Sunday, September 11, 2016

Kyrgyzstan’s Christians battle falling numbers and restrictions

St Michael the Archangel church, Bishkek, which was built in 1969 by ethnic Germans. According to Fr Janez Michelcic, a Slovenian Catholic priest who gives the weekly English-language sermon, 60-70 people attend Mass on Sundays – yet none of the congregation speaks English.Down a dusty lane in the outskirts of northern Bishkek sits an unremarkable two-storey building. 

Atop is placed a slight, solitary cross. 

In an overwhelmingly Muslim neighbourhood where the sounds of farm animals fill the air, Kyrgyzstan’s only Catholic church – a remodelled house – finds itself in unlikely surroundings.

A notice board to the right of the church displays a sun-worn photo of Pope Francis next to a temporary notice: “No Mass in English from July 3rd till August 21st”. 

Cyrillic script church notes make up the remaining literature.

If the signs and notes suggest a vibrant Catholic community is flourishing in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country surrounded by China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and coloured by Soviet and Islamic histories, they are misleading: the church is bolted closed six days a week.

The St Michael the Archangel church was built in 1969 by ethnic Germans. 

According to Fr Janez Michelcic, a Slovenian Catholic priest who gives the weekly English-language sermon, 60-70 people attend Mass on Sundays. 

Yet Michelcic says none among his congregation speak English. 

Kyrgyzstan’s other two parishes are located hundreds of kilometres to the south, across some of the world’s highest mountain ranges, and serve tiny communities of about 70 worshippers in total.

Kyrgyzstan is home to about 1,000 Roman Catholics, many of them remnants of the hundreds of thousands of Germans, Ukrainians and central Europeans shipped out during the height of Joseph Stalin’s paranoia in the 1940s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw about 100,000 ethnic Germans, mostly Lutherans and Catholics, return to Europe or leave to settle in the US. 

Thousands more Russian Christians have left over the past decade in search of better economic opportunities.

Christian branches

Catholics make up a small number of the broader Christian population, dominated for decades by followers of the Russian Orthodox Church, and more recently by a not insignificant trend of proselytising by international evangelical Christian groups. 

Just 17 Catholics were baptised in 2010, said Michelcic. 

That number reached a high of 29 in 2013, but fell back to 20 for 2015. 

The country’s only Catholic bishop died last month.
In addition to this instability, the Kyrgyz authorities have mounted barriers for Christian groups that may bode ill for the country’s Catholics.

“There are certain difficulties at the administrative level, because the Kyrgyz law distinguishes between the ‘foreign’ and the ‘local’ religious organisations,” said Michelcic. 

“And the Catholics, although all of them citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic, are considered ‘foreign’.”

The flood of evangelical Christian groups from the US and Korea – by 2009, about 22,000 Kyrgyzs had converted to Protestantism, according to experts – has both heightened competition and drawn the state’s ire.

“In the late 1980s, the first Kyrgyz church was started by an ethnic German from Kyrgyzstan who came out of the Russian Baptist Church. In the early 1990s, the spread of Kyrgyz churches grew largely through Kyrgyz Christians,” said David Radford of the University of South Australia. 

According to a report from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), in 2011 two Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted of distributing DVDs belonging to the outlawed Islamic Hizh ut-Tahrir terrorist organisation. 

Others, including members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons, have been ruled by Kyrgyz courts to be “destructive and totalitarian”.

In 2014, authorities attempted to seize a church in Bishkek belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ, the largest Protestant denomination in Kyrgyzstan with about 12,000 members. 

The move was averted last January after a court ruled against the decision, which had been made by a former government.

Cautious on foreigners

According to Radford, leaders from the powerful Russian Orthodox and Islamic faiths have an interest in seeking government support in order to maintain their privileged positions, while the Kyrgyz government is cautious of foreign religious groups because they unsettle the status quo. 

A 2009 law on religion, backed by the Orthodox Church and mainstream Islamic leaders, sought to gain a handle on emerging religious groups by requiring them to register with the state and to include names of at least 200 members. 

Unauthorised religious activities would result in significant fines.

“Non-traditional Christian communities are seen as potentially causing or challenging social/community harmony through conversions,” Radford said. “The government is concerned with religious extremists, whether it is Muslim or Christian.”

Still, the fact that the government maintains diplomatic relations with the Vatican is a comfort for many Catholics caught between the state and the growing popularity of evangelical organisations. 

Michelcic’s belief in his own faith has given the Catholic priest reasons to be positive about the years ahead: “I consider that the future is in God’s hands.”

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