Christians in Central Asia are facing worship bans, arrest and torture as Islamic nationalism gains ground in their countries. Pastors in the underground church have been describing their ordeal to Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world. Release has launched an appeal to help the Church in Central Asia.
Security police in Tajikistan arrested and fined ten Christians in August for handing out gospel literature. Release International says the group had gone to the Pamir mountains to give out tracts. They were fined about £750 – more than most Tajiks would earn in six months.
In neighbouring Kazakhstan, a new religious survey has found that 263 people were punished in 2017 for hosting religious meetings, offering religious literature and other offences. The authorities prosecuted 30 Christians for sharing their beliefs, according to Forum 18. Most of those prosecuted for ‘religious crimes’ were Protestants.
Pentecostal, Protestant and Baptist churches were among those that faced a total ban on religious activities for three months. That clampdown has continued into 2018, with almost 80 prosecutions within the first six months.
In February this year, two women brought a girl into New Life Church in Kyzylorda and angrily told the pastor that he was forbidden from letting children attend his services without their parents’ permission.
The women claimed to be the girl’s mother and grandmother. Soon after, a man arrived with police, claiming to be the father of the girl. The police searched the house church and filmed everyone. Then they made every member of the congregation write a statement explaining why they had attended church. They asked them if they were there against their will and had read any religious books.
The same month, a church in Shymkent was banned from holding religious meetings on the grounds that it didn’t have enough fire detectors in a storage building. Even though the church quickly installed the two extra detectors required the ban was still imposed. The church had to appeal to get the ban lifted.
Christians in Central Asia can be arrested for reading the Bible in a public place, such as a bus or a train, or for telling other people about Jesus. They have had their church registrations cancelled, forcing them to meet illegally in homes, where they are subject to police raids, arrests, beatings and fines.
In Tajikistan, churches which do not have their own buildings are banned from meeting anywhere else. Those caught worshipping in secret can face interrogation and heavy fines.
In Uzbekistan, the law requires churches to be registered, but the authorities have refused to issue church permits since 1999. They have tapped the phones of Christians, bugged their homes and monitored their church services.
In Kazakhstan, Christians are often seen as a threat to the state. The authorities have searched the homes of local pastors and believers and confiscated their belongings. Even everyday Christian activities like praying together or doing a Bible study can be deemed illegal.
In Turkmenistan, Christian women from Muslim backgrounds have been kidnapped and married off to Muslims.
Across Central Asia Christians from a Muslim background face the worst persecution, not only from the state, but from their families and communities.
Release workers paid a recent visit to Pastor Batyr, who, along with a handful of other Christians in the 1990s, spread the gospel throughout the country. Between them, they saw thousands turn to Christ and planted many churches.
Pastor Batyr told Release: ‘If a Muslim decides to follow Christ, then he is considered to be a traitor – a traitor to our people, our culture and our nation. All former Muslims who believe in Christ are secret and underground. They can never be officially recognised.’
‘People who become Christians are forced out of society and face many problems at work,’ said another pastor, Anton, from Tajikistan.
He described a Tajik teenager who became a Christian. When his family found out, they locked him in his house and beat him. ‘They made him lie on a cold floor for months,’ said Anton. ‘I praise the Lord that he gave him strength not to give up on Jesus. Eventually he managed to escape.’
In Kazakhstan, Presbyterian pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbaev, was jailed for nine months for proclaiming the gospel. In prison, he led nearly 100 of his fellow inmates to Christ.
Christian leaders who are jailed have also faced torture. Pastor Batyr from Turkmenistan was arrested with three others and tortured in the basement of the KGB.
‘They called their techniques the Stalin principles,’ he said. ‘They completely broke us, spiritually, physically and emotionally. They kicked us, beat us and suffocated us with gas masks. They beat us in different ways and used needles. In the end, they put us in an electric chair, and gave us shocks for being preachers and evangelists for Christ. We had to go through a lot for preaching the gospel.’
That was in the 1990s. Reports persist that Christians continue to be tortured in parts of Central Asia to force them to renounce their faith.
‘Stand with them’
Release International has launched an appeal to help Christians in Central Asia.
Release has been working in the region for many years, supporting church leaders and helping finance their ministries in hostile environments.
Said Release International CEO, Paul Robinson: ‘When you live in a country where everything is against you because you are a Christian, it becomes a lifeline to know that somebody is standing with you.’
Pastor Anton from Tajikistan added: ‘We are part of the living body of Christ. If we feel the pain of our brothers and sisters, then we will always find the right ways to help them.’
Release’s latest DVD, Underground, features interviews with Pastors Anton and Batyr, and can be seen here
For 50 years, Release International has been joining hands with members of the underground church and giving them the financial means to travel with the gospel. Through its international network of missions, UK-based Release serves persecuted Christians by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners and their families, supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.