Not the worst of times
Report on the Protestants of Central Asia
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A s t a n a -- Thirty-three-year-old Kamoliddyn Abdullaiev of Dushanbe, the head of Tajikistan’s 400-member Baptist union, is pleased that atheism is not an issue for Muslims. “Talking with Muslims about our faith is easier than with unbelieving Russians who think they are Orthodox,” he ascertained. “Families are strong and the people of my country are very God-fearing. We’re glad about that.” He reports on numerous covert believers, some of whom are the wives of convinced Muslims. “It is not our task to force them to sign on the dotted line,” he assured. “God knows the heart.”
Vassily Korobov, president of Turkmenistan’s Baptist Union and a spokesman for the Central Asian country’s 1,000 evangelicals, makes his government’s measures against evangelicals public. But he adds that registered Turkmen congregations with a long-term presence are usually left alone.
Baptists in the region of Karaganda, Kazakhstan speak of friendly relations with law-enforcement agencies. Stopped by traffic police, the author’s car was waved through when the officer discovered its passengers were Baptists. “They know we don’t pay bribes or engage in legal hanky-panky,” the driver explained. Baptists there are involved in impressive social welfare projects. Rare even within Russia, the Kazakh Baptist Union runs two homes for the elderly as well as an orphanage with 58 children in Saran. That home was reportedly labeled the best children’s home in all of Kazakhstan by the President’s spouse, Sara Nazarbayeva, when she visited in 2009. A section of Saran reveals a desolate landscape reminiscent of Ukraine’s Chernobyl: 15,000 flats left uncompleted after the economic meltdown of the Soviet Union are slowly returning to Mother Earth. In the middle of that decay, Baptists have opened under primitive but caring conditions a rehab center for 40 addicts.
The Roman Catholic church, still a participant in Kazakhstan’s church-and-mosque building spree, has just completed an impressive cathedral in Karaganda.
Of the five Muslim-run Central Asian governments, Protestant-government relations are worst in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan, which is home to 45% of the Central Asian population, is in the same category according to some observers. Protestants in these three countries are cooperating closely.
In contrast, church-state relations are relaxed enough in Kazakhstan to permit a highly-fractured Protestant scene. Lutherans stick to government, Orthodox, Muslim and Roman Catholic circles, settling their differences behind closed doors. Not intending to compliment, a Kazakh Baptist stated: “It’s the Lutherans who get invited to all the state functions.” In their mission efforts, Lutherans target the third of the population which is not Muslim.
Baptist and independent groups in the middle try to survive on their own. A leading official of Kazakhstan’s Baptist union stated flatly: “We cooperate neither with Calvinists nor Pentecostals.” Of the five, only neighboring Kyrgyzstan has a functioning inter-Protestant Evangelical Alliance.
On the opposite end is Kazakhstan’s most-vilified evangelical: Maxim Maximov, head pastor of Almaty’s 2,000-member “New Life” Charismatic congregation. A Zionist and Christian jet-setter, Maximov is best known as the founder of CNL, the world’s first Russian-language Christian cable TV station. A Baptist leader assured: “It’s only (President Nursultan) Nazarbayev’s desire for good relations with the West that keeps Maximov in the country.” Lutheran bishop Yuri Novgorodov (Astana) claimed: “Maximov is a businessman and he’s found the market for making cash. His funding is obviously all from the West. I’m not in favor of calling his creations ‘churches’.”
Tightening the screws
The five Muslim-majority governments of Central Asia are tightening the screws on Protestants. Tough new Kazakh laws introduced in November 2011 decree that only congregations of more than 50 members may be reregistered. Novgorodov calls the measures a bureaucratic nightmare and hopes to overcome the hurdles by combining smaller congregations into a single one meeting at multiple locations. In Kyrgyzstan, the minimum membership is 200. Yet political unrest has kept the government occupied with issues more pressing than church registration.
Kazakhstan remains in some respects a secular society. In contrast to Western Europe, scarves on Muslim women are virtually non-existent in Kazakhstan: All five governments claim to be secular ones committed to combating Muslim extremism. But their rulings also affect Protestants. The state-allied Orthodox churches of Muslim Central Asia tend to repress them jointly with Muslims. In Turkmenistan, religious books without the stamp and signature of a Muslim imam - or an Orthodox priest - are considered illegal. An independent evangelical pastor in Kazakhstan complains that his country’s media lump the cults under the heading of “Protestant”. “Jehovah’s Witnesses have become a heavy burden for us.”
It is Baptists and Pentecostals who are carrying the ball for the freedom of religious choice in Central Asia. The very conservative Franz Tissen (Saran), head of the 12,000-member Kazakh Baptist Union, has publically stood up to the country’s Supreme Mufti. When he stated at an event in the capital that ethnic Kazakhs were fair game only for the Muslim faith, Tissen retorted: “Are communists only permitted to produce little communists? Where is your freedom of conscience?” His Baptist Union includes 500 ethnic Kazakhs; the majority within the Baptist Union of Kyrgyzstan is now of Kyrgyz ethnicity. The facade of the Baptist church at Aktaz near Saran says it all: “A House of Prayer for All Peoples”.
It can be claimed that Asian Muslim culture impedes religious freedom more than government; that the state is only following majority wishes. The independent Kazakh pastor mentioned added: “Our biggest problem is the persecution of believers by their families. We were under Russian rule for 300 years and the only way to survive as a culture was to close ranks within our families.” Finding burial space for ostracized ex-Muslims has become an issue for evangelical congregations.
Another affliction more powerful than state repression is emigration. Until 1990, Kazakhstan was home to a million ethnic Germans; that number has shriveled to as few as 100,000. Today, Kazakh Lutherans have 2,000 active members. As in Soviet times, lay Lutheran grandmas are still baptizing and burying in the wilds of the Russian Far East and in Central Asia. Since 1987, the number of Kyrgyz Baptists has dived from 13.000 to 3,000. Kazakhstan’s only larger congregation still named “Mennonite” is located in Karaganda and has 70 members. For them, family reunification means moving to Germany.
Franz Tissen reports that membership in the official Kazakh Baptist Union never exceeded 17,000 – its membership now stands at 12,000. Tissen states that in the early 1990’s, when his Union was losing 100 members per year through emigration, annual baptisms topped 160. He claims that 80% of his Union’s members were not raised in Protestant families. This new blood may be a blessing in disguise: Baptist congregations in the former USSR tend to be less traditional and more mission-minded than “Baptist-born-and-raised” sister congregations in the West.
Temporary emigration may, in contrast to the permanent one, be a boost to the evangelical faith. Millions of Central Asian men are laboring more-or-less legally in Russia. Evangelical congregations of Central Asians are forming in major Russian cities.
Novgorodov and Tissen do not regard the South Koreans and Chinese as major players in evangelism. Yet these newcomers’ numbers, zeal and financial resources often exceed those of the West. The German Manfred Brockman from Vladivostok, head of the Lutheran church in the Russian Far East, agrees heartily with the assessment of his Peking colleague, Pastor Karl-Heinz Schell: “The Christianization of China can no longer be stopped.” Brockmann pointed out that China may already have as many as 130 million Christians – and Russia has only 143 million inhabitants. Congregations of Chinese citizens exist as far west as Moscow.
The independent Kazakh evangelical noted above claimed in 2009 that hundreds of South Korean missionaries were active in the south-eastern city of Almaty. Such a major presence of “greenhorns” generates problems. A native Korean from Kyrgyzstan complained that the willingness of South Korean missionaries to pay bribes seriously undercuts the policies of local churches. “This causes the mafia to conclude that all Protestants are capable of paying.” After these missionaries depart, local Protestants are forced to deal with heightened expectations on the bribes market. He concluded: “Only missionaries with a religious visa should plant congregations. Those entering Kyrgyzstan on a student or business visa should restrict themselves to their official tasks.” But Kyrgyzstan has no religious visas for Protestant missionaries.
Multi-ethnic Protestant communities jumble and confuse the unofficial “division of labor”, which assumes that the imam is responsible for ethnic Asians and the Orthodox priest for ethnic Europeans. Since the 15,000 ethnic-Korean natives of Kyrgyzstan are neither European nor Central Asian, they may be best capable of blurring the boundaries. Despite the exodus from Central Asia, they remain a solid segment of Kyrgyzstan’s professional elite.
Central Asian Protestants are not relying on complex strategies to rescue them from their lot. Zhanibek Batenov, a native-Kazakh Lutheran pastor in Astana, voiced the conviction of many: “The Gospel will forge its own way if it is preached in a pure and resolute fashion.” Kazakh Baptists continue to count on “plain vanilla” church services as the best recipe for the future. A remarkable gathering of 1,300 young people from all five Central Asian republics at a Baptist camp near Saran in August 2012 did without rock music and pantomime. “We want to keep things simple,” a Baptist youth leader assured.
Vassily Korobov claims: “These are not the worst of times. Communist rule was significantly more trying and yet the church survived. The church has been persecuted for over a thousand years and will continue to be persecuted tomorrow. This is only usual fare.” A Kazakh Lutheran responded that they do not know what the morrow brings. “But who really does know?” he added.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Zeesen near Berlin, 22 October 2012, released on 21 April 2014
Journalistic release #14-06, 1.599 words