Central Asia—where owning a Bible is a punishable crime

August 12, 2018 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

On a chilly morning in November, in the Central Asia country of Azerbaijan, 30 adults and their children had just come together for their weekly worship meeting. It is a meeting these believers, who have little Christian community throughout the week, look forward to each weekend. That day, they had gathered like they always do in their pastor’s home when 10 uniformed police officers and several men in plain clothes (including a local State Committee representative) staged a raid on Pastor Shabanov’s home.


Officers ordered them to halt the meeting, calling it “illegal.”*

Across Central Asia, in sealed-off areas mostly comprised of former Soviet countries (today’s five “Stans”: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, as well as Azerbaijan), worship meetings like Pastor Shabanov’s are being shut down, Bibles are being confiscated and Christians are facing frequent acts of abuse and discrimination. The Central Asian republics—all but one (Kyrgyzstan) on the World Watch List—have become hotbeds of persecution.

Below, we share seven reasons why these republics are becoming increasingly hostile to Christians—and what you need to know to pray with knowledge and specificity for our brothers and sisters who are risking their livelihood and even lives to follow Jesus:

1. Owning and giving a Bible are punishable offenses against the state.

There are still places in the world where it’s practically impossible to get a Bible. The Central Asia region is one such place. Religious control laws heavily restrict freedom to own or distribute Bibles and Christian literature. In Azerbaijan, Christians have been detained and fined for selling Christian books and materials. Still, Christianity in Azerbaijan remains practiced, as Christians in Central Asia request Bibles despite the risk. They know the Word will not only strengthen them in this difficult environment, it will also equip them to share the gospel with others. Like believers behind the Iron Curtain requested Bibles during the Cold War, and Chinese believers did the same during the Cultural Revolution—our brothers and sisters in Central Asia are also hungering for their own copy of God’s Word. 

2. Religious control laws are giving the government veto power over most any religious group.

So for Christians, religious liberty and expression are extremely restricted. Many Central Asian countries are so tightly controlled that any threat—perceived or real—against the government is met with brutal crackdowns.

For example, a recent law in Tajikistan forces religious groups to provide information to the government about their leaders and followers, as well as granting authorities control over religious education. Some church leaders even report that surveillance cameras are being installed in their sanctuaries to monitor preaching.

And in Azerbaijan, the government uses a law prohibiting religious extremism to imprison political dissidents and restrict any kind of evangelism or unregistered meeting. In fact, a recent law passed in Kazakhstan has given the government broad authority toflagrantly violate religious rights.” 

3. Christian converts from Islam are often facing severe persecution from their families and communities.

Central Asian nations stand at a crossroads between South and Southeast Asian countries and Russia—resulting in a cultural mixture of Soviet-era and Chinese government models, as well as the Islamic faith of surrounding countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. 

The Central Asian church is very young and inexperienced. Before the 1990s, hardly any indigenous Central Asians came to faith. How to stay strong and trust in God when life is difficult is one of the first things Central Asian believers should learn, says a Bible trainer on the frontlines.

Young believers like Sameda* are risking their lives and in Sameda’s case, the loss of their children to follow Christ. A former Muslim who met Jesus three years ago, Sameda has been kicked out of her home by her Muslim husband. Now he is threatening to divorce her and take their young daughter. In the next few months, Sameda must choose between being a Christian and her own daughter.

4. Government crackdowns on churches are intensifying, forcing the church underground. 

Since the adoption of a new complicated Law on Religious Organizations and Religious Freedom in March 2016, Christianity in Turkmenistan requires all religious entities to re-register to operate legally. Under the law, unregistered religious organizations may not legally conduct religious activities, establish places of worship, or produce or disseminate religious materials. For any such activity, the organization will face fines ranging from 100 to 1,000 manat ($60 to $600), with higher fines for religious leaders and lower fines for members.The authorities in Uzbekistan’s southwestern Navoi [Navoiy] Region have been raiding and punishing local Baptists “to stop them from meeting for worship and peaceful religious activity,” according to statements issued by the Council of Churches. Baptists to Forum 18. All exercise of freedom of religion and belief without state permission is illegal, against Uzbekistan’s binding international human rights law obligations. However, the Council of Baptist Churches refuses on principle to register their congregations with the state, insisting in accordance with international law that registration is not necessary to meet for worship.

Following a Kingdom call

In His Great Commission (Matthew 28), Jesus called His Church (both then and now) to "make disciples of all the nations ..." This, He said, is how we would multiply the Kingdom of God. When you help provide a persecuted believer with a Bible—along with the training to read it, preach from it and tell others about Jesus—you make disciples who make disciples and follow this Kingdom command.

Give a Bible for $7

5. Secret house churches are increasingly targets of police and authorities.

In most areas, officially and publicly worshiping is out of the question. Additionally, evangelizing is a punishable offense. Raids like those on Pastor Shabanov’s house church are rampant. In one Central Asian republic, police officers recently broke into an apartment of a believer hosting a Bible study of an underground house church. The police confiscated Bibles and Christian literature and detained the participants who were later accused of spreading “radical religious teachings.” 

In Azerbaijan, according to a new amendment to the state religious code, religious groups meeting without registration will be subject to one to two years in prison.

In an undisclosed area in Central Asia, a secret group of believers is fighting for the right to practice their faith. They have been fasting and praying for security and opportunities to meet together, preach, pray, have Bibles and worship.

6. Christians are experiencing a loss of human and civil rights. 

A Human Rights Watch report on Uzbekistan indicates that the government maintains a “blacklist” made up of thousands of individuals suspected of belonging to unregistered or extremist groups. Those on the list are barred from obtaining various jobs, from travel, and must report regularly for interrogations with the police. 

7. The church in Central Asia continues to grow. 

Despite tightening restrictions and the increasing introduction of new laws restricting religious freedom, God’s church continues to grow in this area that has seen centuries of adversity and strife. And that growth may well be the biggest reason why this region of the world is experiencing such persecution. Like the underground church in China that increased and expanded exponentially during the country’s Cultural Revolution, disciples of Jesus are multiplying in Central Asia in the face of government and cultural crackdowns. People like Pastor Shabanov and Bible smugglers like Ulzhan and Alexey (see below) are risking it all to bring believers together and to get Scripture and Christian literature into the hands of Christians.

The following messages from Central Asian believers are a snapshot of the hope more than 5 million believers in the church of Central Asia are sharing:

  • Ulzhan*, a Christian worker in an undisclosed area, says: “So many people have come to faith. People of so many different backgrounds and social conditions. I see this movement of God in my life and in the lives of people around me. It’s incredible.”
  • Pastor Hakeem* says: “Thank you so much for providing our church with Bibles. Without your help, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to give people the most important thing—the Word of God! Your ministry played a tremendous role in our call to reach out to Muslims for Christ.”
  • Alexey*, a literature distribution coordinator for Central Asia, says: “God has been helping the Church grow even without books; however, Christian literature is a wonderful tool that helps the Church stand firm and mature! “On average, we distribute over 30,000 books a year. Knowing there are over 70 million people in Central Asia, the number of books seems like a small drop in a big ocean. Still, our hope is that, through each book, God will touch the hearts of those people who seek Him and those who have never heard of Jesus.”
  • Sergei*, a former Muslim who received a Bible and is now a Christian, says: “God revealed to me how precious I am to Him and that it doesn’t matter if I have an earthly family or not. I learned to look at myself through His eyes and learned to respect and love myself. My life absolutely changed thanks to this small book.”

Open Doors is providing immediate aid to Central Asian believers when they are imprisoned, excluded from families and communities, and deprived of livelihood and employment because of their faith in Christ. And we also work to strengthen the persecuted Church in Central Asia primarily through Bibles and literature distribution; prayer support; biblical training; children/youth training; women’s ministry; advocacy and persecution awareness training; vocational training and social-economic development projects.

*Source: Forum 18

The top photo was taken during an underground worship meeting in an undisclosed country in Central Asia.

*Representative photos and names used for security

Praying With Central Asian Believers

Together, we must remind believers in Central Asia that they are not forgotten—that they belong to a worldwide community of faith.

  • Pray with believers who have converted from Islam. Each time these new believers reach out for Christian fellowship and community, they put their lives in danger along with those they meet with. 
  • Pray with workers who distribute Bibles and Christian materials throughout the region. They are often being watched and must be careful of each and every step they take. Pray Brother Andrew’s prayer: “God, make seeing eyes blind.” 
  • When believers, especially women, are discovered by their Muslim family members, they are often beaten. Pray for their healing both physically and emotionally, and pray for their family members to understand their decision and be willing to hear the truth of the gospel. 
  • Pray for believers and for church leaders, especially those pastors who lead secret churches and believers who converted from Islam. Pray for their security amid increasing restrictions and government control. Pray for wisdom for pastors and leaders who are organizing events.