Image: REUTERS/Turkish Presidential Press Office

By Alex Pollock

On Thursday, 9 November, leaders from Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, and Russia all made visits to Central Asian countries to solidify existing relationships and develop new ones, as the previously Russia-dominated region is opening up to new global partnerships. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev while Pakistani Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi landed in Uzbekistan for the 16th Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) Summit. Mr Putin’s visit to Kazakhstan occurred just one week after French President Emmanuel Macron met with Mr Tokayev to “accelerate cooperation in key sectors.” The previous Soviet countries of Central Asia have recently been warming to the possibility of working with nations other than Russia as its influence has waned due to the ongoing conflict with Ukraine. The United States, the European Union, and China are also vying for the resources of Central Asia, adding yet another facet to the ongoing ‘East versus West’ narrative. Discussions at the economic summit revolved around trade, humanitarian cooperation, and transport. As a landlocked region, Central Asia is looking to gain access to the sea via Pakistan, which could open many new trade opportunities. While Russia’s influence isn’t as strong as it once was, it remains a prominent player in the region, and Mr Putin’s visit to Kazakhstan aimed to deepen the relationship between the two countries by launching new energy projects and planning new nuclear power plants.

As former Soviet states, many Central Asian countries (a region of 10 countries – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Türkiye, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as defined by the Joshua Project) have not experienced extensive access to, or penetration of, the Gospel. According to statistics published by the Joshua Project, 96% of the region’s population of over 307 million are considered ‘unreached’ with the Gospel. An INcontext contact in Central Asia shared that there are already many opportunities to see churches planted in the region. More labourers are needed to reach the millions of ‘unreached’ in Central Asia, as there is currently very little Gospel witness. If countries with large Christian populations, including those in the European Union and the United States, or those with growing missionary forces, such as China, can begin trading, or cooperating further with Central Asian countries, it could increase the possibility of ‘unreached’ people in the region being exposed to Christ.

Many Central Asian countries are predominantly Muslim, though nominal Islam is prevalent. It’s presumed, however, that after Pentecost in 33 AD, many of those who came to believe in Christ that day, including visitors from Asia, Arabia, and Mesopotamia – known as the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites – travelled back East to countries that include the modern day Central Asian nations. Thus, these nations have a historical Christian presence. After the spread of Christianity, however, a rise in Islam eventually led to an almost complete decimation of the Christian presence in the region. Modern laws passed in several Central Asian countries either criminalise the sharing of the Gospel or have made it extremely difficult for religious entities to register with the government, thus hindering their ability to spread the Gospel. Most of the Christians that remain in Central Asia belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Our contact in the region shared that ideas around Christianity are shaped by what they know about Russian Orthodoxy, as well as what people see in Hollywood – which is associated with immorality. Thus, there is a need to show Central Asians what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ. A very useful tool in meeting locals seeking to know more about Jesus is social media, since internet access is very affordable. It remains a challenge to provide accurate information about following Jesus since many Christian websites are routinely blocked, and the internet is used to spread propaganda. Despite these challenges, networking sites are being used to connect people to provide the opportunity for the Gospel to be shared in person.

Our contact also shared that building relationships in a culture of mistrust stemming from a long history of spies among communities – who could even be your neighbour – presents another challenging dimension. Thus, while Central Asians may be hospitable, it takes time for trust to be built. Additionally, in Central Asia’s predominant honour-shame culture, deciding to follow Jesus is considered shameful to the family, which would justify honour killings and other forms of familial and societal persecution. Not only could your job be at risk, but those of your family, who are considered to have failed in producing a “good member of society”. Due to these and other reasons, many believers are isolated and lack discipleship and community. The global Church should not forget them and should intercede for them as they navigate trying circumstances – that they would persevere and be able to receive the teaching and support they need.

Please join us in praying for the following:

  • For new geopolitical relationships to strengthen Central Asian nations and for the people of the region to receive the resources they need
  • For new opportunities for the spread of the Gospel and the strengthening of the small Christian populations within individual nations
  • For more labourers in this region, and for good soil as the Word is planted in hearts, that many would accept the gift of salvation