Christians in Central Asia

Sebastien Peyrouse

Christians in Central Asia constitute a unique case, having been subject to Soviet state atheism and constituting a religious minority in a Muslim region.1 The five post-Soviet Muslim republics of Central Asia count many Christian minorities – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, with the latter group including Lutherans, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Presbyterians, and members of Charismatic churches.

Editor’s note: While the present article classifies Jehovah’s Witnesses as Protestant Christians, most churches consider Jehovah’s Witnesses outside Christian ranks on the basis of this movement’s denial of the divinity of Christ.

Unlike religious communities of the Near and Middle East, Christians in Central Asia consist primarily of Europeans – mainly Russians, Germans, Poles, Armenians, and Greeks. At present, large Russian communities exist in Kazakhstan (4,500,000), Kyrgyzstan (600,000), and Uzbekistan (at least 500,000), with tens of thousands in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.2 Over the last three decades their numbers have considerably decreased, as have those of other Europeans. Ukrainians number 500,000 in Kazakhstan, 100,000 in Uzbekistan, and 50,000 in Kyrgyzstan. A 1999 census recorded 47,000 Poles in Kazakhstan, which contains as well 111,000 Belarusians and 353,000 Germans. The communities exist in far smaller numbers in other republics.

Other Christian groups include Koreans, numbering 160,000 in Uzbekistan and close to 100,000 in Kazakhstan in 1999; Greeks, recorded at 10,000 in Uzbekistan; and Christian Tatars, the largest group consisting of 248,000 in Kazakhstan. A small Armenian minority numbers 42,000 in Uzbekistan at present, and 40,000 in Turkmenistan in 1995. In the post-Soviet era, Christian – particularly Protestant – missionary activity among Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and others has led to an increasing number of converts.

Christians After Independence

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Christians in Central Asia have had to confront two important phenomena: the extensive emigration of European populations and the arrival of new missionary movements. European out-migration from Central Asia, which began in the 1970s, peaked between 1992 and 1995, as European populations, acutely aware of their minority status, feared reduced power in the newly independent states and experienced increased economic difficulties. Half the European population, those with the means or the will, left.

This emigration posed a major challenge to Christians in Central Asia who saw many of their religious communities evaporate. The case of Lutherans is instructive. In Kazakhstan, heavy German out-migration led to the closing of several Lutheran churches; others are now dominated by non-Germans. Likewise in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, long-established Lutheran communities disappeared, weakened by competition from other Protestant denominations. Some relatively dynamic communities, such as those in large cities or in northern Kazakhstan, where the majority of the population is of European descent, managed to subsist, whereas groups situated in areas mainly peopled with Central Asians progressively died out. In the central Kazakhstani regions of Kzylorda and Zhezkazgan, Lutheran communities consist uniquely of seniors, driving the church to consider measures to stop the hemorrhaging.

Proselytism and Conversions

Most Christian movements, except Orthodox, Uniate, and Armenian churches, use new conditions of religious freedom to proselytize. Missionaries from the West and from South Korea, as well as from congregations operating in Central Asia since Soviet times, have been working in the region since perestroika and independence. These efforts are seen as crucial tools for congregations to find new followers and reach necessary levels to be allowed to register with the state.

Christian missionaries feel that most Central Asian Muslims practice a tolerant and traditional Islam, sometimes without theological grounding; these factors, they believe, ease these believers’ transition to Christianity. This perception is especially strong in areas of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that were Islamized much later, in the 18th century as compared to the 8th century for the oasis areas of Central Asia. Missionary movements are also driven by the biblical imperative to share the gospel with all peoples. This view has provoked conflict with Muslim leaders, who see all non- European locals as de facto Muslims rather than potential Christians.

Religion as an Expression of Minority Identity in Central Asia

Individuals use religion as an expression of their minority feeling. As such, religion constitutes an important element of Christian daily life.3 Orthodox leaders have sought to exploit the national factor to gain support from Russians, who now must face a new status as cultural and political minorities. The link between religion, church, and nationality grows increasingly important as the more conservative republics in Central Asia – Turkmenistan, and, to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan – have progressively excluded European cultural expressions and no longer broadcast Russian television programs. In Kazakhstan, Russians have used the church to solidify a national identity in a different manner: the Orthodox Church claims the northern Kazakh steppes as a Russian “home.”

Emigration to “home” republics has strengthened the combination of ethnicity and religion in some cases, linking both to movement and territory, but has weakened it in others; for example, the Baptist Church has now replaced ethnic affiliations with the understanding that the gospel knows no ethnic boundaries. Other Christian churches and groups have tried to blend national allegiances and multiethnic configurations: Catholicism celebrates services in several languages, and the Baptist and Adventist churches have formed subgroups for locals (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs) in order to mitigate their concerns of entering a European denomination.

Russian Orthodox Versus Other Christian Churches

The Orthodox Church seeks simultaneously to justify its predominance over other Christian movements in Central Asia and to assert its presence as equal to Islam. Church leaders argue that every Russian is inherently connected to eastern Christianity, with “Russian” and “Orthodox” used as virtual synonyms. Orthodox leaders consider the entire post-Soviet space their canonical territory, which gives them right of preeminence over all other churches today.4 This preeminence extends to non-Russians as well, who are also considered to be “automatically” Orthodox. Two exceptions exist: non-Slavs whose culture is bound to another religion  (Islam in Central Asia and Azerbaijan and the Armenian and Georgian Christian churches for their respective populations), and those whose nationality is culturally linked to a church situated beyond the borders of the former USSR (Catholic Poles and Protestant Germans, for example). Yet Orthodoxy argues that activities of these churches should be limited, and they should not have the right to proselytize. Russians who convert to a denomination different from Orthodox Christianity are strongly criticized. Non-Orthodox Christian churches, not surprisingly, are strongly critical of this approach, and argue in particular in Central Asia that the Orthodox Church is unable to meet the spiritual needs of all non-Muslim believers.

Christian Missionary Activity and Islam

Missionaries have continued their activities in Central Asia despite hostility from Orthodoxy and Islam. Missionaries use various tactics to proselytize, knocking on doors or meeting people in the streets in republics where such activity is authorized, or through humanitarian aid or various activities including foreign language or computer lessons, sporting activities, and summer camps for underprivileged children. Christians have also constructed large church buildings to attract individuals who may be seeking new spiritual values. Muslim clergy across the region have reacted with hostility to the appearance of foreign Christian missions and to conversions among “their” local population. The mufti of Tajikistan, for example, declared that “it is intolerable that a Muslim leaves his religion.”5 Kyrgyz mosques have circulated petitions demanding a halt to all missionary activity, including that of Baptists, Adventists, and other Protestant denominations.6 And in Kazakhstan Muslims have tried to prevent Protestant movements from organizing summer camps. Throughout Central Asia a conversion to Christianity is considered treason and can cause tensions in the new convert’s social and family circles. F

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


1 For Christianity in Central Asia after World War II, see Sebastien Peyrouse, Des chrétiens entre athéisme et islam. Regards sur la question religieuse en Asie centrale soviétique et post-soviétique (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003).

2 Considering the absence of serious religious sociological studies in Central Asia, I do not give figures on believers, nor their national distribution. I prefer to give the figures of nationalities that constitute the majority of Christian believers, even though these figures should be considered cautiously. Sources for these figures include: Kratkie itogi perepisi nadeleniia 1999 goda v respublike Kazahstan (Almaty: Agentstvo respubliki Kazahstan po statistike, 1999); N. E. Masanov, Z. B. Abylhozhin, I. V. Erofeeva, A. N. Alekseenko, G.S. Baratova, Istoriia Kazahstana, narody i kul’tury (Almaty: Dajk-press, 2001); Etnicheskii atlas Uzbekistana (Tashkent, Fond Sodeistviia, 2002); C. Poujol, Dictionnaire de l’Asie centrale (Paris:Ellipses, 2001); Pal Kolstoe, Russians in the Former Soviet Republics (London: Hurst & Company,1995); Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse,Les Russes du Kazakhstan. Identités nationales etnouveaux Etats dans l’espace post-soviétique (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2004).

3 Sebastien Peyrouse, “Christianity and Nationality in Soviet and Post-Soviet Central Asia: Mutual Intrusions and Instrumentalizations,” Nationalities Papers 32 (September 2004), 651-74.

4 G. Stricker, “Die Missveständnisse häufen sich . . .,” Glaube in der Zweiten Welt, July/August 1995, 21; Stricker, “Fear of Proselytism: the Russian Orthodox Church Sets Itself Against Catholicism,” Religion, State and Society No. 2 (1998), 155-65.

5 F. Sharifzad, “Islam – ne politiki,” Nauka i religiia No. 11 (1994), 32.

6 These petitions were not only aiming at new movements such as the Unification Church of Reverend Moon, but at all Protestant denominations (Baptists and Adventists, for example); Glaube in der Zweiten Welt No. 718 (1992), 5-6.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Sebastien Peyrouse, “Christians as the Main Religious Minority in Central Asia” in Everyday Life in Central Asia, Past and Present edited by Jeff Sahadeo and Russell Zanca (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 371-83.

Sebastien Peyrouse is senior research fellow, the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, and an associate scholar at the Institute for International and Strategic Research, Paris, France.