General repression of religion has increased in Tajikistan since the early 1990s. National leaders consider any activity outside of state control to be a challenge to their legitimacy and authority, and an atheist mentality still persists in the government, even though it is no longer an official policy. Most perceive all forms of Christianity apart from Russian Orthodoxy to be linked to Western goals of destabilizing political power and therefore suspect. Generally, the repression of religion entails bureaucratic strangulation, such as obstacles to church registration. Christians groups remain small, highly fragmented, and unorganized, with little ability to communicate.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in Tajikistan
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan
Panel: Findings from Central Asia, with Rt. Rev. Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Eparchial Bishop in France, Benelux, and Switzerland
Moderator: Kent Hill, World Vision
Speakers: Kathleen Collins, University of Minnesota
Karrie Koesel, University of Notre Dame
Fenggang Yang, Purdue University
Ethnic Christians number about 1 percent of the Tajikistan population of 9.3 million. Russian Orthodoxy is the dominant Christian tradition, but small groups of Catholics, Lutherans, and what are referred to as “non-traditional” or “new Christians”—Seventh Day Adventists, Korean Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons, among others—are also present. Most of the remaining population is Muslim.
History of the Christian Community
Christianity spread to Central Asia about the same time as Islam, when followers of the Assyrian Christian Church and Nestorians arrived as missionaries in the seventh and eighth centuries. Russian Orthodoxy arrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the growth of the Russian Empire. Catholics and Lutherans fleeing the Russian tsar resettled there as well, along with Catholics deported from Poland and Ukraine during World War II.
Christians in Central Asia have experienced religious repression for most of the past century. For about 70 years, the five republics of Central Asia—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan—were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, where they faced ongoing Communist Party attempts to eradicate religion. These policies included confiscation of church property, state control of education, the execution of clerics, and discrimination against believers at work, school, and in the party. Repression eased somewhat in the 1970s, but it was not until the Soviet collapse in 1991 that Christians experienced a real reprieve in the persecution.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
General repression of religion has increased in Tajikistan since the early 1990s. National leaders consider any activity outside of state control to be a challenge to their legitimacy and authority, and an atheist mentality still persists in the government, even though it is no longer an official policy. Most perceive all forms of Christianity apart from Russian Orthodoxy to be linked to Western goals of destabilizing political power and therefore suspect. Generally, the repression of religion entails bureaucratic strangulation, such as obstacles to church registration. Tajikistan’s 2011 “Parental Responsibility Law,” for instance, prohibits group religious education outside of state-approved organizations and for anyone under the age of 18. Christians groups remain small, highly fragmented, and unorganized, with little ability to communicate. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended Tajikistan for its list of CPCs (Countries of Particular Concern).
Responses to Persecution
Christian groups in Tajikistan have responded to persecution in a variety of ways, although none of their efforts have successfully stopped the regime’s increasing repression. In the early 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan—along with the other countries of Central Asia—enjoyed a religious revival. The foreign missionary presence has always been smaller in Tajikistan, however, due to both the civil war in the 1990s and the very conservative Muslim, rural culture, and Christians today face many obstacles to religious activity.
Survival is the first goal for most Christians in the post-Soviet realm, and some churches see the key to survival in legality. Hence, many Christians have circumscribed their typical activity to comply with the state, avoiding politics and appearing to accept a private role. The Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church in Central Asia, all older churches that existed during the Soviet era, have maintained a legal and politically quietist position since independence, though the Catholic Church does engage in a limited amount of humanitarian work in Tajikistan, which is in part a legacy of the civil war. In some instances, churches have attempted to build relationships with local government officials through community outreach. Since the mid-2000s, however, governmental media has increasingly portrayed such organization as Western agents pushing an anti-Muslim agenda that threatens local sovereignty.
Christians in Tajikistan have also engaged in limited amounts of state-religious dialogue and inter-faith dialogue. For example, the OSCE and the UN sponsored multiple roundtables in which Muslim actors had some fruitful dialogue with the state, leading to the Tajik Peace Accord that ended the civil war in 1997. At least from the 1990s to 2014, these roundtables gave the Islamic Party and other religious leaders a platform from which to be heard by the international community and by their own societies. Such opportunities enabled them to defuse the government’s portrayal of them as “extremists.” The dialogue also led to a period of non-violent coexistence.
Despite the repression they face, most churches in Tajikistan are reluctant to turn to international actors for help. In part this is due to fear of retaliation, but it also hindered by a cultural rift between religious communities and civil society groups, which are generally very secular. However, at least some local Christian churches have accepted assistance from international actors, including the UN, and this has generally helped ameliorate their situation, though such instances remain rare.
The Russian Orthodox Church is an exception to the oppression faced by other Christian groups in Tajikistan. Viewing Central Asia as the “canonical territory” of the Orthodox Church, it seeks to further monopolize Christianity in the region and drive out competitors. To achieve these goals, the Orthodox Church has established good relations with the regime in power and with the Muslim Spiritual Board, the state body that organizes and controls an Islamic hierarchy in the country. In large part, their strategies have been successful. The government appears to believe that fostering the spread of Orthodox churches is a means of countering Protestants’ growth, which they associate with pro-Western democratic movements. The result of this has been the return and restoration of many pre-Soviet-era Orthodox buildings, as well as anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant rhetoric in the media.
Many Christians in Tajikistan have also chosen emigration, although motives for these moves are multi-causal. The vast majority of Russian émigrés, although they are nominally Orthodox Christian, have left for reasons other than religious oppression. Rising nationalism and changing language laws in the late 1980s triggered a wave of out-migration of ethnic Europeans (the majority of Christians) even before the Soviet collapse. Since 1989, the number of ethnic Christians in Tajikistan has dropped from 11 percent of the population to 1 percent.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Kathleen Collins and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.