five Muslim-majority governments of Central Asia continue to tighten the screws on Protestants. Tough new Kazakh laws introduced in November 2011 decree that only congregations of more than 50 members may re-register as religious communities. In Kyrgyzstan, that number is 200. Novgorodov calls the measures a bureaucratic nightmare and hopes to overcome the hurdle by combining smaller congregations into a single one meeting at multiple locations. He asks incredulously: “How can small congregations registered for decades suddenly become illegal retroactively? Are we supposed to keep them from praying?” All five Central Asia governments claim to be secular ones committed to combatting Muslim extremism. But their rulings also keep Protestants in the line of fire. In Turkmenistan, religious books without the stamp and signature of a Muslim imam or an Orthodox priest are considered illegal.


The very conservative Franz Tissen, head of the 12,000-member Kazakh Baptist Union, has pushed the cause of religious freedom. According to his own reports, he publically confronted the country’s Supreme Mufti when he stated under applause at an official event in the capital that all ethnic Kazakhs were reserved for the Muslim faith. Tissen retorted: “Are communists only permitted to produce little communists? Where is your freedom of conscience? Most people go through a process of thinking through their faith.” His Baptist Union now includes 500 ethnic Kazakhs; the majority within the 3,000-member Baptist Union of Kyrgyzstan is now reportedly of Kyrgyz ethnicity.


Kazakh Lutherans may agree with Tissen in principle, but they prefer to settle differences with government and religious circles behind closed doors. One indication is Lutheran – including LWF - involvement in the state-sponsored “Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions”, which met for the fourth time in Astana in May 2012. Not intending to compliment, a Kazakh Baptist stated: “It’s the Lutherans who get invited to all the state functions.”


Bishop Novgorodov stresses that relations with the government remain normal: “Sometimes we quarrel with each other, but that’s all a part of life.” Lutherans do not proselytize and only invite persons “in general” to accept the Gospel. “We’d have problems with the government if we did mission under Muslims,” explained Pastor Batenov, himself the child of Muslims. Thirty-percent of his country’s population is non-Muslim and Lutherans intend to concentrate on that large and promising minority. Kazakhstan remains in many respects a secular country. In great contrast to Germany, for ex., scarves on Muslim women are virtually non-existent in Kazakhstan. The Roman Catholic church, still a part of Kazakhstan’s church-and-mosque building spree, has just completed an impressive cathedral in the run-down coal town of Karaganda. Social ministry among Baptists in that region is booming: Lutherans also remain involved with orphans and the elderly.


There are Central Asian Protestants who believe that conversations with Muslims on religion are less complicated than with secular Russians claiming to be Orthodox. Kamoliddyn Abdullaiev, the leading pastor of Tadzhikistan’s 400 Baptists, stated recently: “The people of my country are very God-fearing. We’re very pleased about that.” Pastor Batenov voiced the conviction of more than a few Kazakh Protestants: “The Gospel of Christ will forge its own way if it is preached in a pure and resolute fashion.”


Lutherans and others state that they do not know what the morrow brings – but who really does know? Turkmenistan’s head Baptist, Vassily Korobov, claimed: “These are not the worst of times. Communist rule was significantly more trying and yet the church survived. We live from the expectation of the ages that the Lord will protect his children.”


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Smolensk, 17 August 2013


Postscript: Otto Schaude passed away in Germany in September 2016. The new bishop in Omsk is Alexander Scheiermann.

This article was originally submitted in October 2012 and appeared in edited form in the August 2013 issue of the Chicago-based magazine “The Lutheran”. It may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source – The Lutheran or the Russian Evangelical Alliance - is cited. Release #13-15, 1.192 words, 7.800 keystrokes and spaces.