Growing up in Uzbekistan, 37-year-old Askar (pseudonym) had always craved freedom. America was the Promised Land, not the Soviet Union. His desire to move to the US became even stronger after he became a Christian. In the US, he would be free to worship without fear. The police would never call him and question him about his faith. Open Doors recently met with Askar where he shared his story.
Askar came to faith in Jesus Christ not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the Iron Curtain was pulled open, the gospel began to penetrate the former Soviet republics. “I come from a Muslim family,” Askar shared. “When I discovered my brother followed Jesus Christ, I was upset. I spoke to him for hours, and our discussions were heated. I accused him of a lot of things, but he wasn’t the one who changed. I changed. I realized the saving power of the gospel.”
When the dust from the collapse of the Soviet Union settled, life became more difficult for believers as the Uzbek authorities began to see evangelical Christianity as a threat. They felt that the religion should be banned, or at least strictly controlled. Askar found himself being targeted by the police because he leads a home church and a youth group, and he shares the gospel with anyone who wants to listen. He has already been arrested and confined twice, the first time for ten days and the second time for fifteen days. “They accused me of having a connection with extremist groups and the distribution of illegal literature. My Bible is seen as illegal, and I take it everywhere I go.”
Persecution in Uzbekistan is subtle, but weighty nonetheless. Thousands of Christians like Askar live under the pressure of constant surveillance and investigation. Uzbek president Karimov rules his country with an iron fist. His fear of elements that he cannot control, like extremist movements who want to overthrow him, also makes him paranoid of religious groups.
Askar says that though he tries to live courageously, one question haunts his mind, “Why can I not freely practice my faith in Uzbekistan?” His childhood dream of freedom comes to mind – America, the land of the free, the country with over 300,000 churches. Askar dreamed of taking his wife and four children.
A few weeks ago Askar was brought in again for questioning. “This is going to be the third time you are going to jail,” a policeman told him. “This time it will be for much longer than your previous visits.” The interrogation served as a final warning. “When I came home, I told my brother that I was so tired of all the pressure. I wanted to leave,” Askar explained.
Shortly after this recent interrogation, Askar and a few other church leaders met with Open Doors at a secret location. During the meeting, the men shared Scriptures, and an Open Doors worker tried to encourage them. Then the group prayed together. After the final amen, Askar began to speak with tears streamed down his cheeks. In sharp contrast with the discouragement he had previously felt, his words now carried an unusual strength and determination. Askar shared with the other Christians that he was tired of serving Christ under such pressure. “Each time when one of you is questioned, I feel so bad. I know all of you want to leave as well. Just right now, when we were praying, God asked me a question. ‘Askar, if not you, who will worship and serve me in Uzbekistan?’ I know I have to make a decision. America is not my promised land; it’s Uzbekistan. I will serve God here with my family, no matter what the future brings.”
Father, You have called Askar to live and serve You in a difficult place where worship and sharing the gospel are dangerous. And yet, You have strengthened him to set aside his longing for peace and freedom to serve You with joy in Uzbekistan. Thank You. Bring much fruit to his labor there, Lord. Through Your Word and the Holy Spirit within them, encourage Askar and other believers there as they face the challenges and opportunities of each day. Show them Your presence with them. Soften the hearts of Karimov and his regime to serve the people with compassion. We pray for Tohar Haydarov who is serving a long sentence; that You might grant him courage and longsuffering in this time of hardship, and use him to proclaim the gospel where he is. For all believers in Uzbekistan, give them a vision of Christ and the glory set before them that they might have the strength to endure in all of their circumstances. In the name of Jesus, who has set us free from the weight of sin and suffering, Amen.