Witness within memory of Soviet presence
Chances are you haven’t visited this Central Asian country, or heard much about it apart from it being where Russian crews land from the space station. Much like Alberta or Montana, sweeping wheat fields kiss high-peaked mountains. Huge in land mass, the ninth largest in the world, but with a small population, this country of crisscrossing cultures and occupation has survived invasion and domination of China and the Russian world for 700 years. Today it stands at the edge of remarkable development.
Its life with and alongside Russia is one of its defining dynamics. While the country is Kazak, one-third of its people are Russian. Indigenous Kazak rub shoulders with Russian Kazak, which creates its own kind of tensions. These are not lessened by their 6,846-kilometer common border with big brother Russia on the north; in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Kazaks died under Stalin’s purge in the gulags of the country known as Karlags.
Their religion today could be called “Muslim light,” since the prevailing influence continues to be shamanism (worship of ancestral sprits). During forty years of communist rule, Christian faith was severely repressed. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and subsequent independence for many of its satellite countries triggered an outbreak of Christian growth. In Kazakhstan estimates in Christian converts from 1993 -1997 were over 100,000, along with an inrush of some 700 missionaries.
In 2011 the government enacted a repressive bill, which forced missionaries out and required churches to group into larger congregations; this resulted in almost halving the number of congregations and colleges and seminaries were closed. While there is freedom to live as a Christian, this bill makes ministry more complex, as red tape becomes the inhibitor.
Ahaman and Yerkin
Let me introduce you to two pastors in Almaty.
Ahaman Egizbaev was born to Kazak parents, both senior Soviet apparatchiks (officials in the Soviet-run Kazak bureaucracy). Because they were Kazak, they were considered Muslim. After studying construction engineering in Moscow, Ahaman returned to work in Kazakhstan. One day his driver gave him C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Because he was raised in a communist materialist ideology, Ahaman had no clue on matters of religion. Yet when he read this book by Lewis, he dropped to his knees and confessed his sins to Christ. “I got up from my knees, not only united with God but freed instantly from my addictions.”
He told his father who responded, “You can’t be Christian, you’re Muslim,” – this from a father who never had taken him to a mosque or introduced him to the Muslim faith.
His curious spirit led him to study at a local Bible college and then at ACTS, an interdenominational college in Seoul, Korea. There he learned pastoral skills and English, and felt a deep desire to return to his homeland as a missionary. Even though it was to his own Kazak people, he didn’t speak their language – he knew only Russian and had to learn their customs and culture. Growing up in a communist home within the Soviet/Russian culture, he knew nothing of the Kazak heritage. Today he pastors a Kazak church with vision to open a Christian university and seminary. He also serves as general secretary for the Evangelical Alliance of Kazakhstan.
Yerkin Khaidarov is a young pastor who also came from a nonpracticing Muslim world, but radically different to that of Ahaman. Raised in the 1980s, a time when drugs ran from Afghanistan north through his city of Almaty to Russia, Yerkin found heroin to be an easy buy. By the time he was in college he was an addict. His father, desperate to get his son freed, tried every therapy and medical treatment known. One day his father heard of Teen Challenge, which had a program for freeing young people from drug addiction. When he learned it was Christian, he decided that his being a Muslim wouldn’t prevent him for grasping at any straw.
He made an appointment with Doug Boyle, an Australian Assemblies of God missionary, himself a former addict who had introduced Teen Challenge into the country. The first visit was almost too much for Yerkin, especially when he learned that he would have to live in residence for eighteen months and go cold turkey off drugs.
He agreed, but when he found it was mandatory to attend daily chapel, he rebelled with the excuse that he was Muslim. He ran away, living on the streets for two years. His father finally confronted him: “Son, you either go back to Teen Challenge or you leave our home. And on the streets, you know you’ll die an early death or end up in one of our prisons.”
Feeling hopeless, Yerkin returned and eighteen months later left as a graduate. Today he pastors nine churches in which are many graduates of the Teen Challenge program, now rescuing others. He met his Armenian wife, Madlen, at Teen Challenge. She is a musician and has written and released a musical CD.
What Lies Ahead?
Kazakhstan and other countries formerly under Soviet control were coerced into speaking Russian and losing their own tongue. Their economics too were controlled by the Soviet agenda. Kazakhstan with its vast fields was a breadbasket for the Russians, and its massive oil and gas fields fueled the Soviet system.
The fall of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s opened the door for these countries to claim their independence. Hundreds of thousands of Russians moved back to Russia. Today the Kazak government is increasingly Kazak, overcoming the lingering sense that Russian is superior.
We have watched as Russia pressed its claims on Crimea and then other parts of eastern Ukraine, using as cover that they are protecting Russians. The question now is whether they will turn south to the Kazaks and use the same ruse for a takeover of a land rich in resources that the Russian vision of a restored empire would need.
This country of beauty, rough and raw in its early days of modernizing, has made a remarkable leap forward economically. Young and resourceful men and women are leading the evangelical church and they’ve learned to negotiate the tightrope of politics. However, the church is divided generationally. Both Baptists and the Pentecostals are split between the older and younger: the older, trapped by an aging fundamentalism, and the younger, as charismatics, praying and pressing for growth, building new churches and ministries.
While I was in Almaty, leaders from surrounding countries, many facing the same kind of issues as Kazakhstan, met for their annual two days of prayer and fasting. Coming in from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran, they joined in common cause, each seeking to build an Evangelical Alliance in their countries, and wanting to create such a body for Central Asia. The genius of this plan is that they share resources at all levels: their cultures have similar crossovers, most speak Russian, they have common memory of what it is like to live under Soviet dominance, and they know all too well the rough and tumble nature of surviving in Islam-dominant lands. The building of such a bond of friendships, common training, exchange of resources, and mutual nurturing of their churches makes good sense.
Here Kingdom possibilities grab my attention. This region might very well be on the brink of a major spiritual advance. Creative and prayer-bathed evangelism can bring life to a people hungering for what the old materialism failed to offer and what a nominal Muslim faith lacks. A modest amount of outside resource can make an enormous impact. Prayer focused on this country and its people will multiply as the Spirit brings a consciousness of the risen Christ.
Brian C Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance.