Christians in Central Asia
Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 17 (Summer 2009): 9-11.
The Islamic-Orthodox Alliance
Orthodox leaders have supported the efforts of Muslim clergy (ulema) to pressure Central Asian authorities to restrict missionary activity. The Orthodox Church finds itself in an ambiguous position insisting on religious freedom for itself, but complaining that post-Soviet states should not abide by any broader Western model of freedom of religion. Orthodoxy, not regretting the Soviet period, would prefer greater continuity, citing the Belarusian example of the state recognizing the Orthodox Church as the “national church.”1 Other Christian churches question whether an established faith would guarantee a country’s stability, contending that this is “only a myth that leads to inquisitions and monastery jails. Religious freedom is a right for anyone, for small and large denominations.”2
The current Orthodox Church in Central Asia considers itself the victim of Christian proselytism, Russian emigration, and people’s indifference to religion. Church leaders, despite their official apolitical stance, have turned to the authorities for support. Central Asian Archbishop Vladimir Ikim has met Central Asian state presidents several times and confirms good relations with all. Vladimir and Islamic muftis in Central Asia have not hidden their intention to put pressure on authorities in order to restrict religious freedom.3 Archbishop Vladimir’s virulent and denigrating attitude toward other Christian movements, echoed by high and low clergy, reflects a trend across the former USSR. Orthodox clerics in Central Asia have attacked the Catholic Church, claiming it has “always tried to seize the Orthodox Orient.”4 In 1998, Archbishop Antonii of the Uralsk and Gureev regions of Kazakhstan declared: “What can we think of a church that has systematically violated God’s law? The Pope, who has declared himself God’s substitute on Earth, who is he? The Antichrist!”5
Criticism against local missionary movements fills the pages of local Orthodox journals.6 A Kazakhstani journal defined Protestantism as a religion of “the aggressive bourgeois.”7 Orthodox writers attack Jehovah’s Witnesses as the most dangerous movement, which, among other things, would convert people using narcotics and hypnosis.8 Many articles explain how Orthodox Christians should confront missionaries, Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular.9 The leader of an Orthodox parish in Dushanbe condemned denominations for proselytizing with “a meal in one hand and a Bible in the other.”10
Orthodox and Muslim leaders agree that “in Central Asia and in Russia, there is a natural distribution of the sphere of influence between the two religions, Orthodoxy and Islam, and no one will destroy this harmony.”11 Leaders of each religion have agreed not to proselytize among nationalities traditionally belonging to the other religion and to fight all other proselytizing movements. Official inter-religious conferences and meetings between muftis and Orthodox hierarchy publicly confirm their mutual understanding.12
Below the level of central hierarchies, tensions simmer between church officials and believers of various Christian denominations. Lutheran pastors, for example, strongly criticize other Protestant denominations. One Lutheran cleric in Tashkent condemned “all the sects developing in the country.”13 Lutheran officials, expressing particular hostility toward Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, criticize the activity of “foreign” missions and have been suspected of pressuring political authorities to place limits on Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements. Such hostility varies greatly from the ecumenism of Western Europe or North America; in Central Asia denominations at best ignore each other, but much more often label rivals as “sects,” at times collaborating with the government to ban these movements.
Legislative restrictions threaten to shutter many Christian denominations, which rarely consist of more than 20 believers in villages and 50 to 70 believers in small-to- middle-size cities of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Laws against proselytism have endangered movements of religious officials, even those of the more established religions.
In Turkmenistan most Protestant communities have been refused registration while Orthodox parishes, which rarely consist of more then 50 people, are allowed to maintain their religious activity. In Uzbekistan any denomination suspected of proselytism – or at least too visible proselytism – is denied registration, regardless of the number of signatures collected.
Believers of primarily Protestant denominations are forced to celebrate services in homes, even though conducting religious activities in private is forbidden. State authorities also consider the distribution of religious literature in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as proselytism. These Central Asian republics have banned so-called “foreign” Christian denominations from importing religious books of any kind written in local languages. Authorities do not hesitate to seize Christian material in homes or even in registered religious buildings.
In addition to legislative restrictions, many believers, especially Protestants, undergo unofficial pressures from authorities. These pressures show a real continuity with Soviet anti-religious practices, varying from subjective interpretations of law to police raids during services, temporary illegal internments, and psychological pressure. Registration formalities continue to be the main form of pressure exercised by authorities upon believers and their leaders. State authorities ignore legislation in their refusal to register Christian groups. Special efforts to deny registration to Christians are concentrated on “foreign” proselytizing movements such as Presbyterians, charismatics, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Several groups have been refused registration on the basis that their leader is a foreigner. In recent years, some legally registered churches have also been suppressed.
As in the Soviet era, Central Asian states fear the influence of religion. Secularism has become a way to face not only “foreign” Christianity but Islam, a force that could lead to a questioning of the elite’s acquired privileges, which could then threaten their political power. Leaders mistreat known religious movements by means of a combination of nitpicking, arbitrariness, extra-legal measures, and everyday administrative humiliations. By way of contrast, the Orthodox Church has been able to gain status as a type of “official” religion for Russians, whom Central Asian leaders want to see remain in their republics.
In all Central Asian republics today official secularism excludes any reference to the Quran or sharia and officially grants Christianity, especially Orthodoxy, the same rights as Islam. Discrimination against several Protestant movements – such as Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Pentecostals – as well as, at times, the Catholic Church and even non-Christian Baha’i and Hare Krishna, result more from general restrictions on freedom and national considerations rather than religious ones. The situation of Christians in Central Asia resembles the situation in Belarus or Russia, where Orthodox believers meet no real difficulties, but repression of other Christian groups significantly affects the everyday life of believers, who in some cases are not even able to celebrate regular services. These difficulties stem primarily from the fact that these groups are considered “foreign denominations” imported from Western countries. As such, political authorities and the hierarchs of so-called traditional religions view them as a threat to internal security and stability.14 F
1 “V. Belorussii zapreshena deiatel’nost’ obshchestva soznaniia Krishny,” Svet pravoslaviia v Kazahstane No. 5 (1999), 16-17.
2 Blagovestnik. Gazeta i uzhnoi konferentsii tserkvi khristian-adventistov sed’mogo dnia, March, 1996, 3.
3 Slovo Kyrgyzstana, 1 October 1994; Alisheva, “Multiconfessional Kyrgyzstan.”
4 Vedi 17 (No. 3, 1998), 2-8.
5 Ibid., 5.
6 E. Luzanova, “Religious Renaissance or Political Game?,” Central Asian Post, 23 March 1998, 4.
7 “Protestantizm kak religiia agressivnogo burzhua: ekskurs v istoriiu,” Svet pravoslaviia v Kazahstane No. 6 (1997), 12-14.
8 Slobo zhizni No. 9 (19 December 1995), 3.
9 See, for example, “Svideteli Iegovy, i kak k nim otnosit’sia pravoslavnym khristianam,” Vedi, non-dated and non-numbered, 26.
10 Interview with the leader of the Orthodox parish in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, October 2000.
11 I. Botasheva and V. Lebedev, “Krestonostsy kontsa XX veka,” Kazakhstanskaia Pravda, 2 April 1996.
12 Svet pravoslaviia v Kazahstane No. 1 (1993), 8.
13 Author interview with a Protestant pastor, 1999.
14 Sebastien Peyrouse, ed., Gestion de l’indépendance et legs soviétique en Asie centrale, Cahiers d’Asie centrale Nos. 13-14 (Aix-en-Provence: Edisud, 2004).
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.