THE CHURCH IN KAZAKHSTAN: REBORN AFTER EXTERMINATION

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Disclaimer

I love Kazakhstan! I have been there three times and both the people and country are wonderful. My brother has lived there for 25 years and you should definitely put Almaty on your holiday bucket list!

1. History

Kazakhstan looks small on a map but is the same size as Western Australia and four times the size of Texas. Its huge! From ancient times it was integral to the Silk Road trade between the Romans and the Chinese. The first mention of the Kazakhs that you would be familiar with come from a surprising source: Colossians 3:11 where they are called the Scythians. They were already well known by Paul because of their vast Scythian empire, the first to master the art of horse mounted open territory warfare. Alexander the Great came here once in 329 BC and encountered great resistance from the Scythians.

As the centuries came and Kazakhstan it was also inhabited by Mongolian and Turkic peoples. It was almost part of China, but not quite, almost part of Russia, but not quite, briefly part of Christianity but it didn’t last, then it became part of Persia, but not quite, then part of Islam, but not quite! Kazakhstan was always so far from anywhere on the super-continent that was never stuck to being part of somewhere.

The people were always nomadic (think round yurts and livestock dotted everywhere) and the largest settlements were just forts and towns on the great ancient trade routes along the northern edge of the Tian Shan mountain range. In the 13th Century the great Mongol cavalry swept through the Kazakhstan steppe on its way to Europe. In the 15th Century a distinctive Kazakh identity began to develop among the Turkic tribes of the region. The Kazakh language appeared a century later and Kazakh political independence reached its peak just before the Russians conquered it in the early 1800’s. Perhaps the saddest episode in Kazakhstan’s history came when Stalin decided in 1932 that nomads were a political threat so he herded the entire Kazakh population into refugee camps. Some 1.2 million people died of starvation soon after and a unique 2,000 year old culture was ruthlessly stamped out.

2. Today

Kazakhstan is the ultimate half way country: from north to south, from east to west, from Western to Asian, from Islamic to secular. It embraces all of these influences. When you are there the people look Asian, but they act European due to the Russian influence. Their inner cities are Russian, with their parks, beautiful gardens, opera houses and concert halls. Their religion is Islam but you would never know, as they love their alcohol and their faith is more likely to be in shamanism.

The country is booming economically because it is resource rich. However it has been ruled by a single dictator since Soviet times and the national  income somehow stays in the cities, and in the hands of favoured individuals. People are free to say what they like about their leader, but not to put those same thoughts online or in print. It is not a free country, but the people are happy. Secularism runs deep here but Islamists are agitating for more rights. The government is paying lip service to Islam but makes sure hot-headed Islamic radicals disappear never to be seen again. The President once famously said that the country was ruthlessly controlled by one ideology for decades. It will not be controlled by a second.

3. Evangelical Highlights

Kazakhstan, like all of Central Asia, was part of the once great Nestorian church of the East which stretched all the way to China. There were even mass conversions in the 7th and 11th centuries. Some 2 million Kazakh’s can trace their roots to the Naiman Turkic people group, who remained Christian from some time after the arrival of Islam. Unfortunately all eventually converted to the new faith and the history of Christianity in this region has literally evaporated and is waiting for an intrepid historian to piece together what happened.

Fast forward to 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the first time in nearly a thousand years evangelical missionaries arrived in large numbers. Most of the 100,000 conversions that came in the next decade were from the now 30% of the population who are European and nominally Russian Orthodox. However some have come to faith from the Kazakhs and there are now some 20,000 believers from among them, mostly in the cities. My brother was even evangelised by a Kazakh taxi driver once!

Sadly, believers operate at the whim of an antagonistic government. Most churches are monitored. I spent some time while there in 2016 with a local pastor, encouraging him and his family in his work which was a traditional church modelled on western cultural practices. Both he and his wife were saved through Teen Challenge when it came in via an Australian missionary in the early 1990’s, from my home town of the Sunshine Coast! He spoke of secret evangelical churches that had survived the Soviet occupation and would not identify with the newly arrived Western versions of the faith. He also spoke of mega-churches of 5,000 that had their own TV programs beamed from Almaty. The Christian landscape here is varied to say the least. Sadly though there is little Christian impact outside the cities.

Some months after we left the government shut down his church. I spent the next few months walking this pastor through the process of becoming an underground house church and teaching him to let the Holy Spirit do the leading.

4. Prayer Points

  1. For Kazakh church leaders to continue the missions vision they have received from foreigners
  2. For unity between European and Kazakh believers. It is growing
  3. For an indigenous expression of Christianity to emerge that is truly Kazakh
  4. For the unreached Uzbeks and Uyghur people groups. Some are now coming to Jesus
  5. For a new awareness of the deep roots Christianity once had in this country
  6. For revival in the Orthodox church, which is now aligning itself with Islam and against evangelicals, who it sadly sees as a greater threat
  7. That evangelical Christianity can throw off the stigma of being an expression of Russian and Western culture
  8. For the underground church to really take off
  9. For the Korean missionaries, that they would be culturally sensitive to the local population
  10. For Christian mercy ministries. There is widespread brokenness in Kazakh families due to the lingering effects of Communism, and of drugs and alcohol. There is much brokenness
  11. For the new missionaries that the Kazakh church is sending to other countries.

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