Central Asia (MNN) — In Central Asia, change is in the air. World powers Russia and China are competing for the region’s allegiance, and the trickle-down effect is impacting Gospel growth.
It’s hard enough to become a Christian in Muslim-majority Central Asia. Add in an increasing amount of economic challenges, along with security risks posed by Islamic extremism, and it’s no wonder the region has climbed on the Open Doors World Watch List.
“[Accepting Christ as Savior] is quite a profound decision,” explains Eric Mock of Slavic Gospel Association (SGA).
“It is not selecting which church they will attend. It is making a statement that, ‘I’m no longer this person but I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and I know this puts my life at risk.'”
Central Asia 101
Central Asia’s “game of thrones” is a complex situation with many moving parts. By breaking the scenario into its most basic elements, a simpler picture emerges.
Russia and China are competing for Central Asia’s “allegiance” because (1) it provides a geographical “buffer” protecting each nation from volatile hotbeds of Islamic extremism, and (2) there’s a marketplace to fill with goods and services.
Steeped in poverty, the governments of most Central Asian nations are looking to either of the world powers for economic help.
“Putin and [Russia’s] economy, and their influence over Central Asia, is beginning to wane a little bit, which leads those countries to have an eye towards China,” observes Mock.
Historically, the former Soviet governments of Central Asia turned to Russia for economic stability. With the recent fall of Russia’s economy — and self-motivated blockades against countries that won’t join its Eurasian Economic Union, China is looking better by the day.
In theory, economic freedom would lead to growth in other areas of Central Asian life.
“There’s a growing sense of independence in each of these countries,” Mock says. “They’re moving more and more towards their mother tongues, and they’re trying to develop their own ethnic identities.”
As noted here, Russia and China seem to have come to an agreement over Central Asia. Russia will provide security for the nations of Central Asia, while China will help stimulate the region’s economy.
Bringing Christ to Central Asia
It may seem unrelated, but elements of this “bigger picture” are tying into how believers fulfill the Great Commission in Central Asia.
“It has been tough ground for the believers there. Christians increasingly are finding it much more difficult to advance the Gospel,” shares Mock.
“Part of that is ethnic. The word “stan” on the end of these countries–such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan–denote it being a Muslim republic. So, there’s a relationship between being part of that culture…and being Muslim.”
When people hear or read the Truth of the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit leads them to commit their lives to Christ, the decision carries serious consequences.
“People are making a nationalistic decision and a communal decision, along with making their spiritual choices,” Mock explains. “To turn to their new Christian faith means a loss of family and a threat to their lives.”
It’s into this context that SGA is coming alongside believers to further God’s Kingdom.
“It’s not about an American showing up with an American strategy,” Mock says. “It is about us looking to see what God is doing in these countries of Central Asia among the faithful Bible-believing churches, and [serving] them as God leads them.”
Before the Soviet Union collapsed, foreign missionaries weren’t allowed into the countries of what is now Central Asia. So, SGA broadcast evangelistic messages into the region via radio, and smuggled Bibles and Christian books to secret believers.
Today, SGA is able to work directly with partnering churches and individual believers.
“We spend a lot of time giving them the training they’ve been asking for, the resources they’ve been asking for, [so] the Church would be salt and light in their community.”