CENTRAL ASIA: CHRISTIANS UNDER MOUNTING PRESSURE

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CENTRAL ASIA: CHRISTIANS UNDER MOUNTING PRESSURE

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(By Anneta Vyssotskaia)

As religious liberty for churches in Central Asia deteriorates, some common trends are evident. Governments are increasingly negative about Christian outreach, especially amongst the Muslim population, and want to control it more or stop it completely.

They fear tensions may escalate where the number of Christian converts in the local population is growing. In other instances governments legislate to control minority religious bodies due to concerns about the activities of Islamic groups. However as Christians are a religious minority throughout Central Asia they are restricted by such laws along with these Islamic and other minority religious groups. In addition local Muslim communities regard Muslim converts to Christianity as 'traitors' and enemies and persecute them in various ways.

In Uzbekistan religious liberty and persecution of Christians worsened significantly in 2006. Its laws ban missionary work and any unregistered religious activities. As there are few registered churches, many Christians have to meet secretly in homes under constant threat of arrest for illegal religious activities. Police raids are common and often lead to Christians being arrested, beaten and even tortured, and their literature and other Christian material destroyed. Uzbek believers are especially persecuted under pressure to reconvert to Islam. The law prohibits having more than one copy of a Christian book including the Bible. (That would indicate an intention to distribute Christian literature, a missionary activity.) After denying visas to many foreign missionaries the authorities found ways to deport local Uzbek believers during 2006. The situation for the Protestant Christians is especially hard in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan where all the Christian churches were closed except for one Russian Orthodox church. The Russian Orthodox Church is very supportive of the laws banning outreach. Another serious problem Christians face in Uzbekistan is severe discrimination in employment. The US State Department included Uzbekistan in its annual list of countries of special concern.

Religious freedom is better in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. However in 2006 the authorities increased their pressure on the Protestant churches who also suffered from negative media reports. Some Islamic leaders stir up religious hatred amongst local Muslims against Christians. In Oshskaya a group of local Muslims broke into and searched the house of a Protestant pastor, burning his Christian literature. They beat him severely and threatened to kill him if he does not leave their village. The police were present but did not intervene. Muslim families routinely persecute members who convert to Christianity. In 2006, planned amendments to Kyrgyzstan's law on religion were discussed which would restrict outreach especially amongst Muslims.

In Tajikistan the law allows freedom of religion but Christian converts from Islam face the same persecution from their family members and the Tajik community. The government cannot guarantee protection for the Christians if they are persecuted by the Islamic population. Most of the people still live in tremendous poverty, especially in the villages, but the community and family members are normally very supportive of one another. However Christians are excluded from both relief and community support.

In Azerbaijan a new bill on religion being drafted to go to the parliament in February 2007 is expected to propose tougher restrictions on missionary activities and evangelism. The new law would also make registering religious organisations more difficult.

The churches in Kazakhstan have more freedom than in other Central Asian countries but groups for whom registering is contrary to their beliefs get arrested and fined because their religious activities are considered illegal.

PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT:

* the Christian churches will stand firm with God's protection and grow amidst the growing pressure and persecution from Islamic communities and the authorities.

* God will give wisdom to the Christians as they witness to non- believers.

* Central Asian governments will regard Christian churches positively and that new laws will be based on international norms of freedom of religion and conscience; may the authorities protect them from the unlawful behaviour of Islamic extremists.

* Christian lawyers in these countries will co-operate and stand together in helping the churches understand their rights and behave wisely without violating laws.

'Lord, may all of your enemies be destroyed. But may those who love you be like the morning sun. May they be like the sun when it shines the brightest.' (Judges 5:31)

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SUMMARY TO USE IN BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE

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CHRISTIANS UNDER MOUNTING PRESSURE IN CENTRAL ASIA

Religious liberty for the churches in Central Asia is worsening.

Governments are increasingly negative about outreach, especially amongst the Muslim population, and want to control it more or stop it completely. In some instances governments legislate to control minority religious bodies due to concern about the activities of Islamic groups. However Christians as a religious minority are restricted by such laws along with these Islamic and other minority religious groups. New or revised religion laws are being introduced for tougher control of religious groups and their outreach. Local Muslim communities regard Muslim converts to Christianity as 'traitors' and enemies and persecute them in various ways. Please pray that Christians will stand firm amidst so many pressures.

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Anneta Vyssotskaia is an RLP guest writer. The article was edited for length. (Elizabeth Kendal, our regular researcher and writer, is on leave.)