On the morning of November 26, 2016, 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 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.
TReligious control laws heavily restrict freedom to own or distribute Bibles and Christian literature.
eligious liberty and expression are extremely restricted.
For example, aforces 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
3. Christian converts from Islam are often facing severe persecution from their families and communities.
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.
In Turkmenistan, since the adoption of a new complicated Law on Religious Organizations and Religious Freedom in March 2016, all religious entities are required 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.
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.
7. The church in Central Asia continues to grow.
- 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.”
Praying With Central Asian Believers
*Source: Forum 18
*Representative photos and names used for security