Searching for a Peaceful Graveyard
by William Yoder, Ph.D.
Bad Blankenburg/Germany – No ethnic-Kyrgyz Christian has been a believer for more than two decades, yet already 20% of the country’s Baptists are Kyrgyz. But where are these new believers in Christ to be buried? The nation’s customs dictate that the deceased be buried in the vicinity of their relatives. Yet those confessing Christ are as a rule disowned by their families and stripped of their ancestral home and place of burial. In several instances, the bodies of deceased believers have needed to be reburied or even buried in secret. At this year’s annual conference of the German Evangelical Alliance in Bad Blankenburg, a representative of the Kyrgyz Alliance assured that his organisation has taken on this unusual task: “We are in negotiations with the government about obtaining a piece of property on which Protestant believers can be buried.”
Kyrgyz Protestants are anticipating the elections set for 30 October with fear and trembling. The guest in Bad Blankenburg explained: “If the election victor is not clear already before the elections, then the possibility of resolving the issue by force is high.” Both Russia and the USA hold military bases in this strategically vital country – Kyrgyzstan’s political future could well be determined by the upcoming foreign-policy decisions of its leaders.
In Blankenburg, this Kyrgyz citizen of Korean nationality assured that his country’s official president, Rosa Otunbayeva, was only a symbolic figure without political power. He described her as “uneducated” and stated flatly: “I do not respect her as a politician.” Dr. Otunbayeva is a friend of Oslo/Norway’s Lutheran Bishop Emeritus Gunnar Stalsett. It was therefore possible for the „European Council of Religious Leaders“, which Stalsett heads, to visit the country in January and begin efforts to create an inter-religious council. Even the Kyrgyz Baptist Union was won over to the cause, yet the Alliance representative visiting Germany regards the effort as hopeless. “Both Muslims and the Orthodox see themselves as the country’s Number One – they will not reach agreement among themselves. They also will not tolerate a third Protestant power bloc beyond their own.”
Lofty ideals are not a factor, the guest assured. Since the revolution of April 2010 brought down the government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the mafia has moved into the limelight. “Prices are skyrocketing; the economy is weakening; everything can be purchased for a price; everyone deals with his own form of chaos.” State officials are now demanding payment for services – the registration of a congregation for ex. – that are free-of-charge according to the constitution. Yet the autonomous, evangelical church which the Alliance representative heads refuses to pay bribes: “We don’t pay any taxes either,” he added. “According to the constitution, churches are separate from the state and consequently tax-free.” Yet this consequent position is repeatedly undercut by missionaries from South Korea, who attempt to further their missionary work by paying bribes. “This causes the mafia to conclude that all Protestants are financially capable of paying.” After these missionaries have returned home, local Protestants are forced to deal with the increased expectations of the bribe-takers. The Alliance’s representative described the solution as follows: “Only missionaries with a religious visa should plant congregations. Those entering Kyrgyzstan on a student or business visa should restrict themselves to their official tasks.”
The guest in Germany described his country’s religious legislation, passed in late 2008, as the most radical in all of Central Asia. It makes the registration of new congregations virtually impossible; juveniles and children are to be kept away from all religious meetings. Yet the country’s political instability has distracted its politicians – there were always matters more important than repressing the small Protestant denominations with a total membership of no more than 10.000. “We don’t yet have any experience with these new laws,” the Alliance representative explained. “They are only now beginning to enforce this legislation.” Being that ever more bureaucratic hurdles multiply the opportunities for state bureaucrats to demand bribes, this new law should open the floodgates to corruption in all of its many forms.
Remaining in a country where one is not welcome is no easy task. That is one of the reasons why Protestant congregations are also suffering from the massive exodus. Only a fraction of the country’s ethnic Koreans (now numbering roughly 15.000) remain – they formed a major part of Kyrgyzstan’s intellectual elite. Since 1987, the number of Baptists has dived from 13.000 to less than 3.000. “We cannot tell our people that they must stay,” the guest from Bishkek assured. “I do not feel myself in a position to contradict them when they claim that God is instructing them to leave.“ Once, 45% of Kyrgyzstan’s population was Russian – that number is now down to 9,1%. Sixty-nine percent of the population of 5,48 million is ethnic Kyrgyz. Half of the Uzbeks residing in the southern region of Osh have emigrated. An ethnic civil war engulfed that area in the summer of 2010.
Regarding the Alliance
Kyrgyzstan’s Evangelical Alliance, which was founded in November 2006, can be understood as the administrative arm of the even broader “Association”. The Alliance enjoys the services of a professional barrister and goes to bat for the rights of Protestants as needed. The guest explained: “We help churches to get registered with the state. We also see to it that their documentation in order.” Only the Alliance is officially registered.
The country’s small remnant Lutheran church belongs only to the Association. The traditional Pentecostal union is a member of both, but the largest Charismatic congregation in the capital city of Bishkek, the “Church of Jesus Christ”, was expelled from the two organisations because of moral infractions.
When thinking about the future, Kyrgyz Protestants feel they can rely strictly on the grace of God. “We’re praying for a miracle,” the friendly young pastor from Bishkek concluded.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 23 August 2011
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance