Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

KYRGYZSTAN: Muslim Anger Over Protestant Converts

A confrontation is growing between members of the majority faith and recent Christian converts amid a battle for the nation's souls.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Tension between Muslims and new Christian groups in Kyrgyzstan, which is increasing because of their allegedly "hard sell" proselytism, has reached boiling point over the issue of burial rights.


The latest heated dispute erupted when the family of a Baptist convert in Naryn was refused permission to bury him in the local Muslim cemetery.


Authorities in the isolated town, which has no record of religious conflict, quickly intervened before the conflict spiraled out of control and allocated him a separate piece of ground for burial.


Earlier in the year the spiritual leader of the Muslim community outlawed the burial of non-Muslims in Islamic graveyards.


Christian groups condemned the move as an infringement of their civil rights. They say many of their congregations live in fear and accuse the Muslim leadership of promoting conflict amid the post-Soviet religious boom.


Muslims, for their part, say the new Christian groups, most of which are Protestant, are being provocative by spreading their "propaganda".


Kyrgyzstan's deputy Mufti, Abdulla Haji Asrankulov, told IWPR the decree on graveyards had been adopted following appeals by many of the country's Muslims.


"Over 80 per cent of the population of Kyrgyzstan is Muslim and we don't have the right to ignore their demands," he said. "After all, democracy entails the subordination of the demands of the minority to those of the majority."


Another Muslim leader, Ilyazbek Nazarbekov, insisted there had been widespread complaints about the actions of people spreading non-traditional faiths.


"Their preachers visit the homes and apartments of the Kyrgyz and force their literature on residents, urging them to adopt a new faith. We also know that under the cover of offering humanitarian aid, they buy off certain people," he said.


Feelings are running so high that during a fracas in the small village of Ak-Tyuz, in the Chui region, there were popular demands for the expulsion of local Christians, the media reported.


The assistant minister of Bishkek's Protestant Church of Jesus Christ, Talasbek Akylbekov, responded by pointing out that the Kyrgyz constitution grants equal rights to all faiths, barring discrimination over matters such as burial.


"The Muslim leadership should come to terms with the new reality. People now have freedom of choice, and that includes freedom to choose their faith," he said.


The church's minister, Islambek Karataev, a reformed alcoholic and drug addict, believes about 5,000 Protestants are now active in Kyrgyzstan. Many others are passive followers who choose not to openly demonstrate their beliefs, often because they fear being "punished" by their neighbours, he says.


Karataev emphasises that converts are loyal to the state. "We've changed our faith but that doesn't mean that we've rejected our nationality," he says. "We still believe in the century-long traditions and customs of our forefathers."


The conflicts and extreme rhetoric come as parliament is due to debate a new law on freedom of religion, a move that the leaderships of Kyrgyzstan's established faiths - Islam and Russian Orthodoxy - have fiercely opposed.


In a harsh statement, Muslim leaders warned that the bill on freedom of belief and religious organisations would "legalise the harmful activities of heretical movements and under the guise of liberty of conscience strengthen the expansion of this quiet and creeping revolution".


The years following the collapse of the atheist Soviet Union have seen people in this country of five million flock to places of worship.


The number of mosques has risen by a factor of 34. Before 1991 there were no Islamic educational institutions in Kyrgyzstan. Now there are more than 40. Russian Orthodox congregations have also grown.


But the Protestants have grown fastest proportionally. They now boast 151 registered congregations, compared to none before independence.


Not everyone puts this down to Christianity's intrinsic appeal. One deputy in parliament, Tursunbai Bakir uulu, blames the clampdown on a number of Islamic groups driving people to other faiths.


The State Commission on Religious Affairs, which all religious bodies must register with, traces the rise in conflicts between Muslims and Protestant converts to 1995. Since then, it says, what were sporadic incidents have become more commonplace.


But the chair of the commission, Omurzak Mamayusupov, says there are few grounds for serious concern, as interest in other religions is a natural part of the democratisation process. Where the Christians will bury their dead during this process remains to be seen.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Kyrgyzstan