Is Religious Persecution on the Rise?

by Joshua Foust on 7/13/2007 · 12 comments

I have my own annoyances with Christian missionary activities (especially the way they often are little more than adventure bible camp for pampered children), but missionaries themselves are not necessarily bad people. For example, despite his clear ignorance of the country going in, it would be difficult to accuse someone like John Weaver (who wrote a book of his experiences) of nefarious intentions, even if he was looking to convert Muslims to Christianity. Similarly, I’ve encountered many who travel to a country to teach or work in hospitals or refugee camps specifically because of their Christian faith—this should absolutely not be a bad thing, as it is vital work, and I’ve done it myself. You can be motivated by your faith without ramming it down someone’s throat.

That being said, when living in a culture with a different religious foundation, extreme sensitivity is always a good idea. Many in Central Asia consider Islam to be a fundamental aspect of their identity (i.e. to be Tajik is to be Muslim), and pressuring anyone to change that is, in my view, deeply immoral. That being said, I believe in the right to make choices about what to believe, and if anyone chooses to believe in a faith that is not Islam, they should be free to do so.

Of course such a discussion can only happen in a modern context. Historically, Central Asia was Islamic—so much so that most non-Muslim Europeans, if not already enslaved, were executed on the spot. This is especially true of the historical civilization centers at the old Silk Road towns like Samarkand and Bokhara. One of the unsung benefits of Russian (and later, Soviet) occupation was the removal of violent xenophobia. But for the last century or so, Islam in Central Asia has coexisted with many other faiths—in various forms, of course, and under brutal subjugation from Moscow. Still, it seems that efforts to prevent non-Muslims from either coming or staying in the region have recently increased.

Last year, Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who converted to Christianity while in Germany, was sentenced to death for apostasy. He was saved when the Supreme Court chose to commute the sentence by considering him insane and therefore unfit to face trial (it is, I suppose, insanity to leave Islam), and was given asylum in Italy. It was a stark reminder to the West that, whatever other machinations of Western government we may put in place, Afghanistan will never be like the West. More importantly, that is okay, so long as they allow for people to make their own choices (though this, too, is a Western construct I am no optimistic will take hold).

But it’s not just in zany Afghanistan that the religiously active face government reprisals. Probably owing to their rise in the Communist Party, the leaders of Central Asia have in general been anti-religious, though due to the prevailing culture slightly less so toward Muslims. Uzbekistan’s government has always been hostile to the openly religious, and while some ire was directed toward IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (now weirdly popular among women?), it’s never been comfortable with Christians openly living there. Indeed, friends of mine have faced harassment in Jizzax, and it seems the government continues to actively persecute Christians living there.

Even in Kazakhstan, which is generally the most stable, some of the Christians I knew in Karaganda also faced harassment from the KGB-equivalent simply for being white Christians (I kept a lower profile and faced no problems).

Now Kyrgyzstan looks set to step it up as well, adding Falun Gong and Transcendental Meditation, along with HUT, to its list of no-no beliefs. Whatever we may think of these groups—cults, crazies, or legitimate and sincere religious practitioners—I balk at blanket restrictions on religious activity. A very reasonable case can be made for restricting groups like Hiz-ut-Tahrir, as they are actively engaged in overthrowing various national governments. But Falun Gong? Meditation? Even Christians? I fail to see the threat.

Unless, that is, the threat is cultural. And I must concede that governments might reserve the right to militarize culture in a manner of speaking—enacting rules and laws to prevent outside influences. That is the general impetus behind many anti-proselytizing laws, or it is when the government has taken an active interest in dictating or enforcing the religious values of its people. I find such a stance deeply offensive to my previously mentioned belief in individual choice. Then again, who am I to judge?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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John A July 13, 2007 at 8:05 pm

There’s also the whole funerary thing: if you aren’t Muslim then often you can’t be buried with your family, which causes all kinds of splits.

Kayumars July 14, 2007 at 12:56 pm

Somewhat related: I sat through a very interesting paper at a CESS conference (sorry I can’t find the scholar’s name) that discussed attempts by Christian missionaries in Kyrgyzstan to untie cultural identity from Islam. These attempts included using national dress, song, food and other aspects of local culture mixed with Christianity. This tactic has worked for Christianity in North and South America as well as in Africa. It has even worked for Islam (i.e., check out all the surviving pre-Islamic customs in Central Asia).

Also, I have not seen any quatitative analyses, but some people are maintaining that converts to Christianity in Central Asia are mainly from marginalized minority groups as well as from young people who are marginalized socially and economically. Any thoughts on this? Or anecdotes perhaps?

Joshua Foust July 14, 2007 at 2:05 pm

Not on the demographics of converts, but I did have a chance to interact with a missionary group sometime in 2003 that was in Kyrgyzstan (maybe it’s the same group) trying to figure out how to make worship music using local traditional instruments and composition. I don’t know how successful it was, though.

Nyura July 14, 2007 at 11:49 pm

Since elementary school I have been turned off by missionaries seeking to “save” people from perfectly decent and productive world views that were simply different from theirs. And I have equally been awed and full of respect for cultures that have manage to assilimilate the new religion with the old — I think of Burma, which is Animist/Buddhist, and the Kazakh nomads, who merged their animist beliefs with Islam. If religion isn’t for the benefit of the people in the here and now (not necessarily this very minute, but over a lifespan), what good is it, anyway?

Ataman Rakin July 15, 2007 at 7:08 am

“I have not seen any quatitative analyses, but some people are maintaining that converts to Christianity in Central Asia are mainly from marginalized minority groups as well as from young people who are marginalized socially and economically.”

That is a good question. A lot of fuss has been made on Christian proselytising (esp. buy the state Muftiyats and the Orthodox church) but little stats on the actual number of converts are available.

Nevertheless, one study by Sébastien Peyrousse on Kazakhstan suggests that for the last ten years or so this is not more than 1% of the population, while an ISIM researcher who worked on Kyrgyzstan had it off the record that in his view it is not more than 2% of the population.

Another number I have is for 8,000 to 10,000 (mostly urban ethnic minorities, desperate IDPs and other marginal groups) for Azerbaijan on a total population of ca. 7 million.

That’s nothing to write home about, esp. compared to certain parts of Africa where about 20% of the people (mostly from animist of traditional Christian backgrounds) joined one or another evangelist sect over the last decade.

One of the soucres also mentioned the presence of ‘temporary conversions’ in Kyr, i.e. people who convert during a crisis phase in their lives, because they were gulled with certain promises, or in a wave of impulsivity (eg. people who left Islam because they were schocked by the IMU attacks, 9/11 or Beslan) but then realise two or three things and turn away from religion on the whole or, in a number of cases, become a more convinced Muslim again.

This being said, the Christain missionary phenomenon has its dangers and perversions.

First, initially they were especially recruiting among ethnic Koreasn, Germans and Russians. But since 1998 or so some groups were explicitly after young people of Muslim background which brings us to a wider global conflict and strenghtens perceptions that the missionaries are part fo a neo-colonial design, eg. as one source had it: ‘they brainwash the young so that they become better slaves of the West’ (in a way, it’s true).

In the same line, one thing that has been circulating for the last year or so is, that Kyrgyz who work(ed) at the US bases at Manas and in Bagram have become vectors for spreading evangelist Christianity in Kyr and the region. Such perceptions creates Muslim-Christian tensions in a region where there were almost none.

Second, many Christian sects operate under the cover of English and computer courses, humanitarian aid or programmes focusing on easy victims like orphans. That certainly stains the reputation of the bona fide, professional aid workers esp. since a disporportional number of converts are women who work for foreign NGOs and IOs (which someone brought up on this blog a while ago, and indeed, I have seen that myself). What also happens sometimes is, that Christian groups infiltrate non-confessional aid projects funded by large NGOs or UN agencies such as support to youth media (eg. in Batken), women’s centres etc.

Third, many of these evangelist groups are sects after all–and sects do what they do. That includes questionable practices (some of which I have witnessed myself) like brainwashing, exploiting one’s vulnerability, isolating/setting up youngsters and women against their relatives/spouses and destroy families and gull people with promises of study or employment abroad.

Fourth, some members of local, unpopular elites and some Western diplomats are known to (have) be(en) in cahoots with/to protect missionaries, esp. in Kyr under the Akayevs when Christian missionaries had a free hand while every sign of even bona fide Islamic activity was blocked/suppressed.

Ataman Rakin July 15, 2007 at 7:23 am

“I find such a stance deeply offensive to my previously mentioned belief in individual choice.”

See, Joshua, sometimes ones has to think beyond that typically American icon of ‘individual choice’… Because often, in the global periphery, what is at stake, what it is *really* all about, is the survival of society, the reference group and the social fabric–not the sacrosanct individual choice which, in practice, all too often ends up being an alibi for a culture of selfishness, depraved consumerism and the mere descruction of the social fabric so that societies can be better colonised.

Joshua Foust July 15, 2007 at 7:46 am


One of the points in this post was that I see tension between saving a societal tradition (which I think is of great value) and having the freedom to choose not to buy into it (which I also think is of great value). I have no doubt that such a belief in the superiority of the individual is a Western value—in fact, I came to this realization by reading western authors like Heinlein and Friedman.

I even agree with your complaint about individualism serving as a cheap mask to cover up selfish hedonism… that’s why a lot of people in the States complain about, in fact. I guess I just like the idea of being able to choose what one believes to be true, rather than simply being told to accept it because that’s what one is. But even then, it doesn’t address the fundamental cultural issue, which is what portion of the various Central Asian identities are ethnic/historical, and what portion is Islamic? And is there a meaningful distinction? Should there be? And what role should the governments play in enforcing that? And so on…

Jamiyat July 15, 2007 at 3:51 pm

The issue of missionaries is very controversial for the whole of central asia. A lot of converts risk being isolated from their community, and bear consequences, such as the one mentioned by John A or for example:

But there is one major arguement one has to bear in mind. missionaries have been active, successful and helpful among the groups, which have been largely marginalized or forgotten by the state, that is, physically handicapped, the poor, lone mothers, alcoholics and many others. in this regard they have been very useful. They have been healping those, who were ignored by their brothers of belief.

Rich Mullins July 20, 2007 at 2:46 am

Hi, all. I’m a Christian Missionary who works in Central Asia. I’m willing to talk about it (in general terms), if anyone has any questions for me.

A couple of points to bring up:
1) I am close with many Christian Missionaries, and none that I know engage in brainwashing, or trying to convert the weak-minded or people with nothing to lose.
2) It’s not about being neo-colonial. In fact, I am close with Christian missionaries from all sorts of different races and national identities. Of course, many are from the west, because the western churches have the money to send folks, but it’s not supported by any western government.
3) Most of the missionaries I know are doing exactly what they say they are doing. If they are involved in aid work, they are bringing in tons of aid. If they are involved in orphanage work, they are helping orphans. Certainly, they want people to know God loves them along the way, but they aren’t trying to be sneaky or tricky.
4) As to the impact on the culture – the missionaries I know are far, far more interested in maintaining the cultures where they live and work than most of the other expatriates. They learn the local languages and customs, and celebrate them, far more than people involved in other work.

And don’t forget, foreigners always bring in outside ideas – no matter if they are religiously motivated or not – that impact the culture, and I don’t see people complaining about that truth. Women’s rights? Reproductive rights? Freedom of the Press? Democracy? All good things, not necessarily a part of Central Asian culture, and all ideas brought in by foreigners after the fall of the USSR.

Brian July 20, 2007 at 1:29 pm

I think Muslims should send Islamic missionaries door to door in America. It’d be great to see how everyone would totally freak out about it.

Bonnie Boyd July 21, 2007 at 12:07 am

Dear Joshua, what fascinating comments you get here.
Brian, that’s quite an image–oh, my.
Yes, I would like to be respectful of missionary work too, but preaching Islam or Christianity or Judaism, or any other faith at my front door is not something I care to contemplate. I don’t even see it as efficacious, actually.

The Central Asian missionary work that probably relates the best to missionary activity inside the U.S. would perhaps be religion-maintained homeless shelters, where those in need of aid interface with socially minded people of faith, or, in prisons, for instance, where prisoners receive aid and are also able to network among their co-religionists. I’m not sure, however, so I think this would count as a question for Mr. Mullins. Come back!
And then maybe the answer could be addressed by Mr. Rakin and others as regards social fabric. . . I’ll check back . . .

Gene Daniels July 21, 2007 at 10:35 am

I have to agree with Rich Mullins, many of the Westerners who come to Central Asia are actually “missionaires” of their particular world-view. Some are missionaries of a call to “liberalized sexual relations,” some are missionaries of a call to more freedom of expression. But many, if not all, Westerners come bearing some kind of message that they hope people will accept – that is what missionary activity is.

Therefore, I find all this stereo-typing of one particular kind of missionary, the Christian one, to be quite interesting. It sounds a lot like the way many in the West label all Muslims as “terrorists” because a very small minority of Muslims have commited acts of terror.

To slap a blanket inditement against every Christian who sencerly promotes their faith in another country sounds like liberal propaganda to me. But then again, Central Asia has been full of propaganda for years so I guess this is just another group doing the spinning this time around.

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