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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[08.11.23] Protestants in Kyrgyzstan Face Hostile Reception

Kyrgyzstan has drawn international criticism for cracking down on officially nonviolent Islamic groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir. But evidence suggests that the authorities are nonsectarian when discouraging religious freedom. People who convert to western schools of Christianity, especially Protestants, face strong psychological pressure from authorities and religious leaders. Activists say that persecution of Protestants has intensified since signals from the Ministry of Justice seemed to encourage it on national-security grounds.
Language attributed to authorities in a May decree paints groups outside traditional Islam and Eastern Orthodox Christianity as "totalitarian sects...using deceptions, silent methods and obtrusive propaganda in order to attract new members." This sort of defamation has long served to discredit Hizb-ut-Tahrir. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
According to the state committee on religion, in 2002 one could find 930 mosques, 22 madrassas and eight Islamic institutions in Kyrgyzstan. By comparison, there are reportedly 43 Russian Orthodox churches, seven seminaries, and 215 other Christian organizations in the country. Since 1998, 885 missionaries, 685 of them Christian, have visited the country. After the United States and its allies declared war on terrorism in autumn 2001, suspicion of these Christian groups intensified. In late 2002, the Res Publica web site accused foreign missionaries of seeking "the religious division of Muslims throughout the Islamic world."
The "black list" of so-called destructive religious sects includes 32 religious organizations. Many are recognized peaceable denominations including Seventh-Day Adventists, Ba'hai Muslims, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Under the aegis of the State Committee on Religion- which, officials concede, includes no experts on religious studies- Kyrgyzstan is trying to establish a council of experts to arbitrate disputes between established religions and small ones. This council might also monitor peaceful religious activity.
Mistrust toward Protestants would probably occur in southern Kyrgyzstan even without the government tacitly endorsing it, say observers. In many southern villages and cities, Islam governs social codes and private rituals. Thus, when some villagers convert to Protestantism, many neighbors feel personally rebuked. Such feelings often leads to lynch law.
This dynamic drives many Protestants underground. There are eight Protestant churches in Jalal-Abad and nearby towns, but only three have registered with the state. The rest generally gather in parishioners' houses, in secret. The biggest church is reportedly the Jesus Christ Church, which members say includes 250 people. (They say this is a much higher figure than the church reports officially, reflecting fears of persecution.) Another church reportedly has 30 members; a unique entity called New Testament opens itself only to ethnic Kyrgyz. Despite a widespread suspicion that missionaries have made their deepest inroads among the ethnic Kyrgyz, many ethnic Uzbek, Kurds and Tatars have also become Protestants.
Official and casual opponents accuse the churches of using " deceitful" methods to attract young people through the so-called "incentive system". Representatives of the Muslim clergy claim the Protestant communities pay $50 each month to those who attend their religious gatherings. Protestant leaders deny such accusations. But in deference to them, many church leaders require children to bring parental consent when they attend mass. For adults as well as children, the dangers of attending church can be powerfully discouraging. "My mother-in-law is trying to attract my wife to attend [mass]," says Vyacheslav Salimov of Osh. "I am very concerned about it. I am Muslim and my wife is Orthodox Christian and we don't have any problems in our relations on the basis of religion. However, I am against her visiting these religious masses of the new sect."
In a rare recorded case of religious persecution, more than 100 people reportedly laid siege to the house of two Protestant brothers in Suzak village on December 31, 2000. The crowd demanded that the brothers and their families give up the new religion. In the meantime, the crowd was ready to burn their house with gasoline, which was kept in small containers by people in the crowd. Police were able to defuse the situation peacefully, and produce an official report.
Generally, reactionaries fear that one villager's conversion will trigger a chain reaction. In this regard, some Muslim leaders propose to use Internet facilities in order to interest the young people with Islamic norms by chatting with Arab youngsters. In general, observers say, foundations from Persian Gulf countries are increasingly setting up new schools as an alternative to western church missionaries.
At the other end of the spectrum, some local leaders have discouraged Protestant conversions by refusing to bury converts in public facilities. In a widely reported case, his family wanted to bury him according to the Muslim laws under which he was born. In this case, his will demanded a Christian burial, and the regional authorities helped his church take a plot of land for a new cemetery. It is not clear, though, how Kyrgyzstani citizens will be able to adopt Protestantism in meaningful numbers in the years ahead.
By Almaz Ismanov,
Eurasianet, December 08, 2003

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