On Easter Sunday, April 11, the Evangelical Lutheran community in Tashkent was replenished when seven newcomers were baptized and 13 others confirmed.
After Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Lutheran Church numbers dropped drastically due to a huge increase in the number of its members who wanted to emigrate from Uzbekistan.
Lutheran Bishop Cornelius Wiebe pointed out to UCA News that though the Church baptized approximately 1,000 new members since 1994, the departure of more than 2,000 Lutherans seeking their fortunes elsewhere has shrunk the size of the local Church, a fate shared by most Christian groups in Uzbekistan.
The Lutheran community was born in 1877 to cater to Germans who entered the region after Russia annexed territory that is now part of Uzbekistan and the imperial government pressed to have that area developed.
To attract the manpower and brains required, the government offered many benefits and granted people the freedom to build churches and follow their chosen religion. The first Lutheran church was dedicated in 1896.
The Catholic Church developed concurrently in much the same way, but neither could do much until the first Russian Orthodox church building was built.
Many parishes of the Lutheran Church and other Protestant communities sprang up in Uzbekistan in the early 20th century, but that flourishing came to an end in 1937 when the Soviet Union suppressed religion.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, religious freedom returned and the Lutheran Church took complete control of its century-old church building, which had been used in the interim as a music school.
The bishop said the old church had more parishioners several years ago but now hosts just about 60 people for its German-Russian bilingual services on Sundays. Even so, he added, the church has been “a bridge to Germany.”
Bishop Wiebe estimates that as many as 75 percent of his parishioners once regarded baptism as essential to achieve “repatriation” to Germany. But after Germany tightened its immigration laws, the bishop said he believes no more than 25 percent of the parishioners intend to leave.
About 24,000 ethnic Germans remain in Uzbekistan, their “escape” hindered by financial, linguistic or other obstacles. About 600 of this ethnic minority belong to the Lutheran Church. Its seven parishes in the country are served by two ordained priests and 12 lay preachers.
Cash is tight for the small community in the Muslim-majority nation, half of whose 25 million people live below the poverty line. “With our very limited budget,” the bishop admitted, “we cannot run any serious charitable projects.”
Bishop Wiebe is certain that poverty is the main sickness of Uzbek society fuelling anti-government protests that recently boiled over. Those protests have resulted in police crackdowns, often quite violent.
© UCAN 2004 – UCAN (Union of Catholic Asian News) is linked to UCIP (International Catholic Union of the Press). With several offices around Asia, UCA News is the largest Asian Church news agency. Originally published on 16 April 2004. Posted on Religioscope with permission.