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Post-Soviet Protestant Missions in Central Asia

Andrew Christian van Gorder

Government Restrictions

Even careful attention to cultural sensitivity as prescribed by the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization (see sidebar) may not spare missionaries difficulties with Central Asian governments. For example, on 6 October 2006 the justice ministry in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, placed the Missionaries of Charity, originally founded by Mother Theresa, under state control. The investigation into the activities of this Catholic mission, universally praised for its help for the poor, came as part of a larger crackdown on foreign missionaries and representatives of non-government organizations (NGOs) who might be bearers of potentially objectionable “Western ideas.” The focus of the investigation was on their activities, not on their legal status, because the Missionaries of Charity had been registered in Uzbekistan since1995, and the mission was re-registered in March,2004.

New Protestant Outreach

This action by the Uzbek government is part of a larger trend in Central Asia to regulate outside influences. Both Orthodox and Catholic missionaries have served in Central Asia in the past two decades, but their work has been almost entirely focused on pastoral care for their adherents or humanitarian efforts such as those of the Missionaries of Charity. The same is not true for many Protestant denominations which typically share some degree of North American or European church affiliation. As a result, Central Asian governments pay particular attention to the activities of European and North American Protestant missions working on their territories. Protestant denominations in Central Asia include Mennonites, Pentecostals, a range of Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists, while new religious movements include Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Conservative Protestant missionaries base their activities in Central Asia on biblical commands tobe witnesses to non-Christians (Matthew 28:16 (Colossians 1:27-29; Galatians 6:4). They follow the example of the first Christians who preached across both cultural and religious lines (Acts 14: 17; Romans 1: 2).

While Protestants in Central Asia who have not left the region since 1991 are often Ukrainian or ethnic German, Central Asian Christianity today is largely Russian Orthodox. (Editor’s note: In the years 1992-1996, ethnic German immigration from the five Central Asian republics to Germany totaled644,273. Source: Pavel Polian, Against Their Will; The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR [Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004], 210.) In Central Asia Christians of all persuasions seldom express any desire to positively “connect” with Muslims at the level of interfaith engagement. This lack of desire to interact with Muslims on the basis of faith generally stems from valid fears of persecution.

One German mission organization, Light imOsten (Light of the East), has made Muslim- Christian dialogue an area of particular focus in its missionary efforts. Also, a Christian outreach, Ray of Hope, based in Frunze, Kyrgyzstan, as well as the mission efforts of the Church of the Cross, Riga, Latvia, stress the fostering of better Muslim-Christian relations.

Cross-Cultural Missteps

One important issue for Protestant missions in Central Asia is their relationship with indigenous Slavic and German Christians who have lived in the region for generations. A number of North American and European denominational mission organizations have not felt it necessary to establish working relationships with local Christians, particularly with Russian Orthodox Christians. This sends a fundamentally disrespectful message. In addition, some Russian and German Christians have chosen the safety of isolation from foreigners who often seem completely lacking in cultural sensitivity. Protestant missionaries and service workers should work sympathetically toward diffusing possible suspicions. Treading carefully through difficult terrain will serve Protestants from abroad as it has Central Asian Christians of Russian andGerman descent. In fact, such care has sustainedindigenous believers through difficult decades oftremendous opposition and physical persecution. Protestant missionaries have a better chance of being welcomed, instead of being seen as a threat, when their actions consistently show a willingness to participate alongside Central Asians. One example of such a partnership exists between Southern Baptist missionaries and the Church of the True Way, a student fellowship in Almaty, Kazakhstan. In this case, missionaries and local Kazakh Christian spray and ceremonially wash their hands in a manner similar to their neighbors.1

Westerners may come to a greater appreciation of Central Asian ways by showing respect for the authority of elders and by placing an emphasis on courtesy over rigid devotion to schedules and clocks. Central Asians are proud of the fact that they extend gracious hospitality to visitors even if they speak different language or hold to a differing religious point of view. But, regrettably, examples can be cited of missionaries and service workers who have sown seeds of division in Central Asia.

Countless problems have arisen when Westerners have insisted that their way of proceeding is best, using arrogant assertions and misusing theological arguments. In keeping with Lausanne standards, to avoid potential problems, foreign missionaries and service workersshould not insist on programmatic leadership of given initiatives. Plans are best directed by local Christians or by Christians from non-Western nations. Turkish, Gagauzi, or Pakistani Christians may be more effective working in Central Asia than missionaries from Sussex or Texas. Wealthy Westerners might consider sponsoring Christians from poorer nations, perhaps those with sizeable Muslim communities, instead of sending people from their own countries who must overcome major cultural and linguistic hurdles.

Humanitarian and Medical Aid

A host of Christian organizations in Central Asia are involved in humanitarian efforts. Numerous NGOs are funded and staffed by Christians committed to the alleviation of human suffering. Initiatives range from education to agricultural concerns to helping organize greater civil services within Central Asia.2 Some Christian groups dig wells in Central Asia to provide villagers with safe drinking water. Other Christian organizations tackle issues of economic injustice and champion greater respect and greater opportunities for women. Still other groups provide care for orphans and assist local adoption agencies.

Medical programs are also increasingly in evidence in Central Asia, addressing the needs of desperately under-staffed and under-supplied healthcare services. The focus of one British mission organization has been on “those in need of healing”(Luke 9:11), which has led to annual trips of medical specialists and students who come to Central Asia to provide basic health care.3 Similarly, the mission organization, Frontiers, is involved in eye clinics and pediatric and dental projects in Central Asia. Also, Global Health Ministries, affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, provides short- and long-term service opportunities in Central Asia. F

Editor’s Note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Notes:

1 See the Central Asia section of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board website (www.imb.org.) for accounts of Central Asian conversions to Christianity.

2 http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/civilsociety/articles/pp091804.shtml.

3 Christian Medical Fellowship: http://www.cmf.org.uk/literature/content.asp?context=article&id=271.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from A.Christian van Gorder, Muslim–Christian Relations in Central Asia (London: Routledge, 2008).

Andrew Christian van Gorder is professor of religion, arts, and sciences, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.