Wednesday, October 20, 2010

078. Central Asia: Christianity's past and present

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 078 | Wed 20 Oct 2010

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CENTRAL ASIA: CHRISTIANITY'S PAST AND PRESENT
By Anneta Vyssotskaia
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The Central Asian region is a vast territory including five countries which were once part of the former USSR: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In ancient times it was inhabited mainly by nomadic tribes and was an important part of the Great Silk Road, which played a big role in the historical and cultural development of this region. The total population of Central Asia exceeds 60 million, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, and includes over 100 ethnic groups. In the Soviet period about 25 percent of the population were Russians but after the collapse of the Soviet Union the majority of the Russian population migrated out of this region. However, many Central Asian people still use the Russian language for international communication.

Christianity came to Central Asia from Persia in the 1st Century. According to legend, the Apostle Thomas went to Samarkand (now a city in Uzbekistan) by the Great Silk Road and appointed several bishops there. Documents confirmed that in the 2nd & 3rd Centuries there were Christian churches in that region and Christianity spread mainly through Nestorian Christians. However, around the 14th Century Christianity started to be wiped out by Islam and Buddhism and practically disappeared for several centuries. A new stage of Christianity started about mid-19th Century with the arrival of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian farmer migrants. Russian Orthodox churches were built in all Russian settlements. At the end of the 19th Century many evangelical Christians came to the region, often as a result of persecution. Although the local population was quite tolerant of both Orthodox and evangelical Christians, Christianity was still considered the religion of the non-ethnic people.

During the Soviet period all religions were controlled and persecuted by the state authorities and several generations grew up as atheists. The end of the Soviet regime brought many freedoms to the people including the freedom of religion. It opened the door to numerous missionaries and resulted in many new churches of different denominations. Masses of people were attracted to the churches. However, very soon active support of traditional national religions started and also resistance to missionary activities. Islam became more active. The religious freedom and openness gradually were replaced by restrictions. The governments supported certain religions and denominations while resisting the activities of others, especially foreign missionaries and 'non-traditional' religions. This was partly an attempt to use certain religious teaching as an ideological basis for the whole population and partly to reduce the threat of destabilisation and ethnic conflicts in their countries. The next step was to amend existing laws to impose legislative restrictions, especially regarding sharing faith with other people, children's work and even religious education of church members.

According to Open Doors World Watch List, four out of the five Central Asian countries are included in the list of 50 countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith: Uzbekistan (10th), Turkmenistan (15th), Tajikistan (32), Kyrgyzstan (49).

In an environment where ethnic conflicts can be easily ignited, Central Asia churches suffer the problem that these conflicts may cause divisions and bitterness even amongst Christians.

The overall picture in Central Asia is the Church has to survive and grow in circumstances of persecution, ethnic conflicts and economic hardship. Study materials are lacking in the local languages, which is a hindrance to discipleship especially in remote places. In Uzbekistan, it is especially difficult as Christian literature is searched for, confiscated and destroyed by police, and church members get detained and fined on a massive scale. It is now an impossible task to get a church registered, but even registration no longer protects a church from police raids and detention of its members.

Christianity in Central Asia has to walk a long and narrow path to growth, despite all the restrictions and difficulties imposed by state and religious authorities, as well as pressure from the predominantly Muslim society.

A believer in Uzbekistan says, 'I continue to live by the power of the One Who has loved me.' This was just written by the wife of a pastor serving his fourth year in prison for his Christian faith.


PRAISE GOD FOR:

* the spiritual revival in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

* Church growth across Central Asia despite growing restrictions on religious freedom and severe persecution in many places, praying that he will protect and strengthen his Church.

* faithfulness and boldness of Christian leaders who set a good example to the believers in their churches.


PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL:

* enable his children to fulfil his Great Commandment of making disciples in all nations and all remote places, and that there will be enough material in their languages so every believer might study the Word of God in all its fullness.

* help and provide for many needy Christians living in this region of great poverty and unemployment.

* help his children of different nationalities to be united amidst all ethnic conflicts and be instruments of his peace.

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SUMMARY TO USE IN BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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THE CHURCH'S STRUGGLE IN CENTRAL ASIA

The Church in the former Soviet countries of Central Asia -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan -- struggles for survival and growth amidst persecution, ethnic conflicts and economic hardship. Lack of material in the local languages hinders discipleship training. This is especially a problem in Uzbekistan where the police search for Christian literature, seize and destroy it, as well as detain and fine church members on a massive scale. It is now impossible to get a church registered, but even registration no longer protects a church from police raids and detention of its members. Please pray for the Church in Central Asia on its long and narrow path to growth, despite all the restrictions and difficulties imposed by state and religious authorities, as well as pressure from the predominantly Muslim society.