Central Asian Republics

Christians in the five Central Asian republics—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan—lived under severe repression during the Soviet period. They have continued to suffer curtailments of their freedom since these countries gained their independence upon the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Muslims make up more than 90 percent of these countries’ populations (except for Kazakhstan, where they are about 70 percent). Meanwhile, ethnic Russians, most of whom identify as Orthodox Christians, are less than 25 percent of the population in Kazakhstan, less than 7.7 percent in Kyrgyzstan, and less than 5 percent in each of the other republics. Other Christians, including Catholics and members of numerous Protestant churches, make up between 1 and 5 percent of these populations. A major phenomenon across the region since the early 1990s has been missionary outreach by evangelicals, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons through hundreds of missionary organizations, many of which have funding sources in the West. The states’ religious persecution has fallen most heavily on them, increasing in the last ten to fifteen years and achieving considerable, but not total, success in suppressing their evangelization efforts. 

All of the region’s regimes are secular in outlook, asserting strong control over all religions. All have become worried about the rise of Islamist groups in recent years and are fearful of Western influence. The persecution they inflict takes the form of bureaucratic strangulation reminiscent of the Soviet era.

Governments use registration requirements, laws against missionaries, and laws against the religious education of youth to suppress those churches they regard as threats, while exercising comparative leniency towards and forging strategic alliances with the Russian Orthodox Church and mainstream Muslim leaders. Heavy discrimination also takes place against Christians at the hands of local populations in the form of exclusion from jobs, harassment, and subjection to violence. 

By and large, Christians in the region have responded to persecution through strategies of survival. Responses of political engagement through association and confrontation are scattershot and isolated in comparison. Since the 1980s, many Catholics, traditional Protestants (e.g., Lutherans), and Russian Orthodox have emigrated from the region, though for reasons that are ethnic and economic as much as they are religious. Some churches have persisted in worship and missionary work underground. In most of these countries, there are churches that provide a measure of social services but are kept under close watch, while some outside religious organizations have entered the region under the rubric of promoting economic development. Local churches are reluctant to turn for help outside their country’s borders, but a few have established contact with human rights groups, international media, United States embassies, and overseas legal counsel. A limited amount of dialogue takes place between churches and governments, among churches, and between churches and other faiths, but only in the comparatively less repressive nations of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. 

The exception to this repressive pattern is the experience of the Russian Orthodox Church. It enjoys a collaborative relationship with the governments of this region, one that helps this church to recover confiscated property dating back to the Russian colonial era, to conduct its work freely, and to obstruct competing churches. This relationship in turn enables governments to appease Russia, stem the emigration of ethnic Russians, and gain help in suppressing proselytizing Protestants, whom they view as agents of the West.