Embracing Christ and Tradition in Kyrgyzstan
November 21, 2013
The Kyrgyz people take great pride in their cultural heritage. Many still maintain centuries-old traditions and live in remote mountain communities.
A street evangelism event was the unlikeliest place Dinara ever expected to find herself. Like most ethnic Kyrgyz, her Muslim family followed the religious traditions of their ancestors. From childhood she believed truth could only be revealed through Islam.
While running an errand in her village, Dinara came upon a strange sight—a gathering of Christians who were openly singing and preaching about their God. She stopped in her tracks when the speaker shared how Jesus Christ changes lives.
Consumed by worries over family quarrels, illness, and mounting debts, this wife and mother of two children longed for peace. She accepted the invitation to have someone pray for her needs. Three days later Dinara sought the counsel of a Christian neighbor who attended the event, asking how she, too, could become a follower of Jesus.
Today Dinara is growing in her faith and enjoys attending a home Bible study. Her husband thinks she is merely visiting friends. Knowing he will be furious, she dares not tell him or any of their relatives about her conversion.
Such fears are legitimate. To be a traditional Kyrgyz practically equates with being Muslim. Identifying oneself as a Christian brings all sorts of challenges for new believers, who experience misunderstanding, ridicule, and in some cases even abandonment by families who feel they have scorned their very heritage.
Laws present challenges for Christians
Nearly 90 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 5.5 million people consider themselves Muslim, according to Operation World. Most adhere to a form of traditional Islam that combines remnants of tribal folk practices with Sunni beliefs.
A group of believers meet for worship and Bible study.
More militant forms of Islam, however, are perceived to be a threat to the country’s secular government. To combat increased pressures from radical groups, Kyrgyzstan passed a law against extremism in 2005. Additional religious laws approved in 2009 tightened controls on all faiths, but had an especially adverse effect on Christianity.
Proselytism, the distribution of religious literature, and private religious education were among the practices banned under the regulations. Most challenging was the mandate that churches and other religious groups have at least 200 adult citizen members in order to qualify for legal registration. The former law required only 10 members for registration.
Critics expressed concern at the time that the laws violated Kyrgyzstan’s own constitution, which on paper upholds religious freedom. Fears persist that harsher laws will propel Kyrgyzstan down the same course as its Central Asia neighbors, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where religious activities are highly restricted.
Despite cultural resistance and stiffening government regulations, GNM Mission has planted seeds of the gospel in Kyrgyzstan for over 17 years. In 1995 GNM opened the first Bible school in Central Asia. Graduates have gone on to serve as full-time native missionaries or church leaders.
Gifts from Christian Aid help support the Bible school and evangelistic events, like the one Dinara attended last summer. Three outdoor services, complete with music and dramatic presentations, attracted the curious as well as the faithful. As a result, more than 150 people received Jesus Christ into their hearts and 30 people joined home churches.
An evangelistic event held this past summer.
More than any other Central Asian people, the Kyrgyz cling to their traditional way of life. That poses both difficulties and opportunities for missionaries, who sometimes travel far into the mountains to reach isolated communities with the gospel.
In July GNM sent a team of five workers to an impoverished village in the southern part of the country. There are few jobs and not much hope for the future for the area’s young people. The missionaries sought to encourage residents with the good news of the Savior Who will stand beside them in the midst of their suffering.
Sasha was one of the residents who developed a new perspective after a missionary visited his home. He and his family endure many hardships as they struggle to survive high up in the mountains. When the missionary read Scripture describing God’s unconditional love for all of His children, Sasha sensed something stirring in his soul. He was a child of God, too!
“Sasha was surprised and inspired,” said the missionary. “The first thing he did was take Jesus into his heart. Now he is in church, and he gave up smoking. It’s still difficult for him to find a steady job, but he isn’t discouraged. He says that he has food and a home.”
That spirit of gratitude is a powerful witness to other members of his family. Now one of his daughters and her husband are reading the Bible. And Sasha is thrilled over God’s most recent gift to their family—the birth of a beautiful granddaughter that makes him—“Dedushka”—beam with joy.
Pray that more Kyrgyz will embrace the truth of a loving Heavenly Father whose gift of salvation is meant for all nations and peoples. May they realize that as believers in Christ they can be honorable citizens within their culture and in the kingdom of God.