Religious leaders in Kyrgyzstan have reacted angrily to a Mormon delegation from the United States, the latest in a series of evangelical missions arriving in the country.
Orthodox Christian and Muslim clergy are deeply suspicious of these foreign groups, accusing them of offering aid in return for conversion.
The Mormons were able to secure a high-level meeting with Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev on August 27, as part of a delegation from Utah. Church representative Russell Nelson said members of his faith would soon be arriving to do missionary work in Kyrgyzstan. The delegation made it clear that future aid from the state of Utah would depend on whether the Kyrgyz government gave the Mormons legal status in the country.
The Mormons – or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – will join Hare Krishnas, Bahais and a number of proselytising Christian groups that have appeared in Kyrgyzstan since the end of the Soviet Union. The State Commission on Religious Affairs estimates that there are currently around 30 of these “new” faiths. The ethnic Kyrgyz are traditionally Muslims, while the large Russian-speaking community is part of the Orthodox Christian world.
The foreign-funded groups are able to offer their parishioners more than the longer-established Religions. Depending on the church, the benefits may include free English and computer classes, foreign scholarships, business loans, or even flour and imported food.
Father Nikolai Sushenko of the Russian Orthodox Church gives voice to the dissatisfaction mounting among local religious leaders, “The Mormons are of course a wealthy sect. But if we accept their help, we run the risk of ending up as prisoners of alien ideas and laws that are dangerous to our moral health.”
One of the central worries of the local clergy is that the influx of new faiths could have a destabilising effect, in a country traditionally dominated by Islam and the Orthodox Church – neither of which poaches the other’s followers. “Divisions within the family, which are inevitable if individual members adhere to different beliefs, lead to schisms in society – in the state itself – as a whole,” said Father Nikolai.
This concern is echoed by Loma Yusup Yakubovich, the official head of the governing body of Kyrgyzstan’s Muslims, “They split the population into small groups. The severe struggle over parishioners could eventually lead to serious conflicts.”
Loma Yusup Yakubovich thinks the government should draft legislation to stem the influx of foreign religious organisations.
The government is in the main tolerant of missionary groups, though watchful of their intentions. Prime Minister Tanaev told his Mormon visitors that Kyrgyzstan is open to all religious denominations, provided that their activities are peaceful.
Natalia Shadrova, deputy head of the State Commission on Religious Affairs, says the issue of conversion to foreign religions is a difficult one, and there have already been localised incidents but so far no major outbreaks of trouble.
“There have been some local conflicts and clashes on this issue, which the police have dealt with. It is mostly Muslims ‘betray’ their co-religionists, going off to join the Bahais, become Hare Krishnas or join one of the Christian churches. There are now over 260 Christian prayer-houses in Kyrgyzstan,” she said.
Predictably, converts are happy with the mix of religion and aid they receive. Elvira Davletalieva, a mother of two, makes no secret of the fact that it was the regular assistance given to parishioners that inspired her to join the Union of Evangelical Baptists.
“My husband was seriously ill after a car accident, and I was unemployed. So the food, clothes for the kids, medicine, money to buy coal – all free of charge – were much needed,” she told IWPR.
“It was only later on, when I got into it more deeply, that I started to understand the meaning of the sermons and hymns.”
Disabled mother Anna Pozdnyakova, whose children were taken on a trip to Lake Issyk-Kul by the Korean Christian Church, is relaxed about the effect the preaching will have on them, “The church looked after them, and I’m grateful. As for the fact that they taught them the Bible and how to pray – that won’t hurt the children. When they grow up, they can figure things out for themselves.”
Natalia Domagalskaya and Gulnura Toralieva
Natalia Domagalskaya is an independent journalist in Bishkek. Gulnura Toralieva is a student at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University.
This article was originally published by the IWPR (Institute for War Peace Reporting), London, in its service Reporting Central Asia (RCA, No. 233, 9 September 2003). The Institute for War & Peace Reporting strengthens local journalism in areas of conflict. Religioscope has been allowed by the IWPR to repost its articles.
© 2003 Institute for War & Peace Reporting