Elnura, A Kyrgyz Christian
David W. Montgomery
In Central Asia new non-Orthodox Christian groups have proved to be a source of tension as they gain converts from Islam. The numbers of these new Christians, whose denominational affiliations include Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational Protestant, are not large relative to the broader culture of self-proclaiming Muslims. But the perception is that these Christian groups pose a threat to a cultural understanding of Islam that has not included a tradition of religious pluralism.
Elnura is a young Kyrgyz girl who became interested in Christianity through regular visits to her Christian missionary neighbors who, according to her, offered the message of a “God of forgiveness and love” rather than a “God of fear.”1 Russian Orthodoxy did not appeal to her because she was Kyrgyz, and she saw Orthodoxy as the faith of Russians and Islam as the faith of Kyrgyz. That the missionaries she met were Kyrgyz piqued her curiosity, and in secrecy she accepted their invitation to learn more about Christianity.
When her father learned about her visits to their neighbors, he was furious and banned her from seeing them again. He immediately sent her to a mosque to begin regular studies with the imam. The response of Elnura’s father was curious only because he was not a practicing Muslim and had never been to a mosque. His conviction was that his ethnicity belonged to Islam, and he feared that if his daughter became Christian, she would lose her Kyrgyz identity. New Christian converts challenge the conception of a mono-religious culture. They confront a population that will increasingly have to address the issue of religious pluralism, as well as the problem posed by what one defines as ethnic and what another defines as religious. Elnura’s Kyrgyz identity means that she should be Muslim, and her conversion is seen as a threat to the community. The reality is, however, that Elnura, far from being an aberration, is one among a growing number of examples of religious diversity in Central Asia.2 F
1Some foreign Christian missionaries believe that the conversion rate in Central Asia has come to a plateau, which they explain as an aspect of new Christians trying to reclaim the culture that was at times discarded during the conversion process. This cultural reclamation is seen in people who, for example, define themselves as both Kyrgyz and Christian and use traditional symbols in worship, such as the cross patterns common in the shyrdak (traditional Kyrgyz felt carpet).
2 For more on the conversion of Kyrgyz to Christianity, see Alyona Faletskaya, “Identity Among the Kyrgyz: Moving Tent Towards Christ or Christianity,” master’s thesis, Department of Anthropology, American University in Central Asia, 2005.
David W. Montgomery is assistant professor of anthropology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from David W. Montgomery, “Namaz, Wishing Trees, and Vodka: The Diversity of Everyday Religious Life in Central Asia,” in Everyday Life in Central Asia, Past and Present, edited by Jeff Sahadeo and Russell Zanca (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 366 and 37