Believers from a local Protestant church in a town in Turkmenistan recently started receiving unexpected state notification to visit the police station. The local police department started calling members of the church summoning them to come to the town’s police station. Without any explanation, police officers took believers’ pictures and fingerprints and demanded copies of their documents. Though nothing else has happened since then, the confused church members are waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering what could happen next.
Being a Christian in Turkmenistan is a constant struggle. Surviving as a Christian is doubly challenging in a country still heavily influenced by Soviet era political systems and where everyone assumes you are a Muslim. Officially, there is freedom of religion in Turkmenistan, but in practice, this freedom is only extended to Sunni Muslims and, to a lesser extent, to members of the Russian Orthodox Church. In order to legally meet together as a Christian fellowship, a church must be registered with the state. Even registered churches are under constant scrutiny and government infiltrators frequently slip in among the congregation. Holding services is viewed as evangelizing and is, therefore, forbidden, as is possession of a Bible in the Turkmen language, the language of their hearts.
Unity is another serious struggle in Turkmenistan’s churches and there are few well-trained pastors since it is forbidden to provide Biblical training. These tight restrictions make it is difficult for the church in Turkmenistan to grow in faith. Some believers no longer dare to attend Christian meetings, and simply stay at home.
Many Christians have never been discipled and struggle with how to put their Christian faith into practice. Some are the first ones in their families to come to faith. They frequently do not have any examples to follow and no books from which they can learn how to apply their faith.
“If I don’t sacrifice a sheep during the Islamic festival of sacrifice, people ask me why I’m not doing so,” explains a woman named Olga. “Then I say, ‘Someone else has already brought the sacrifice for me.’ By this I mean Jesus,” says Olga. Despite the challenges, she holds fast to faith. “Even though it’s difficult and there are many things I don’t understand, because of Jesus, I have peace in my heart. God will never leave me. He never goes away and will answer. This is what I hold onto. I take everything to God in prayer. Through this, my relationship with Him is maintained.’”
Mahmud, a pastor, seeks to impress on his own congregation their freedom in Christ. “Jesus Christ did not come to judge, but to seek and to find. We have time, but we don’t know how long. Today is the day to become reconciled with God. He will grant you forgiveness. Because of what the Lord Jesus did on Golgotha, we are no longer bound to things here on earth. The work has been done. There is freedom in Christ, even if you don’t always notice it.”’
This is an important message in a land where innumerable rules and regulations are paralyzing the country. When Mahmud speaks about this encouragement, tears roll down the cheeks of several members of his congregation. “We have to let the Truth break through,” Mahmud continued. “And we have to show this to others and no longer think that things are impossible. We have Good News for the people around us.”
Please remember Christians in Turkmenistan in your prayers, women like Olga struggling with what faith looks like in her life, pastors like Mahmud who seek to encourage their congregations in their faith and the unnamed church awaiting the dreaded purpose of these recent interrogations.
Father, we bring before Your throne of grace today the Christians of Turkmenistan who daily walk a tightrope of faith, wisdom and courage as they live out their lives. They, like all of us, have been sent out into the world as “sheep among wolves.” Teach these Turkmen Christians how to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16) as they seek to be salt and light in their communities in the midst of both official and unofficial restrictions. We pray specifically for the members of the congregation as they await the unanswered questions surrounding their recent interrogation. Protect them; give them words to speak; let the light of Christ shine through their lives. In the Name of Jesus, whose freedom they stand in, Amen.