Welcome to Central Asia

John Profile

From John Birnie

The five countries usually regarded as making up the region of Central Asia are Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turmenistan, and Kyrgystan. Within the geographical boundaries of these lands there are striking contrasts and vast extremes.

Temperatures can be fiercely hot in the summer months and bitterly cold in the winter. One can enjoy majestic and beautiful scenery in areas where there are high mountains, fast-flowing rivers, and grassy steppes, or travel across vast areas of barren desert, dry and almost unpopulated. Many large cities are home to ancient magnificent buildings and striking architecture. All is steeped in history, for Central Asia was traversed by merchants and traders using the famous Silk Road which linked east and west commercially and also culturally.

Prior to the rise of Islam, Central Asia had a mixture of cultures and religions. Buddhism was the largest religion, and was concentrated in the east. A flawed and debased form of Christianity was present but only as a tiny minority faith. Many practised more than one faith, and almost all retained elements of primitive animistic worship – shamanism. From the 9th century on, Islam began to penetrate the region on a large scale, so that today the whole region is predominantly Muslim. Kazakhstan is estimated to have smallest percentage Muslim population – 70%; Tajikistan, the highest – around 98%.

The evangelical community is small throughout the whole region, but particularly in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan where numbers of believers are estimated at less than 2,000 in each. The church in Uzbekistan is essentially ‘underground’ and faces constant harassment and persecution, while in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan believers continue to face significant restrictions in their witness and worship.

Despite the opposition and persecution experienced, believers continue to stand firm and in all five countries the evangelical church is growing, though not as quickly among the indigenous population as among ethnic minorities. This is a matter of deep concern for church leaders as they battle to dispel the idea from many minds that Christianity is a ‘foreign’ religion, propagated and directed by ‘foreigners’.

The total population of the five Central Asian republics is approaching 72 million people, only about 5 million greater than UK. Population density is 20 people km² compared with the UK’s 277 per km². About 40% of Central Asia’s people live in urban areas, compared with over 80% in the UK. The task of reaching Central Asian people with the Gospel presents challenges therefore, which are very different from those at home.

SGA[UK] has been ministering in partnership with Bibel-Mission there for almost twenty-five years, seeking effective ways of meeting these challenges. It has been a fruitful and enriching partnership, and God has used it to encourage and strengthen believers, and help them more effectively to reach out in evangelism in what are difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.

God’s blessing has been upon this ministry, watered by the prayers of faithful supporters of SGA. May you be greatly encouraged in God’s answers.