July 07, 2015

My Journey through the Five "Stans" of Central Asia

Post by Nancy Charles-Parker

World traveler and long-time supporter, Nancy Charles-Parker, often visits ministries she helps through Christian Aid Mission during her travels. Most recently, she journeyed to Central Asia, where she spent time with an indigenous ministry in Kyrgyzstan.

The mountains outside of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the "Switzerland of Central Asia"

Since 1985, I've wanted to retrace the steps of early caravans from western China to Istanbul, Damascus, and Baghdad along the Silk Road. From the second century to the 16th, this route connected the East with the West, as silk from China was traded for carpets, nuts, fruit and other goods from as far West as the Mediterranean Sea. Along with goods, knowledge and culture was also exchanged.

The Burana Tower, a 1,000-year-old vestige of the Silk Road that passes through Kyrgyzstan

In May, I journeyed through the five "stans" of Central Asia that were part of the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1990, beginning in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. A beautiful country on the former Silk Road, it's known as the "Switzerland of Central Asia," with its rugged, snow-covered mountains and vast green pastures.

Five hours after my bleary-eyed 3 a.m. arrival in Bishkek from Istanbul, I was meeting with a ministry leader—a handsome, young Russian-speaking man who became a believer in Christ in the 1990s after the Soviet Union disintegrated, providing a brief open door for the gospel in former USSR republics. He pastors a thriving church whose vision is to reach Kyrgyz children with the gospel, no easy task in a country steeped in Soviet atheism but with traditional Muslim culture and sympathies.

Islam is one of the officially recognized religions in Kyrgyzstan, with nearly 90% of the population identifying as Muslim. The other officially recognized religion is Russian Orthodoxy, due to the large number of Russians who still live there from when the country was part of the Soviet Union.

Nancy Charles-Parker (left) with her interpreter for her trip to the children's camp in Kyrgyzstan

For the last eight years, Kyrgyzstan has refused to grant licenses for new churches. Outside of registered church buildings, evangelistic activity is prohibited. Any Bible teaching for minors requires written permission from parents.

Consequently, sharing the gospel requires creativity, tact, and hard work—which Kyrgyz believers appear to possess in abundance. The ministry leader's group participates with several other churches to sponsor a city park/playground for families, a gym that accommodates a variety of athletic and social events, a clubhouse for kids, concerts, holiday celebrations, and a camp in the mountains.

As I headed upward toward this camp with the leader and an interpreter, I saw shepherds on horseback amidst a huge herd of black goats. It wasn't difficult for me to imagine the Kyrgyz ancestor, Genghis Khan, and his descendants galloping over these spacious grasslands.

Tajik ladies in their trademark colorful attire

The next day, I witnessed a rousing game of Boukazi, the Kyrgyz version of Central Asian polo with the head of a goat serving as the "ball" in this popular game. I appreciated the horsemanship, but mourned the goat.

When we arrived at the camp, 90 children, ages 7 to 17, were playing a lively game of tug-of-war. After our lunch, which was prepared by a dozen volunteers, the children participated in Bible lessons and other games. I was touched by the committed young and middle-aged adults who mentor, referee, cook, and supervise at this camp.

Persian-tiled madrasah in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The ministry leader and his coworkers believe that children are the hope for Kyrgyzstan. Though less nostalgic about the security offered under the Soviet system than their grandparents, they are vulnerable to the widespread corruption, high crime rate, economic pressure, secularism, and Islam within their country. For now, though, their hearts are open and they're willing to listen to the gospel being presented to them.

I ventured briefly into impoverished Tajikistan with its great bazaar—where I purchased sweet cherries (the one bright light on the horizon of dismal food for me); Iranian style madrasah (Muslim school) and mosque; and colorfully dressed women wearing flowered designs that looked like they belonged on curtains or sofas.

Then to my architectural favorite: Uzbekistan, home to exotic Persian blue, turquoise, and white-tiled cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, and the mud-walled city of Khiva, which we explored in 92- to 99-degree desert temperatures.

Bukhara is renowned for its carpets, traded there in the caravan stop. This Uzbek city was home to the Bukhara Jews, who invigorated it for centuries until World War II. Most of them have emigrated to Israel or New York City, but I visited the surviving synagogues, with congregations of 20 to 50, there and in Samarkand.

Native foods include lamb, tomatoes, cucumbers, rice, fatty beef, tea, and bread. Lots of bread. Wheat is king in Central Asia so there was no avoiding it despite my carb-free diet. Although the tomatoes were in season, finding clean water to wash them was a challenge. I thanked God for the local yogurt, apples that I could peel, and the godsend cherries, which I sterilized in boiled water. Oh, and chocolate—nice Russian, Ukrainian, and Kazak stuff.

A Persian-tiled building in the main square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

We arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent between two holidays: Labor Day on May 1 (celebrated on this day nearly everywhere except the U.S.) and the May 9th anniversary of the WWII victory in Europe. Parades honored those who died in Central Asia, a region which suffered proportionately large casualties. Our Tashkent guide praised the Uzbeks who died fighting the Nazis.

I admired buildings constructed by descendants of Genghis Khan, who ruthlessly poisoned the locals' water supplies, and by ancient Islamic conqueror, Tamerlane, who had Kyrgyz and Chinese wives and employed the best Persian architects. Alexander the Great even ventured this far East, marrying the beautiful Roxana, daughter of a Kyrgyz tribal chief.

My next stop was Kazakhstan, the wealthiest of the five "stans," thanks to considerable oil reserves. It is also the largest country in Central Asia, and the eighth largest country in the world. Kazaks just re-elected their president for life.

Approximately 60% of the country is Muslim. Ironically, in 2011, restrictive laws were enacted to stem the tide of growing Islamic radicalism. In the process, intense government scrutiny of all minority religious groups has led to persecution of Christians, particularly evangelicals.

Russian Orthodox church in Kazakhstan

But despite the danger and challenges, the number of Christians in Kazakhstan continues to grow. Christian Aid Mission assists ministries there that have planted more than 120 churches comprising 12,000 believers.

After waiting more than 20 years, Kazakh believers rejoiced last year at the completion of the Bible in their native language. It's dangerous to own a copy in Kazakhstan, but that hasn't stopped the distribution of God's Word.

I'm glad to be back in the U.S., eating food that doesn't need to be sanitized in boiling water, but thankful for the glimpse into the struggles and victories of our Central Asian brothers and sisters. Please pray for them.