When it comes to spiritual matters in Central Asia, the Russian Orthodox Church is having trouble competing. The church’s experiences in Kyrgyzstan highlight how it is losing ground to evangelical Christianity.
Central Asia, of course, is predominantly Muslim in its religious orientation. Yet, at least since the Russian Empire established its hold over the region in the late 19th century, the area has accommodated a large Christian minority. And right up until the demise of the Soviet empire in 1991, most Christians were followers of Russian Orthodoxy.
Repressed for much of the Communist era, Russian Orthodoxy began experiencing a revival in the 1980s. Following the Soviet collapse, however, the church in Kyrgyzstan encountered surprising competition. Encouraged by liberal legislation that permitted religious organizations to register with only 10 members, evangelical Protestant denominations with little or no traditional presence in Central Asia, often backed with cash from the West, grew quickly. These evangelical denominations targeted worshippers of all races and creeds, including the Russian church’s traditional demographic base: ethnic Slavs.
In 2009, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev approved new legislation to curtail aggressive proselytism and stem the growth of evangelical Christian and Islamic sects in the country. While religious freedom organizations criticized the bill, the local Orthodox diocese -- which had watched a steady trickle of young, ethnic Russians join “foreign” Protestant denominations -- supported it.
“In the years building up to the law there had been conflicts between converts of new faiths and [followers of] traditional religions,” said Ikboljan Mirsaidov, a senior lecturer at the Presidential Academy of Management in Bishkek and an expert on religious issues. Working with a government-run think-tank, Mirsaidov tried to bring the groups together to engage in dialogue. But representatives of the Russian church refused to participate, he told EurasiaNet.org. “They [Orthodox Church representatives] didn’t recognize the smaller denominations as confessions,” he said.
Mirsaidov attributes the growing influence of smaller Christian faiths to their ability to be more flexible and responsive to the spiritual concerns of their members -- qualities the Russian Orthodox Church, which is subservient to a Moscow-based hierarchy, has difficulty in matching.
The Church of Jesus Christ is recognized as among the best organized of the newer denominations in Kyrgyzstan, with an estimated membership of 12,000 across the country. Aside from offering followers work in church-owned canteens and hotels, the organization “has universities abroad where [members] can go and study. You return and they make you a pastor. [Such denominations] offer people social growth,” Mirsaidov said.
Ekaterina Ozmitel, a Russian Orthodox believer and a historian focusing on religion at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University in Bishkek, says that the Orthodox Church views these more dynamic, less-established Christian denominations “with some suspicion.” Orthodox clergy tend to believe “efforts to attract followers by appearing more modern usually lead to schisms among Christians,” she added.
Despite the fact that it has oversight responsibility for the registration of all religious groups, the State Committee on Religious Affairs could not tell EurasiaNet.org the number of followers of various denominations. A representative did say that Baptists is the second largest Christian denomination after Russian Orthodoxy. Ozmitel estimates roughly 5,000 Kyrgyzstanis attend Orthodox services regularly, with three times that number on major holidays.
While the spread of new denominations concerns local Orthodox clergy, Ozmitel said the Orthodox Church is unlikely to stray from tradition to gain new followers. Many smaller churches “focus on prosperity and self-enrichment, things the [Orthodox] church considers part of a secular, non-religious life,” she explained.
But for some ethnic Slavs, raised under the enforced atheism of the Soviet era, the Orthodox values of their ancestors are alien and lack appeal. Tatiyana Selin, a 31-year-old ethnic Ukrainian member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Christian Church, refers to the Russian Orthodox Church as “anti-modern.” Raised in a family she described as “nominally Orthodox,” she became a Presbyterian less than a year after her father’s funeral, a traditional Orthodox ceremony held in the family’s home.
“When the priest came over he was very harsh,” Selin said. “We had lost our father, but he [the priest] called us pagans for covering our mirrors with cloth, and reprimanded my brother for crossing himself incorrectly. He said that if there was a single gram of spirits on the table at my father’s memorial we would burn in hell. Later, I realized religion could be tolerant and fun.”
Experiences like Selin’s remain the exception rather than the rule, however, says Rev. Maxim Bratukhin, a pastor at the Bishkek-based Apostolic Orthodox Church. The majority of ethnic Slavs in Kyrgyzstan “enroll themselves automatically” into the Orthodox Church, he says.
Bratukhin’s church, which falls short of the 200 followers required for legal registration, shares many of the ceremonial practices of the Orthodox Church but accepts gays and lesbians. In March 2010, the Russian Orthodox Church condemned Bratukhin’s progressivism as a “calumny” and distanced itself in a strongly worded press release.
“As a Christian originally baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, I respect all creeds, but whether they also do is open to question,” Bratukhin said.
While Bratukhin says his and other small Christian churches – which have been more accepting of the Apostolic Orthodox Church than the local Russian Orthodox diocese has – would welcome deeper cooperation and an improved relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, he isn’t holding his breath.
“It is beneficial for them to continue to present themselves as the ‘Russian Church.’ It gives them a kind of official status. But for individuals more interested in personal spiritual development, there are now other denominations,” he said.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, this story originally misidentified the Church of Jesus Christ as the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.