Wednesday, 25 January 2006

CHRISTIAN PROSELYTISM IN KAZAKHSTAN

Published in Analytical Articles

By Sebastien Peyrouse (1/25/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: There are one or even several Baptist and Adventist churches in every town of Kazakhstan. Pentecostal communities are also widespread, the most ubiquitous being the community of Evangelical Christians called “of the spirit of the apostles”, which has groups in Almaty and Karaganda. The Pentecostal movement is also well represented inside the Korean minority, in particular by the Sun Bok Ym church.
BACKGROUND: There are one or even several Baptist and Adventist churches in every town of Kazakhstan. Pentecostal communities are also widespread, the most ubiquitous being the community of Evangelical Christians called “of the spirit of the apostles”, which has groups in Almaty and Karaganda. The Pentecostal movement is also well represented inside the Korean minority, in particular by the Sun Bok Ym church. The tendency called “Christian of evangelical faith” has created communities in almost all the provinces of the country. As for Churches known as “the Churches of God”, they are present in the provinces of Kustanay, Karaganda and Kokchetau. The Presbyterians churches consist of around twenty organizations. Among the best known are Galbori, Onsezan, Korë, Nadežda, Sion, the first Presbyterian church and the Assembly of Presbyterian Churches. The movement has particularly spread among the Korean minority, who often make up between 80 and 90 percent of the Presbyterian ranks. The group Grace - Blagodat’ is the largest with about 10,000 members. Several Presbyterian seminaries have been built up, for example the Spiritual Presbyterian Academy in Almaty and the Kazakhstan Evangelical Christian Seminary. The Methodist Church is organized into parishes that gather an important number of believers. The Novoapostol’skaya Tserkov’, which is independent from the Presbyterians and the Methodists, has considerably developed and could gather about fifty groups and about 3,000 believers. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the groups who have seen the biggest increase (at least 12,000 believers), managing to baptize almost a thousand people a year. The movement has congregations in almost every town in Kazakhstan and more than one hundred communities are registered. The charismatic movements come under many designations : Agape, Novaya zhizn’, Novoe nebo, Illiya, Blagaya vest’, the Charismatic Church of Jesus Christ, and so on. The best-established movement is Novaya Zhizn’, which has shown real missionary dynamism, has created subsidiary communities that exclusively consist of Kazakhs and Uighurs, and even has a society in charge of evangelizing the Jews. Kazakhstan could currently hold more than forty communities, that is to say around 5,000 believers. Finally, the presence of Mormons, who declare only a few dozen believers registered in Astana, should be noted.

IMPLICATIONS: Since perestroika, Christian proselytism in Kazakhstan has diversified its targets and readjusted its strategies. The first goal was a proselytism of proximity, which was targeted mainly at members who were already converted to Protestantism, but who were given more substantial religious teaching that the missionaries deemed urgent. The second target was composed of the population that was said to be either atheist or indifferent to religious questions. The third and main target in the 1990s was people who had converted to Christianity but belonged either to other denominations, in particular to the Orthodox Church, or to a lesser extent to Catholicism, if not to some Protestant movements on the decline in the area, such as the Lutherans or Mennonites. The last and most controversial target was the entire Muslim and indigenous population, in the name of the principle of Christianity’s universality. Kazakhs, but also Kirghiz and Uighurs, constitute, in the long term, the main targets of the Christian presence in Kazakhstan. These populations have appeared to be easy targets, since most practice a largely tolerant, traditional Islam, without deep theological knowledge. Thus, in all those proselyte parties, there are increasing numbers of communities that exclusively consist of locals. Religious services are conducted in the local languages (Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek, Uighur, etc.) and several new officiating priests of the cult belong to the native nationalities. In 2005, a series of amendments to the religious legislation, which were officially meant to preserve national security, might modify quite considerably the situation of Christian proselytes. Every community must now be registered, with participation in non-official religious groups and proselytism in their favor thus becoming liable to sanctions. However, this law does not seem, for the moment, to have really limited religious diversity in the country, even if several movements, in particular Muslim groups independent of the Spiritual Directorate, are deeply concerned about the government’s growing pressure. Yet faced with these policies from the Spiritual Directorate, the Orthodox Church and the authorities and in reaction to legislative tightening up of religious legislation, proselyte Christian movements have had to adjust their policies. A first category of missionaries does not accept any compromise with the laws. This is the case of most foreign missions of Protestant persuasion, in particular the Presbyterian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose numbers and missionary potentialities are greatly strengthened by external financial support. They consider mission as consubstantial with their existence and with the very principle of Christianity. As these groups fail to recognize any legitimacy to Islam, they reason that the Muslim population must be converted to Christianity. A second group is made up of movements whose presence is not motivated by a proselytism alone: these are protestant movement that were already present under the Soviet regime, like the Baptist or Adventist Churches, as well as a certain number of Pentecostal denominations. This is also the case of the Catholic Church, whose proselytism mostly affects populations of Christian traditions but seldom the Kazakhs. These movements do not want to endanger their traditional communities (Germans, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, etc.) and have therefore slowed down proselytizing among Muslims.

CONCLUSIONS: Whereas since the beginning of the 1990s, the emigration of the so-called “European” minorities has emptied Kazakhstan from almost half of its Christian communities, the issue of Christianity has profoundly evolved. The Orthodox Church remains, by far, the major Church but is losing its believers in favor of Catholicism and Protestantism, does not practice proselytism and maintains its belief in an unbreakable link between Russianness and Orthodoxy that makes the religion more national than universal. Today, the future of Christianity in Kazakhstan lies in the hands of the most dynamic Protestant movements. Although they are highly visible due to their activities, the new converts represent probably less than 1% of the population. However, they are the ones to suffer the heaviest pressure and who carry the future of Christianity in the region. This Central Asian Christianity – in a way similar to Indian or Chinese Christianity – is indeed bound to either disappear in the medium or long term as the religion of the former settlers, who have now returned home, or to gain a foothold inside the local population, which will not take place without serious community tensions if this movement of conversion increases in scale.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Sebastien Peyrouse, Ph.D., French Center for Post-Soviet Studies, (INALCO, Paris, France).

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