Evangelical missionaries s in Central Asia are having a modest rate of success and facing fewer restrictions in some states, according to recent research conducted by French scholar Sébastien Peyrouse.
At the conference of the Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) in Anchorage, Alaska in early November, which RW attended, Peyrouse presented research from his recently published doctoral dissertation on the evolution of the Christian presence in Central Asia. According to Peyrouse, Gorbachov’s perestroika marked a turning point in religious liberalization in Central Asia, although it came somewhat later than in other parts of the Soviet Union, due to Soviet fears of resurgent religion in the area.
Once the former Soviet republics of Central Asia became newly independent States, legal developments at first continued on the path of religious liberalization. Quite soon, however, there were reactions toward the influx of new, missionary movements, which led to a more restrictive policy since the mid-1990s.
However, Peyrouse remarks that these policies have not been uniform across Central Asia. Those states which tend to be most repressive politically, such as Turkmenistan, are also the least tolerant of religious diversity, while -despite pressures from Muslim and Orthodox believers – proselytism is generally unrestricted in Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan.One of the fastest growing movements in those two republics are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had already been present (albeit clandestinely) during the Soviet period. Among evangelicals, Baptists remain the most widespread denomination: Western Baptist missionaries benefited from already existing networks of Baptist congregations which had existed throughout the Soviet period.
To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Seventh-Day Adventists.The missionaries to Central Asia are coming primarily from North America, South Korea and Germany. Although they were welcomed at the beginning by local Christians who had been without outside contacts, a lack of knowledge of local languages and customs often led to problems. They have now often become more sensitive to cultural issues and local sensitivities. However, it should be noted that, despite successes by missionary movements, the total number of converts remains small in comparison with the total population.
Peyrouse insists that countries of Central Asia should not be seen as “Muslim” countries in the same sense other parts of the world are; “Islam” or “Quran” are not mentioned in any Central Asian constitution. Beside the policies of authoritarian states in the area, negative reactions mainly come from “traditional religions,” such as Islam and the Orthodox Church, who see a common interest in opposing proselytization.
The challenges for the future of Christian missions in Central Asia will depend from a variety of factors: political evolution, developments of Central Asian Islam, diplomatic and economic relations between the Central Asian republics and countries from which most missionaries come, but also the ability of Christians to develop a truly indigenous Central Asian Christianity.
— By Jean-François Mayer.