Ferocity in Central Asia
Lying at the crossroads between the Middle East, India, Russia and China, Central Asia has historically been a volatile region.
The great cities of Samarkand and Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) on the ancient Silk Road were famed not only for trade but also as centres of Islamic culture. In 1991 the republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union.
These countries are mainly Muslin and independence also led to an Islamic revival, reacting against decades of Soviet atheism. It also led to the opening up of Central Asia to Christian mission.
Christian mission to Central Asia was almost impossible during the Soviet period, although there were Christians amongst Russians living there. After the collapse of Communism, mission work began and was at first largely unhindered by governments. Korean missionaries in particular saw many new converts.
There were no Kazakh believers in 1990, but by 2000 there were more than 6,000 meeting in over 40 Kazakh-speaking congregations. During the same period in Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz believers grew from just twenty to over 3,200 in number. Less fruit has been seen in the other Central Asian countries where Islam is more strongly established.
In the mid-1990s, Central Asian governments began to adopt heavy-handed tactics to control the resurgence of religion. Uzbekistan has been particularly harsh towards Christians, introducing very restrictive laws against evangelism and worship. Christians in the other four republics believe that their present window of opportunity may close in a few years if their governments follow the example of Uzbekistan.
Perhaps the most important issue for post-Soviet Christians is the registration of churches. This is a relic of the Soviet era, and was long used to control religion. Registration makes a church ï¿½legalï¿½ but also means the authorities can exercise control over its activities. It can be difficult to obtain and unregistered churches can be forced to close.
One factor is the number of members required for registration. In 1991 all the republics required only ten members for a church to register, but in Uzbekistan in 1998 this was increased to 100 adults. In Turkmenistan the number was increased to 500 in 2003, and then reduced to five in 2004. But registration applications must list the names and addresses of all members, thus making it easy for the police to persecute converts from Islam.
There is a part of Uzbekistan called Karakalpakstan where anti-Christian persecution has been extremely severe. The authorities consistently deny churches permission to register. On 2 June 2005 it was reported that the last legally registered church in Karakalpakstan had been closed down, meaning that any Christians meeting together are engaging in illegal activity. Since 1991 hundreds of people in Karakalpakstan have become Christians.
Uzbekistanï¿½s harsh laws seem to be setting a regional trend. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan all have restrictive new legislation in the pipeline. Church ministers in Uzbekistan face much harassment and persecution.
Dmitri (David) Shestakov was given a four-year prison sentence in May 2007. He is serving this in a harsh prison colony, where the authorities consider him a model prisoner. Barnabas Fund is helping to support his wife while he is in prison, including the cost of making the long journey to visit him.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are planning to increase the number of members a church must have before it can register, thus creating difficulties for small churches. In April 2008 Kazakhstanï¿½s Lower Chamber of Parliament approved legislation which would place quotas on the number of missionaries allowed to work in the country, prohibit religious groups from evangelising, ban children from attending worship services without parental permission, and prohibit religious organisations from receiving foreign donations. Christians are praying that these changes will not be made law.
In rural areas, village communities can react against Christian converts from Islam or those seeking to spread the gospel. In Uzbekistan many new young Christians in rural areas have been beaten severely and told to recite the shahada (the Islamic creed), to renounce their Christian faith, and return to Islam.
Older converts have been isolated and ostracised in their communities, as Muslim leaders forbid people to speak to them. In Kyrgyzstan the leader of a small group of Christians, Saktinbai Usmanov, was murdered in Jety-Oguz in December 2005.
Saktinbai, a convert from Islam, was found in his house with multiple stab wounds in his back. Pages had been ripped from a Bible and thrown around the room.
Saktinbai had received death threats from the Muslim leaders in Jety-Oguz and survived a previous attempt on his life. Later, Saktinbaiï¿½s son courageously moved to the village and has taken over leading the church.
Edited from a Barnabas Fund article