Wednesday, 05 April 2006

BETWEEN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND HARASSEMENT: CHRISTIAN CONVERTS IN CENTRAL ASIA

Published in Analytical Articles

By Anara Tabyshalieva (4/5/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The first historical movement of Christians in Central Asia was the Nestorian Church in the fourth century. Nestorian Christian successfully converted a number of Turks to the new faith in the medieval ages. The second migration was related mostly Orthodox Christian during Russia’s colonization of the region in the nineteenth century.
BACKGROUND: The first historical movement of Christians in Central Asia was the Nestorian Church in the fourth century. Nestorian Christian successfully converted a number of Turks to the new faith in the medieval ages. The second migration was related mostly Orthodox Christian during Russia’s colonization of the region in the nineteenth century. Anti-Russian uprisings, especially the 1898 Andijan rebellion that called for a Jihad (Ghazawat) seriously affected Russian religious policy in Central Asia. The Russian Orthodox clergy did not dare to convert local Muslim peoples into Christianity, something they widely practiced in Siberia and the Far East. Together with Orthodox Churches, some Protestant minorities penetrated or were deported to Central Asia in the colonial and Soviet period. The third increase of the number of Christians in the region is taking place presently as a result of mass conversion of local populations from traditionally Muslim or Orthodox families to Protestantism. The collapse of state atheism encouraged numerous Protestant and other missions from the West and South Korea to settle in Central Asia. Since the days of perestroika and glasnost, they have penetrated to the most remote areas of the region. In some cases, Protestant missionaries, who traditionally come first to a terra incognita, build an image of West which they use to their advantage. Activities of Christian missions across the region appear dynamic. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, more than 77 percent or 850 of the 1110 registered missions were Christian, mostly Protestant. Reportedly, thousands of Kyrgyz and Kazakhs have converted from traditionally Muslim families, and now attend Protestant churches. According to the Christianity Today website, the number of ethnic Kazakh protestants increased from fewer than 10 in 1991 to more than 6,000 in 2000. As a result of the vigorous growth of well-off and modernized Christian churches from the United States, South Korea and other countries, the thousands of native converts diversify religious and cultural life in Central Asia. At the same time, in some areas, a rapid process of re-Islamization of natives competes with the advances of Protestantism, which leads to increasing tensions between the newly converted and the Muslim community. Religious strife resulting from policies of increasing political freedoms are indicators of the deleterious effects of liberalization policies in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

IMPLICATIONS: Unlike the Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman, who had to seek asylum in Europe after his trial for converting from Islam, thousands of Protestant converts from Muslim families enjoy religious freedom in the neighboring countries of post-communist Central Asia such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. However, a number of them often face discrimination and harassment on a daily basis. To varying degrees, religious freedom is at risk in all post-Soviet states. In general, state policy in religious affairs in each country is far from being coherent and clear. Certainly, some attempts of governments to recreate elements of Soviet control over religion and restrict religious freedom can be observed. In illiberal countries, state actors continue to be the first to violate religious freedom and freedom of opinion and expression: the most regrettable trends are reported from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. For instance in Uzbekistan, on occasions Christian converts (as well as Muslim groups) are detained for unauthorized religious meetings. Muslim and Russian Orthodox leaders in the region that started collaborating long ago first to cope with devastating Soviet repression and then to tackle the problem of proselytizing and wealthy foreign missions, now request authorities to support their own traditional denominations as a balance against this. However, a shortage of skilled mullahs and clergy, financial problems, and slow adaptation to the new dynamic development in Central Asia remain important problems in the competition by the traditional religious structures of domestic confessions with foreign Christian churches. Nevertheless, especially in the Ferghana valley, attempts at proselytism by Christian churches runs into resistance by Muslim groups. Fierce battles over conversion, viewed as apostasy, occur in this stronghold of Islam known for a strong Islamic revival at a local and individual level, but could spread. The restoration of a gender-discriminative interpretation of the Qur’an by local opinion leaders in some areas of Central Asia is one factor which encourages post-Soviet women to consider and draw closer to other denominations that appear more tailored to modern society, market relations and liberalization. Discrimination of female or young converts at the family and community level remains underreported and a little discussed subject. Indeed, cases of conversions are covered up by families to avoid stigma. Another case is the government-supported restriction of women’s freedom of belief for women: for instance in Tajikistan, a 2004 decree banning women from mosques clearly violates women’s rights. At the community level, the marginalization of new non-Muslim groups is especially visible in villages. In rural neighborhoods, anecdotal evidence shows that Protestant converts are boycotted, and conversely, new Christians avoid participation in life-cycle events that are traditionally combined with Muslim rituals. In addition, community clashes occur between the relatives of recently deceased Christian converts and village dwellers, since most rural communities only have Muslim graveyards. Journalists also report about cases when dying converts under pressure of relatives return to Islam.

CONCLUSIONS: The lessons learned include a need for region- and nation-wide discussion on concepts of state policy in religious affairs and the problems of freedom of belief as well as growing religious intolerance. Another proposal is to support Muslims and Christians to initiate and be involved into discussions about modern Islam and Christianity and traditions of religious tolerance in Central Asia, and for that matter other regions of the world. National and international actors in the region seem to pay scant attention to issues of religious freedoms, interfaith dialogue and cooperation in order to prevent religious strife. Within the Central Asian states, a legislative framework is needed to provide inter-religious coexistence that does not contradict freedom of belief and prevents discrimination based on age and gender.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Anara Tabyshalieva is the author of a number of articles and several books on Central Asia.

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