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Welcome for Unification Church Raises Eyebrows in Kyrgyzstan

Why have so many leading figures publicly lent their support to a foreign faith group?
By Astra Sadybakasova
The appearance of leading Kyrgyz and public figures at a welcoming ceremony for the Unification Church – better known as the Moonies - has left many observers shocked at what they see as a breach of the separation of church from state.



Critics say foreign faith groups with a missionary agenda are seeking friends in high places to allow them to operate freely in the country.



The scandal began when Hak Ja Han, the wife of the Unification Church’s founder, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, arrived in Kyrgyzstan on June 18, and was feted by leading politicians and academics at a formal ceremony shown on national television.



The Reverend and Mrs Moon stand at the top of the worldwide following of the Unification Church, whose stated aim is to unite all Christian faiths.



The visit to Kyrgyz trip was part of a world tour which Mrs Moon said she was making in support of peace and family values, both major themes in the church’s world view.



At the ceremony, certificates conferring the honorary title of “ambassador of peace” were handed out to a district government chief in Bishkek, the head of the Kyrgyz committee of UNESCO, and four university and college rectors.



The reaction that followed was swift, and highly critical of the decision by officials to publicly align themselves with the Unification Church.



The Forum of Young Politicians, a non-government association of young civil society leaders, led the attack, issuing a statement addressed to the Kyrgyz president and prime minister on June 22 saying the participating officials had contravened both the constitution and the law on public service, which require the secular institutions of state to remain separate from religion.



“It can’t be ruled out that this event was held with the cognisance of the country’s leadership - if not with its [explicit] approval, then with silent assent,” said Alisher Mamasaliev, a member of the youth forum’s coordinating council. “Had it been otherwise, the Moonies would not have been given the [state-owned] philharmonic hall.



He concluded by saying the officials concerned should face sanctions, including dismissal.



Mamasaliev said later that after making these critical remarks, he received several anonymous threatening phone calls. “This means that influential people in Kyrgyzstan are behind Moon’s sect,” he said.



Separately, Deputy Education Minister Kanybek Osmonaliev said it was wrong of rectors from leading universities to take part in the meeting with Mrs Moon. He said the ministry would not allow university staff to be actively involved with religious groups.



“We do not support this action, because it goes against our basic legislation and the country’s constitution,” he said. “As soon as we receive official documentation, we will be discussing the matter with each rector on a one-to-one basis.”



The reaction reflects a widespread concern that Kyrgyzstan is vulnerable to foreign proselytising groups who have found many converts here, as in other former Soviet states, among those left impoverished in the years since independence in 1991. Kyrgyzstan has seen an influx of such groups, mainly Christian, since independence.



The two long established religious communities – Muslims and Orthodox Christianity have been unhappy with the number of converts to these outside groups, since they generally do not try to recruit among each other’s congregations.



According to political observer Dmitry Orlov, “Both the authorities and society are weak, so [groups] like Moon’s have a lot of influence. At one point, the international institutions insisted that a provision on freedom of conscience should be incorporated into Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. It’s this provision that has undermined the authority of the [Orthodox] church and the mosque by creating a sphere in which various faith groups can operate.”



Given the Unification Church’s worldwide reach, substantial financial resources and record of seeking political support in other countries, critics fear it could quickly gain a foothold through political connections in Kyrgyzstan.



The Unification Church has been courting Kyrgyz officials for some time, apparently with some success since when the Reverend Moon visited Bishkek in October 2005, he was given the use of the Alaa Archa state residence to meet his followers.



The chairman of the Kyrgyzstan state commission for human rights Tursunbek Akun was made an “ambassador of peace” by the Unification Church on a visit to South Korea.



Following the latest ceremony, Akun denied being involved in the Unification Church, saying that as a human rights advocate, he shared the anti-war views of the Universal Peace Federation, an organisation affilated with Moon’s church.



Kanybek Mamataliev, who works at the government department which deals with religious affairs, said the Unification Church “tries to award all kinds of important-sounding titles… [to] anyone who holds any power or who is of public or political importance”.



He concluded, “At this point, all the doors are open to Moon in this country.”



Journalist Dmitry Orlov says recruiting high-ranking figures through the award of titles is a standard tactic for the Unification Church. This gives the group “protection” in each country where it wants to operate, he said.



The church’s members in Kyrgyzstan say they do only good works.



In Bishkek, about 200 young followers live in one multi-storey building. Their leader Alexander Fokin insists the group is not a “sect” - a term used pejoratively in Kyrgyzstan - and that it works to help young people gain work and life skills.



“Young people are drawn to us themselves, and we meet them halfway,” said Fokin.



Kyrgyzstan’s official Muslim clerical establishment has not commented on the furore, but Father Nikolai of the Bishkek Orthodox Church said he had turned down an invitation to join the meeting.



“I was supposed to receive the title of ambassador of peace, but I ignored the invitation because the Orthodox Church has nothing in common with Moon’s sect. They are a secular organisation, and pursue exclusively self-interested aims.”



Astra Sadybakasova is a correspondent for the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty v Kyrgyzstane. Nurgul Omyralieva is an IWPR trainee.