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DOES PROTESTANTISM THREATEN CENTRAL ASIA?
15.03.07
MOSCOW. (Igor Rotar, a freelance journalist, for RIA Novosti)


“Russians colonized us. Now, we are free at last—but European and American missionaries flooded my country as soon as we won independence. They are out to make my nation a Western puppet,” a Turkmen secret service officer hotly said to a friend of mine, a local Protestant. Though his reasoning surely did not hold water, he was correct on one point. Protestant missionaries are really among the most effective disseminators of globalization. They openly say they want to turn this world into one big community resting on Christian values, democracy and the free market. They see South Korea as one of their greatest victories—a former Buddhist country where Christian converts presently make up a majority. South Korean missionaries working in Central Asia emphasize that the Protestant faith alone has made their land an affluent and inalienable part of the civilized Western world.
Obstacles to globalization are nowhere so formidable as in former Soviet countries, especially in Central Asia—a region that serves as practical proof of Samuel Huntington’s warning. As the American political expert once said, attempts to turn the world into a single community would meet harsh resistance in Muslim countries.
“Democracy clashes with the Islamic canon. It’s a godless system that gives an alcoholic atheist the same rights as a pious Muslim! True Believers have no use for Western individualism. We Muslims have lived in a community since time immemorial. We do everything together. Our concept of freedom of speech is also quite different from the European one,” a Central Asian of radical convictions told me.
“I recently told my cousin I was too busy to see him. That was an unheard-of thing to do. I am horrified to see I am turning into a typical Westerner. That’s something I detest!” a successful Uzbek journalist complained.
“My life is in danger. Local Muslim fanatics say they’ll kill me if I don’t leave the village,” the Reverend Zulumbek Sarygulov says, nervously twisting his maimed fingers. The Kyrgyz village pastor refers to his broken hands as his “baptism of fire.” A hundred militant Muslims invaded his chapel last summer and left him brutally battered. A Christian convert was murdered in another Kyrgyz village late in 2005. The culprit was never found. The victim’s relatives say he died a martyr’s death for his faith.
Violence against missionaries and “apostates” rages not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in the other former Soviet Central Asian countries. Muslim fanatics shot dead the Reverend Sergei Bessarab in the Tajik town of Isfara in 2004. The victim, a Protestant pastor, had actively preached Christianity among the Muslim population.
Protestant sermons enrage many Muslims. They have every reason to see missionaries as opponents to be reckoned with. For example, though the Protestant community makes up only a small part of the population of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, Protestant street posters are much more numerous than Muslim or Orthodox Christian ones. The wealthy West generously sponsors Protestants, so their purse is much fatter than the Muslim or Russian Orthodox. They can afford to send missionaries to every little town in Central Asia.
Lawrence Uzzell, a well-known U.S. researcher and journalist who has made religious freedom his life’s cause, and a Protestant who converted to Orthodoxy, told me it was his cherished dream to see the entire human race embracing Orthodox Christianity. But then, he ardently supports the free world’s ideals, and so he cannot blame Protestant missionaries for aggressive preaching.
Central Asian leaders are very skeptical of opinions like Mr. Uzzell’s. This is what a high-level Uzbek official told me:
“When we passed a law prohibiting missionary activities, Western countries accused us of committing a major violation of human rights. That may be so, by Western standards, but the local situation is very specific. Unimpeded, Christian propaganda in a Muslim community may lead to bloodshed. That’s the problem.”
Reports of policemen beating up and seizing Protestants have become part of the Uzbek routine. The Reverend Dmitry Shestakov is presently in the Andizhan pre-trial detention prison, accused of preaching Christianity to Uzbeks, and faces a five-year term.
Reprisals against Protestants are getting ever harsher in other former Soviet Central Asian countries, too. For instance, Kyrgyzstan is evidently ready to restrict believers’ rights. “We are no Europeans. Western missionary activities may rock the boat in this country,” says Shamsybek Zakirov, an adviser to the head of the government’s Agency for Religious Affairs.
International human rights organizations are growing more worried as Central Asia toughens its religious policies. Certain people in the West, however, have nothing against encroachments on freedom of conscience.
“Protestant missionary activism verges on the absurd. I recently visited a hunting tribe in Borneo where the women walk about topless and the men make sacrifices to their idols before every hunt. You know what? Protestant chapels have appeared even in that primitive little world! I am not surprised at Western missionaries penetrating Central Asia, what with the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet Union’s collapse.” The man who said that to me is a dedicated traveler who explores places Western civilization has not yet touched.
Tashkent—Bishkek
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-