Kyrgyzstan is the most liberal of the five republics of Central Asia, with greater pluralism and more lenient enforcement of religious restrictions, but general repression of religion has increased since the early 1990s. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan consider any activity outside of state control to be a challenge to their legitimacy and authority, and 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, rather than direct persecution.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in Kyrgyzstan
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
Christians number about 20 percent of the Kyrgyzstan population of 5.7 million, although it is worth noting that the majority of these are Russian Orthodox who confine religious observance to a few Sundays a year. 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, and conservative estimates suggest that these non-Orthodox Christians comprise anywhere from 1 to 5 percent of the population. Converts from traditional Muslims, however, are harder to estimate, and including them would likely put the number of new Christians much higher. 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
Kyrgyzstan is the most liberal of the five republics of Central Asia, with greater pluralism and more lenient enforcement of religious restrictions, but general repression of religion has increased since the early 1990s. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan 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. Though it is not regularly enforced, a repressive 2009 law remains on the books that prohibits the participation of minors in religious organizations, bans the distribution of religious literature, and strictly outlaws proselytism. Generally, the repression of religion entails bureaucratic strangulation, such as obstacles to church registration, rather than direct persecution.
Responses to Persecution
Christian groups in Kyrgyzstan 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, Kyrgystan—along with the other countries of Central Asia—enjoyed a religious revival. Hundreds of missions organizations arrived to revive the faith, bringing with them a steady stream of religious literature. Since this time, however, evangelism has largely been forced underground.
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. Other churches attempt community engagement, although such activities are generally view suspiciously. The Catholic Church sponsors a summer youth camp at Lake Issyk-kul, where church volunteers (often from the West) care for about 700 predominately Muslim youth every summer, including many mentally and physically disabled children, which has won them the trust of some local authorities. They are careful to avoid any outward appearance of evangelization, however, and remain nervous about their legal status.
Other churches have also attempted to build relationships with local government officials through community outreach. Until the past few years, more liberal regulations allowed missionary groups to enter Kyrgyzstan as NGOs pursuing development work such as economic assistance, humanitarian aid, and medical care. Evangelical Protestants in particular used this strategy to gain trust, build relationships with local communities, and at the same time spread Christianity. Since the mid-2000s, however, government media has increasingly portrayed such organization as Western agents pushing an anti-Muslim agenda that threatens local sovereignty. A new “foreign agent law,” modelled on Russia’s, is now under consideration in Kyrgyzstan, which may threaten the existence of these NGOs.
Christians in Kyrgyzstan have also engaged in limited strategies of association, usually sponsored by Western actors. In 2013 and 2014, the US Institute for Global Engagement organized several religious conferences in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to foster religious dialogue and contact, and bring religion into civil society. Additionally, the Interfaith Council in Kyrgyzstan, a forum for dialogue begun with the collaboration of a European religious organization and a local Methodist church, includes representatives of all faiths, including the Russian Orthodox and Muslims.
Despite the repression they face, most churches in Kyrgyzstan are reluctant to turn to international actors for help. In part this is due to fear of retaliation—even though the consequences of such action are considerably less risky than other parts of Central Asia—but it also hindered by a cultural rift between religious communities and civil society groups, which are general very secular. However, at least some local Christian churches have accepted assistance from international actors, 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 Kyrgyzstan. 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 Kyrgyzstan 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 Kyrgyzstan has dropped from 26 percent of the population to 20 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.