Fresh challenges in Kazakhstan
‘The doors may not always be open!’ It was a sobering comment, made during a presentation by a Christian worker who knows the Central Asian context very well. It was also a considered comment, reflecting the changing scene in those spiritually needy republics, and specifically highlighting a critical development in the country of Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union communist empire and subject to the imposed scientific atheism of that regime. With the collapse of Communism around 1989, Kazakhstan became an independent republic and freedom of religion was written into its constitution.
Evangelical believers, a tiny minority of the population, were zealous and committed in their witness and used their new-found freedom enthusiastically. The gospel conquered many lives, and there was significant growth in numbers of believers and gospel churches. Generally in the decade after independence there was little governmental opposition to the evangelical churches.
However, the situation has changed in recent years. Latest figures show that 47% of the ethnically diverse population of Kazakhstan are Sunni Muslim, and 44% Russian Orthodox.
There is a growing suspicion and intolerance of non-mainline religious groups – and Baptists and Presbyterians, along with sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna, have been charged by government officials with constituting a threat to the nation.
In January 2008 at his party’s conference, President Nazarbayev is reported as stating: ‘We are a secular state and have no official religion. However, it does not mean that Kazakhstan should become a dumping ground for religious movements of all kinds … Thousands of missionary organisations are functioning in Kazakhstan. We are unaware of their goals. We must curtail their unlimited freedom, as this country does not need it’.
At the time of writing, there is an item of legislation on the president’s desk which, if signed, threatens to restrict severely the witness of evangelical churches. Among the restrictions envisaged are: a curb on evangelism outside church premises; severe limitations on gospel work with children and young people; limitations on advertising and evangelical literature; and increased control of foreign missionaries.
The legislation has already passed through the Kazakh senate and other governmental bodies and needs only the president’s signature to become law. Similar legislation has been enacted in other Central Asian republics, such as Uzbekistan, and has resulted in a marked increase of often violent activity against individual believers and churches.
The fear is that the situation in Kazakhstan will revert to what prevailed in communist times – or worse!
What has been the reaction of church leaders to these developments? As a staff member of Slavic Gospel Association (SGA), I recently visited Almaty, the largest city, and former capital of the country, and was able to catch something of their mood. It was not at all downbeat! There is no sense of dread or panic; no wringing of the hands.
Instead there is quiet, prayerful confidence in the God who sustains the church and even caused it to grow under the vengeful eye of Communism. Church leaders are aware of the need for contingency plans if the new legislation is passed against non-Kazakh citizens in positions of Christian leadership.
These are not panic measures, but wise preparations for the possibility of changed circumstances. They are rooted in a resolute faith in the God who kept his people in the storms of atheistic persecution, and who can and will keep his people in the storms of religious intolerance.
Meanwhile believers continue to witness openly and courageously for Christ. On one visit to Almaty I recall our car driver taking every opportunity to share the gospel. When he spoke to the car park attendant he had a small gospel booklet for him; when he spoke to policemen he had some Christian literature ready to give.
I remember also one of my students at the Bible Institute taking the opportunity during a visit to the city’s central mosque to witness to the young man who conducted us on a tour of the building. I spent a day with a converted drug addict and former footballer who coaches a team of young boys from non-Christian homes, and also regularly teaches them from the Bible.
Furthermore, young men and women continue to prepare themselves for Christian service. I had the privilege of spending almost two weeks in November with a group of young students preparing for pastoral ministry, and was challenged by the depth of their commitment.
Some of these men are from such neighbouring republics as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where there is bitter opposition to the gospel and no opportunity to train for gospel ministry. But they are preparing themselves for ministry in their own countries.
In this respect, Kazakhstan has been of strategic importance for evangelical witness up to this point in time. The Bible Institute in which staff members of SGA teach is a training ground not only for Kazakh believers, but is for those from other republics. Should its work be restricted or hindered, the spiritual draught will be felt across Central Asia.
To walk the drab, grey pavements of Almaty, surrounded by its seemingly endless blocks of soulless concrete apartments, is to invite feelings of despair.
How can the spiritual darkness be lifted? How can these people be reached? How can the church survive in this spiritual war-zone? Only by the grace of God and power of the gospel! And by that grace and power it will not merely survive, but will fully accomplish God’s purposes.
The challenge does not change, whatever the political and religious climate. The Great Commission is to disciple the nations, baptise and teach the Word of God. Opposition to the gospel does not change. It may change its garb, but it is all satanically motivated.
But neither does the promise and power of the risen Christ change! He is building his church in Kazakhstan and the gates of hell will not prevail.
SGA field representative – Ireland