Problems and Needs of the Church in Uzbekistan
The church in Uzbekistan is divided into three separate groups: Russian local Christians, indigenous Christians, and expatriate workers, also called tentmakers. Unfortunately, relations among the three groups are far from good. Russian local Christians tend to be inward-looking and lack initiative for outreach to local Muslims. Evangelization takes place, but only rarely is it aimed at non-Russians. Indigenous Christians are reluctant to cooperate with Russians because they consider them to be oppressors. Converts are anxious to avoid any connection with Russians because this gives their Muslim relatives a reason to attack them. Finally, tentmakers are new to the region (most of them have been in Uzbekistan fewer than three years), they have to adapt enormously to the cultural circumstances of the country, and they almost never cooperate with existing churches. Their work therefore is often small scale and isolated. It is easy to understand that this division of the Body of Christ seriously affects the spreading of God's kingdom in Uzbekistan.
A Lack of Indigenous Leadership
The indigenous church is young and small. The several thousand indigenous believers come from a Muslim background, though they hardly know what this means. (In Uzbekistan, knowledge of Islamic dogmas is as good as absent.) However, the same goes for Christian teachings. Moreover, converts are a very new phenomenon in Uzbekistan. In most cases they have converted to Christ because of the activities of tentmakers. From the beginning, converts remain loyal to the tentmaker through whose ministry they were converted. As a result, small groups of converts center around tentmakers. Of course, this does not offer a permanent solution because most tentmakers plan to stay in the region for a limited period and because converts need leaders of their own. Unfortunately, no indigenous persons are available yet to take over from tentmakers. It also is impossible to send Uzbek Christians to established Bible schools because their level of Christian knowledge is low. Yet the indigenous church will be able to survive only under strong leadership.
Lack of Knowledge of Christian Teachings
Seminars, Bible study groups, correspondence courses, and other types of education are all needed to build the church from the very foundations of the Christian faith. Apart from basic teachings, the indigenous church further needs instruction on family problems which are the result of conversions, youth work, Muslim outreach, persecution, and the necessity of lifestyle changes. It seems a good idea to make use of the ample experience of the church in the Middle East.
Severe Oppression of Converts
Converts in Uzbekistan are a very vulnerable group. In most cases, knowledge of their new faith is very limited. Family members and relations have no consideration for converts who are seen as traitors. Converts often lose their jobs and are banished from their families. Furthermore, when repression comes, converts are the first group to come under attack. Restrictive measures taken by the government include a ban on public evangelism and severe restrictions on the importation of Christian materials in indigenous languages. Pastors of local Russian churches must send Muslims away and must report when Uzbeks join their services. Uzbek converts active in Christian outreach have been arrested, beaten, and in one instance killed. Uzbek secret police pressure Uzbek believers to become informers and offer them cars and other bribes to cooperate. As more Uzbeks come to Christ, we may expect an increasing problem. Since authorities are so opposed to Uzbeks turning to Christ, we must reckon with a backlash. The need to support converts will continue to grow.
Lack of Indigenous Christian Materials
Many people think the need for literature in Uzbekistan was solved with the printing of the New Testament in 1993-94 and the subsequent printing of 100,000 copies. Also, several separate Gospels have been published and the Children's Bible by Evert Kuyt is a great success. Uzbek believers are very fond of this book because it contains no translation errors at all. But apart from these books, Uzbek believers have no other literature: no Bible study material, no concordances, no publications on Islam and Muslim outreach, and, most of all, no complete Bibles in indigenous languages with the exception of Tajik. Yet the need for such materials is great and growing. Only Uzbeks in the major cities are capable of reading, writing, and speaking Russian. In the countryside, knowledge of Russian is almost absent. With growing self-awareness, many Uzbeks refuse to learn Russian and this trend will continue. Therefore, it is essential that Christians in the West work to make many more titles available in Central Asian languages.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a wave of emigration of non-indigenous nationalities started from Central Asia. First, practically all Germans left the region and then Russians began leaving. Of course, this had its effects on the church in Uzbekistan as well. Russian and German congregations that numbered thousands of members now number a few hundred. Church choirs are decimated, youth leaders have left, pastors and elders have emigrated to Russia, Germany, Canada, or the United States. The trend is expected to continue, meaning more and more churches will have great difficulties functioning.
Church News Hardly Reaches the West
Communication with and from Uzbekistan is a major difficulty. Its telephone system is outdated and under KGB surveillance. Telephones and faxes of all major church leaders are bugged. This means that Christians have to be very careful in sending church news out of Uzbekistan. Tentmakers often have the most modern means of communications (computers with modems), but usually they do not have time to spend communicating with the West. As a result, news about the church in Uzbekistan rarely circulates abroad. Without regular information about the situation, interest among supporters and those who pray and fast for the church will decrease. There is a great need to provide supporters with adequate information for prayer. This needs to be achieved, of course, without compromising the safety of Uzbek Christians.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission of Open Doors International from its Web site. See Country Profiles: Uzbekistan: www.gospelcom.net/od/content/uzbekpro2.htm.
Additional Resources on Religion in Uzbekistan
Bogner, Matilda et al. "Uzbekistan: From House to House: Abuses by Mahalla Committees." Human Rights Watch 15 (September 2003): 1-37. www.hrw.org/reports/2003/uzbekistan0903/.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. U.S. Department of State. "Uzbekistan." International Religious Freedom Report 2002. 7 October 2002, 11 pp. www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/13990.htm.
Rashid, Ahmed. "Annals of Terrorism, They're Only Sleeping; Why Militant Islamicists in Central Asia Aren't Going to Go Away." The New Yorker 77 (14 January 2002): 34-41.
_____. Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 281 pp.
_____. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 274 pp.
Rotar, Igor. "Uzbekistan: Religious Freedom Survey, July 2003." Forum 18 News Service, 16 July 2003. 11 pp. www.forum18.org.
Sagdeev, R.Z. and Susan Eisenhower eds. Islam and Central Asia: An Enduring Legacy or an Evolving Threat? Washington DC: Center for Political and strategic Studies, 2000. 255 pp.
Simpson, Erica Sapper. "Islam in Uzbekistan: Why Freedom of Religion is Fundamental for Peace and Stability in the Region." Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 2 (1998-99): 110-50. www.uib.no/jais/v002ht/simpson1.htm.
"Problems and Needs of the Church in Uzbekistan," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Fall 2003), 7-8.
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