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Targeting Christians in Central Asia

17/08/2009

Earlier this year, Tajikistan enacted a new law on religious practice that has been criticised as overly restrictive – while it pays lip service to religious equality, it essentially limits worship to state-sanctioned forms. In large part the legislation was aimed at Salafi and extremist Islamic groups, but this week it was used to ban a Christian aid group accused of proselytising by authorities.

The group is ADRA International (the Adventist Development and Relief Agency), a Seventh-Day Adventist aid group operating in developing countries around the world, and in Tajikistan since 2002 (their website details their work building greenhouses in the Rasht valley). Now, however, the group has been banned within the country by a Dushanbe court after the Ministry of Justice submitted an application accusing the group of ‘actively propagating Christianity to Tajiks during various English courses’.

This illustrates the extent to which Central Asian regimes, while focused on the threat from Islamist movements, are also concerned about the growing appeal of Christian sects. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, are banned or kept from open worship throughout the region.

Last summer in Kyrgyzstan, I caught an early-morning TV show featuring an American televangelist type who had decided to focus his talents on Russian and Central Asian audiences. As in the US, he spoke on stage in front of a large and rapt audience. Unlike the US, he was shadowed by an equally enthusiastic Russian translator – a process that may or may not have diluted the fervour of his message. At any rate, I asked a number of people based in Kyrgyzstan whether Christian groups were making inroads in the country.

While reliable statistics are elusive, the general impression was that yes, membership in Christian groups was rising despite official persecution. The factors behind this were not dissimilar to those in other developing countries: people with poor or frustrated socioeconomic prospects, and with disrupted traditional communal ties, were drawn to groups offering hope, a sense of belonging and self-worth, a path to personal redemption, etc.

The Christian groups do not appear to have an explicitly political programme or to advocate violence in any way, which marks them as a different social phenomenon from some (not all) of the underground Islamist movements.

Yet their presence indicates that the appeal of alternative religious movements is not rooted solely in political or cultural factors specific to Central Asia or the Muslim world, but may also stem from more universal psychological and emotional needs of populations suffering deprivation, repression and dislocation.

The repression of these groups also shows the widespread tendency of authoritarian regimes to crack down on alternative sources of authority, even when such groups do not directly challenge the regime. The continued existence of underground Christian groups in Central Asia, however, exposes the limits of official bans on personal religious practice.