Why Central Asia?
Communism fell in 1991 throughout Central Asia, yet its spiritual darkness still holds many people in fear and bondage. There is a growing need for prayer, resources and Christian workers if the Kingdom of God is going to advance throughout Central Asia.
We know from scripture that the Gospel must be preached to all nations before Jesus’ return. Central Asia represents a significant area of as yet “unreached” peoples. It is one of the last major areas of the world which has not heard of the Gospel, and where, with a few exceptions, there has been no indigenous church.
So, we do the work because of the great need. The lack of gospel witness makes it one of the spiritually darkest areas of the world today.
People from this region all need to see the light of the gospel and to know that Jesus loves them and that He died so that they could live. In the midst of political change, great uncertainty and moral darkness they need to experience the only true hope and joy found in Jesus who is the “light of the world.”
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
What Countries are in Central Asia?
Afghanistan is a country whose name evokes so many vivid images. Bearded, turbaned Taliban holding Kalashnikovs, arid mountain and desert landscapes, fields of beautiful, deadly poppies, burka shrouded women crouching on street corners, schoolgirls playing outside a newly built school, and suicide bombs causing carnage on the streets of Kabul.
These images tell only part of the story of a nation whose hopes, dreams and ambitions to be a prosperous nation have been continually dashed by civil war, Islamic insurgence and the controversial involvement of Western powers. Their future security still remains so uncertain.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a landlocked country that borders Pakistan in the south and east, Iran in the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, and China in the far northeast. It is split east to west by the Hindu Kush mountain range and most of the country is covered by snow-capped mountains, traversed by deep valleys.
Afghanistan has always been on the crossroads between ancient civilisations such as the Mesopotamians, the Persians and the Greeks. Around 500BC, Darius the Great expanded the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire to its peak when it took most of Afghanistan. 200 years later it was taken by Alexandria the Great, though the Afghans never accepted his rule and revolts were common.
Afghanistan was a focal point of the ancient trading route, the Silk Road, connecting East, South, West and Central Asia. It has been a target of many invaders. It in turn invaded its neighbouring regions and attempted to form its own empires. By the 18th Century, Ahmed Shah Durrani unified Afghan tribes and founded the Afghan Empire which, extending beyond its present territory, was the foundation of the current state of Afghanistan. Since the 1980’s, the predominant religion, Islam, has become a rallying point for the warring factions, a common and potentially unifying force in a fragmented, multi-tribal society.
Things have changed since Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, and the main reason is the treasure that lies hidden beneath the dusty street and under the dark waters of the Caspian Sea – known as ‘black gold’, oil has made a few people very, very rich and brought seeming prosperity to this small country.
About the same size as Wales and with its 8 million population just a little bigger than London’s, Azerbaijan’s ethnic origins and language go back as far as Ancient Persia and the invading Oguz from Mongolia, who eventually settled in what is now modern-day Turkey, making these neighbouring countries close relatives. Sitting on the edge of ‘Christian’ Europe and ‘Islamic’ Central Asia, Azerbaijan is a unique blend of Western globalisation and conservative Muslim tradition, with both visible and invisible traces of Soviet influence still lingering 20 years after its fall.
Under Tsarist Russian rule and then part of the Communist Soviet Union, since independence it has steadily grown in economic power after huge Western investment in its oil industry, sending oil to Europe via Georgia and Turkey. Its bright future is tarnished only by the ongoing conflict with neighbouring Armenia over the Nagorna-Karabagh region, where a quarter of its territory is occupied by Armenian forces, resulting in a million refugees and a fragile, on-going ceasefire.
Kazakhstan hangs like a hammock between Russia’s Ural mountains and the Altai range, bordering Mongolia and Western China lays the steppe of Central Asia, the home of ancient nomadic tribes whose fierceness inspired terror. Cyrus the Great perished at their hands and Alexander the Great’s army despaired at their borders. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul called them Scythians. In the 13th century, Marco Polo travelled through their oasis towns on the Silk Road, merchant routes controlled by great Mongol khans.
Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes left behind an indelible imprint on the Kazakh face and their nomadic society. Until the 19th century, khans ruled the nomadic tribes of Eurasia, powerful dynasties within the different Hordes of the Kazakh Khanate. The Russians were drawn to their fertile pasturelands and fought for them against the Mongols, yet their help came at a cost. Russian settlers came gradually to farm the grassy plains so essential for the Kazakh herds. Plagued by civil strife, the Middle and Little Hordes soon acquiesced to Russian rule. Unlike their brother Kazakhs, the tribes of the southern Great Horde united and fought the advancing armies of the Tsar and lost.
The Russians, however, could not effectively govern the Kazakh auls (communities), until the Soviet era when one man emerged who undertook it with zeal and dared to do in three years what no other had accomplished in three millennia: Stalin. Part of the Soviet apparatus, Kazakh “activists” seized the possessions of their own people, imprisoning those with wealth and influence, inducing famine, and effectively abolishing the structure of their society. Kazakhs fled to China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, yet many auls were caught by surprise or were too poor to flee and were forced onto farms. Possibly half of the 4 million Kazakhs died in the upheaval of collectivization. For 60 years the steppe was silent until the ill-fated reforms of Gorbachev in the late 1980s brought down the Soviet empire and opened the borders of Kazakhstan, now a nation determined to rule its own destiny.
Kazakhs are Muslims, but after 70 years of communism, Islam is not a big part of their lives. Most young people know God exists, but know little about Him. There is great spiritual openness, but who will fill it? Islamic countries have constructed thousands of mosques, and send Islamic missionaries. But praise God, since 1990 about 15,000 Kazakhs have become believers in Jesus the Messiah.
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked nation of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions. Kyrgyz have been living in the Yenisei river valley and around Lake Baikal (central Siberia) since 201 BC. It is one of the smaller Central Asian countries – being a similar size to Scotland. Historically the Kyrgyz led a nomadic life living in forests and plains and farming animals.
In 840 the Kyrgyz defeated the Uyghurs and became the ruling class. In 1209 Genghis Khan defeated the Kyrgyz and forced them to move south-west to the Tien-Shen Mountains, these divide present day Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan from China. The Kyrgyz and their Mongol conquerors conquered the Persian people living in the surrounding area and gradually adopted their settled life style.
Kyrgyzstan became part of the Russian Empire in 1876. In 1916 the Kyrgyz revolted against the Russians over a military draft for WW1. The Russians retaliated forcing many Kyrgyz to move to the Eastern side of the Tien-Shen Mountains to China and to the Pamir mountains, these mountain ranges dominate Kyrgyzstan, covering 65 % of the national territory. Due to the division of Central Asia into five republics during Stalin’s time many ethnic Kyrgyz do not live in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1996 a referendum overwhelmingly endorsed proposed constitutional changes to enhance the power of the president.
Kyrgyzstan is bordered by China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the Ferghana valley – cause many political pressures between ethnic groups, which at times erupt in conflict. The valley is also the most populous area in Central Asia, throughout history this valley has provided an important centre for merchants trading along the Great Silk Road.
Pakistan’s population is a potpourri of ethnicities speaking more than 66 languages. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a country rich with history and culture going back to 3000 BC. Pakistan was initially a part of India and after a long struggle Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a leader of the Muslims of British dominated India, was able to create a separate sovereign state in 1947, primarily for Muslims but including all minority people groups of the region.
Pakistan is found in South Asia and borders China, Afghanistan, Iran and India. The country is divided into five provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. The port city of Karachi was set up as the capital but was later shifted to Islamabad. The geography consists of the bread basket plains of the Punjab to eight of the tallest mountain peaks in the world; from the mineral-laden wildernesses of Baluchistan to the rich soil of the Indus valley; from the rugged mountains of the north to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.
The people are generally very friendly and go out of their way to be hospitable. From the ancient native Dravidians to the Aryans; from the Kalash who claim to have descended from Alexander the Great’s army to the conquerors from Arabia and Central Asia, Pakistan’s population is a potpourri of ethnicities speaking more than 66 languages and abounding in cultures.
Politics is a passion for Pakistanis and is run on ethnic, feudal, religious and baradari (family links). There are two houses in the legislature, the National Assembly being the lower house and the Senate being the upper. However, most political parties are run on hierarchical lines and are held together by their family charisma. Unfortunately, this system has led to corruption where governments use instruments of the state as their political workers giving birth to a vicious circle that has enmeshed political life and is leading into a downward spiral.
Wild. Weary. War-torn. Spread across the northern plains and peaks of Europe’s tallest mountains, these isolated Muslim people groups of the North Caucasus remain a significant challenge to finishing the Great Commission, representing a dangerous and difficult-to-access frontier. Yet this forgotten land boasts unparalleled beauty and legendary hospitality to accompany opportunities for pioneer mission. Though troubles remain, the region is far safer than a decade ago, with the possibility of deeper stability on the horizon, even in the renowned but infamous Chechnya region where war and conflict with the Kremlin in the 1990’s has been superseded by reconstruction and relative political stability.
From the campaigns of Alexander the Great to the caravans of the ancient Silk Road, the North Caucasus has long straddled the crossroads of humanity – Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Russians, Turks -North Caucasus civilization has reacted to and been deeply influenced by a constellation of cultures. It is now a breathtaking patchwork of 40 ethnic groups speaking 70 distinct languages and dialects, but this may include possibly hundreds of additional tribal and clan divisions. Today, the people of this region are striving to have a share of the prosperity that Russia has been enjoying while balancing this with a measure of political and cultural anonymity – a citizen of Dagestan may live within the borders of the Russian federation, but they are proudly Dagestani!
The Republic of Tajikistan is a rugged, mountainous, landlocked and isolated country in Central Asia with lush valleys to the south and north. It borders Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and China to the east. Pakistan also borders Tajikistan to the south east but is separated by the narrow Wakhan Corridor. Tajikistan is a major water source for Central Asia, with many wild and beautiful rivers flowing through it and across its borders. It also has vast areas of alpine and desert wilderness, with the southwest region being intensely farmed.
In 1991Tajikistan was plunged into civil war almost as soon as it became independent from the Soviet Union. The country’s economy has never really recovered from the civil war, as a result poverty is widespread and it has become Central Asia’s poorest nation.
The Tajik people share culture and history with the Iranian people and speak a dialect of the Persian language (officially named Tajiki). The country has many other ethnic groups, primarily Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and a small minority of Russians, and many other languages are spoken and understood. Most Tajiks speak Russian as it is the common business and administrative language, and can be the predominant language in the cities and is an important link to the rest of the post-soviet nations.
Sunni Islam dominates in Tajikistan and is the official state religion, although it considers itself a secular state with a constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion. The population of Tajikistan is 98% Muslim, and so the majority are influenced by Islamic traditions. Folk Islam is widely practised here as in other parts of Central Asia, and is unorthodox because it relies on faith-healers, holy places and objects (such as the evil-eye talisman) to influence everyday events. The major events of life – birth, circumcision, marriage and death – are governed by Islamic rituals and are marked by some type of religious ceremony.
The Republic of Tatarstan is situated in the centre of the Russian Federation on the East-European Plain at the confluence of the two greatest rivers – the Volga and the Kama. In winter it is possible to walk across the frozen rivers and meet those who have bored holes in the ice in order to fish. In the summer the river beaches bask in Mediterranean temperatures.
It is a flat and stable landscape of 67,836.2 sq. km. The highest point is only 381 metres above sea level with most of the land below 200 metres. Geologically it sits on a deep seated platform of stable crystalline rock – there is no fear of earthquakes in Tatarstan. Yet at depth there are vast reserves of oil and on the surface huge water resources. The history of the land and people is rich, complex and compelling.
Tatarstan is a sovereign state in a treaty association with the Russian Federation. The official languages are Tatar (in the Turkic group of languages) and Russian (in the Slavic group of Indo-European languages).
The capital city, Kazan, is a large industrial, academic and cultural centre. 1.6 million people live in Kazan where the majority of the population is Russian and nominally Orthodox. 2.2 million people live in other regions of the country which are largely rural with 4,200 villages and several large towns. In the villages the people are mainly Tatar and Muslim.
Life both in the country and the city can be hard with long winters and harsh living conditions. Ever increasing prices trouble all families but it is possible to rise above these elements and engage in sport, the arts, church, cultural events and family celebrations. In Kazan, an ideal day out might even be a visit to the vast IKEA shopping mall with its play areas, shops and restaurants. While some long for the ‘best of the west’, others want to uphold old ways and traditions. The Tatars have kept alive traditions of craftsmanship in wood, ceramics, leather and cloth.
One Christian visitor in Tatarstan commented: “I have been introduced to the old and the new, to the Orthodox and the Muslim, to the city and the villages, to the Russian desires and the old Tatar ways, but all need to hear and be touched by the truth of the Christian Gospel and Jesus Christ.”
Today the Kazan Kremlin is one vivid example of independent state policy. During the celebration of the 1,000th anniversary of Kazan thousands of inhabitants of the Tatarstan Republic and guests from abroad witnessed the ceremonial opening of the Kul-Sharif mosque and the Annunciation church symbolizing the co-existence of the two main religions in the republic – Islam and Christianity.
Turkey sits geographically on the crossroad between East and West. Its most famous city, Istanbul, straddles Asia and Europe, and Turkey’s culture and attitudes are a melting-pot of both continents.
It’s one of the world’s fastest growing economies, one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations yet it has struggled for decades to even become a candidate for its long desired EU membership, which it sees as its hope for future prosperity and security. The modern exterior of this constitutionally secular republic is combined with a traditional Islam that has begun to influence politics and cause division and controversy, as secularism, nationalism and Islam battle for supremacy in public life.
The majority of Turks are Sunni Muslim, since the Turkic invaders from the Central Asian steppe entered Antolia (mainland Turkey) from the 12th century. The Ottoman empire was established in 1453 by the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul), overthrowing Christian Byzantium. Despite Ataturk (see back page) abolishing Islam as state religion in 1928, it has always defined Turks as a nationality and culture. Islam has regained a major role within public life and politics in the last few decades. However, the average Turkish Muslim is moderate and is likely not to keep the strict regulations of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca. Instead, like most Central Asians, religious practice is mixed with folk Islam, where fear of evil spirits and the evil eye are warded off by beads and talismans.
Fortune-telling is widespread, and sacred burial sites are revered and visited when there are immediate needs such as sickness, engagement or marriage. These practices seem to be popular because it is believed circumstances of everyday life can be affected or manipulated by them. That is something which orthodox Islam cannot offer as God is all-knowing and all-powerful but distant and firmly in control of their fate.
Annexed by Russia between 1865 and 1885, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic in 1924. It achieved its independence upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. President Saparmurat NIYAZOV retains absolute control over the country and opposition is not tolerated. Extensive hydrocarbon/natural gas reserves could prove a boon to this underdeveloped country if extraction and delivery projects were to be expanded. The Turkmenistan Government is actively seeking to develop alternative petroleum transportation routes in order to break Russia’s pipeline monopoly.
Turkmenistan is described as “a secret state” – the most isolated and secretive state where dissent is not tolerated and suspicion reigns. It is second only to North Korea for being a Totalitarian Dictatorship. It was declared the “3rd Most Corrupt Country in the World” in 2011.
While the Uyghurs share many language and cultural similarities with other Central Asian peoples, one of the main differences is that the majority of them are still under the control of communism, with no sign of this changing in the near future.
At least 10 million Uyghurs (pronounced Wee-gers) live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the largest and most north-western province of the People’s Republic of China. Smaller numbers also live in surrounding Central Asian nations and immigrant populations exist in some European and Western countries. Although once nomadic herdsmen from the Mongolian grasslands, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang are now settled in numerous oasis villages and towns as well as in a few major cities.
The Uyghurs are a proud and independent people with a rich and colourful heritage of poetry, music and dance. They are also very hospitable with strong ties to family, community and land. Their intrigue can be ascribed in part to a unique blend of cultural complexity, due to centuries of crossroads contact with other cultures on the Silk Road, and partly from their rural simplicity, caused by their geographical isolation.
Archaeological evidence and historic records show a high level of civilization attained by the Uyghurs that spans from the Arts to the Sciences and dates back to the 8th century.
Today they are still skilled craftsmen, artisans, traders, farmers and horticulturists. Their major crops include cotton, corn, wheat and sunflowers, and they also grow a large range of fruits. The Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and use an Arabic based script in China and a Cyrillic script in the former Soviet Union.
Arid deserts and fertile valleys, majestic mountains and unending steppe, sky-scrapers and stone hovels, gold mines and cotton fields, gracious hospitality and xenophobic bureaucracy, ancient cultures and post-Soviet habits, mini-skirt and modest hijab, Mercedes and mules. Uzbekistan is a land of amazing contrasts and lies at the heart of Central Asia, double landlocked, about as far from the sea as it possible to get.
Over the centuries great empires have invaded, settled, colonised and eventually withdrawn from Central Asia. The countries, as they now stand, were drawn in the 1920s by Stalin, so within Uzbekistan there are many ethnic groups. After the break up of the Soviet Union and Uzbekistan’s independence over 20 years ago businesses from Korea, India, Iran, Turkey and the Middle East began to invest in Uzbekistan, but they were strangled by red tape or nationalised.
While the government searched for political and economic stability many foreigners emigrated, taking their valuable technical expertise, leaving decaying infrastructure. The indigenous peoples started their search for a new identity; turning to fundamentalist Islam, to nationalism, the older ones yearned for the certainties of communism, the youth for the freedoms of western democracy. 9/11 gave the Uzbek government an opportunity to join the “War on Terror” by suppressing its own troublesome Islamists. In May 2005 the government brutally suppressed an uprising and sacrificed its growing relationship with the West. Hundreds of foreigners were forced to leave the country; many commercial investments, development projects, humanitarian aid and educational co-operations were closed and their staff denied visas or deported.
The government is led by the same people who previously had led the Communist Party of the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic before independence. There have been elections, but so-called opposition parties have been created by the government in an attempt to give a semblance of democracy.