Religious freedom a stuttering pulse in Central Asia

By July 12, 2013
Photo courtesy of Stefan Krasowski/Flickr.

Photo courtesy of Stefan Krasowski/Flickr.

Central Asia (MNN) — There are 12 nations either in Central Asia or sometimes included in listings of Central Asia.

Of those 12 countries, 10 of them are on the World Watch List for worst persecution of Christians.

That means Central Asia makes up 20% of the World Watch List.

Full and partial Central Asian countries on the World Watch List include Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China.

Islam is the prominent religion in Central Asia, and restrictions on Christians make ministry difficult.

Slavic Gospel Association (SGA) is currently holding children’s summer camps to share the Gospel in Russia and the surrounding Central Asian countries with heavy Muslim presence. Last weekend, SGA’s President Bob Provost received a disturbing email from one camp’s church leaders.

15 agents including law enforcement and alleged medical personnel swept into an SGA sponsored children’s camp. The authorities took several photographs, arrested the camp leaders and heavily fined them. They even interrogated some of the frightened kids. When parents heard about the incident, they were alarmed.

Joel Griffith with SGA says, “The specific wording of the charge was ‘holding an unsanctioned religious gathering,’ and even that can be very difficult. I mean the church is trying to follow the law there and the law says that they have to register their churches and so they do everything they can possibly do to follow the law, and then the authorities throw obstacles in their way to make it impossible for them to register their churches.”

They’re seeing a step-up in persecution of Christians in Central Asia. Even for security concerns, SGA was unable to share the specific nation and needed to protect the identities of the church leaders.

“We know of situations in this same country where there are churches that have to meet discreetly even going out in the woods sometimes,” says Griffith. “They circulate the word of the services by word of mouth and try not to communicate it electronically or by telephone because they’re watched carefully. That’s basically the reality of how Christians in this particular country have to operate.”

Even the requirement that churches register in Muslim-dominated countries is difficult. Griffith states, “These laws that these countries are passing, they can be very arbitrary. Sometimes the provisions in these laws can be very contradictory. I know that some of them at times have been appealed to places like the International Court of Human Rights. I know that a lot of religious rights and human freedom watchdog organizations keep an eye on this sort of thing to see when new legislation comes out that could potentially impact the freedom of the churches.”

Now these church leaders from the SGA children’s camp could face property confiscation if they can’t pay the fines in a short amount of time.

Photo courtesy of SGA.

Photo courtesy of SGA.

“These church members and the church leaders even do not have a whole lot of resources. The fines, if I were to give them in American dollars, would not sound necessarily like a whole lot of money,” says Griffith. “But to these people who are largely very poverty stricken, these fines are sometimes insurmountable. It is a serious situation.”

Despite the oppression, believers in the Central Asian country are pressing on, says Griffith. “They lived under the communist system and they know what it’s like to have to operate under these restrictions and even worse. They’re certainly going to keep proclaiming the Gospel as they always have.”

Griffith goes on to share, “The purpose of our ministry at SGA is basically to come alongside them and serve them however they need us. First we help by getting the word out for intercessory prayer and then we do our best to help sponsor in terms of some of the financial resources they need for the children’s Bibles, materials, supplies…. Yet as I say we have to do it very discreetly because of the issues that get raised.”

When SGA was founded around 80 years ago, Founder Peter Deyneka’s motto was, “Much prayer; much power.” Please pray for the church leaders to be able to pay the fines and to continue in ministry somehow. Pray for the kids and their families, and for religious freedom in Central Asia.

If you’d like to support SGA’s ongoing ministry with churches and children’s summer camps, click here.

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