KYRGYZSTAN: Protestant Converts Pressured to Renounce New Faith.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 9 November 2001

A year and a half after first conducting missionary activity in the village of Chon-Tash, 15 kilometres (10 miles) south of the capital Bishkek, a Protestant church which draws its members from the ethnic Kyrgyz population has complained that its new community in the village, which once had 40 members, has almost been destroyed under pressure from local people. Islambek Karatayev, the chief pastor of the Church of Jesus, told Keston News Service on 5 November that local villagers had isolated church members and pressured them to return to Islam and that the village's council of elders had "banned" Christianity. A September meeting the church hoped would lead to reconciliation ended amid further condemnation of the Protestants. This is not the first instance when converts from a Muslim background have faced heavy social pressure to renounce their new faith. Other Protestants, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses, have reported similar pressure, especially in villages in southern Kyrgyzstan.

When a group of Church of Jesus members arrived in Chon-Tash on 6 May 2000 to preach, the villagers severely beat them. One church member, Telega Isayeva, had two teeth knocked out. Karatayev told Keston that not only had no criminal case been brought against the offenders, but they were also still "persecuting" church members with impunity.

The villagers have isolated the Protestants, refusing to bury their relatives in the local cemetery and to invite them to community events, a great insult in traditional Kyrgyz society. They tell other pupils not to talk to the children of Syrga Sarukiyeva, the church's pastor in the village. Karatayev told Keston that initially the Chon-Tash church had around 40 members, but because of the "persecution" practically all had renounced the Christian faith. Under pressure from the villagers, one former church member tore up a Bible in front of Sarukiyeva and threw it at her feet.

According to Karatayev, on 26 September the Church of Jesus made an attempt at reconciliation, organising a meeting with the villagers. Among those attending were the chief specialist of the Tash-Tyube village council Mamakas Omurzakov (the village of Chon-Tash is within his remit), the village's council of elders, representatives of the local mosque, Kyrgyzstan's deputy mufti, Ilyas Haji, and members of the Church of Jesus. According to Karatayev, the meeting turned into a kangaroo court passing judgement on the Protestants. Ilyas Haji declared that a law should be introduced forbidding Kyrgyz from adopting Christianity, and he called the Protestants present at the meeting "dogs". The council of elders decided to ban Christianity in the village and warned the Protestants that if they did not stop preaching they "would not escape the people's wrath". When the Protestant delegation left the village, the local people pelted them with stones and apples.

"I'm not going to deny that the Protestants were insulted at the meeting on 26 September, and that the council of elders resolved that the preaching of Christianity in the village of Chon-Tash was unacceptable," Omurzakov told Keston on 6 November in the nearby village of Vorontsovka. "But the Protestants must understand that Chon-Tash is a purely Kyrgyz village, where practically all the villagers are Muslims. It is far from simple to preach Christianity in a place like that. We cannot give police protection to every local Protestant. Moreover, if we start to force local people to leave the Protestants alone, that could simply lead to revolt. Let the Protestants go to a village where there are a lot of Russians, and then their problems will vanish." Omurzakov pointed out that a Protestant church operated freely in Vorontsovka, which has a large ethnic Russian population.

"I know all about the situation in Chon-Tash," the head of the Commission for Religious Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, Omurzak Mamayusupov, told Keston in Bishkek on 7 November. "But you must understand that religion is an extremely delicate issue, and legal decisions that have not been thought through could lead to bloodshed." He said his commission therefore tried to act cautiously. "We must first do preparatory work with the Chon-Tash villagers, and then Christians will be able to preach their views freely."

In another instance of pressure on Muslim converts to Christianity, on 29 December 2000 residents of Kuruk-Kul, a village in the Jalal-abad region of southern Kyrgyzstan populated by ethnic Uzbeks, tried to condemn their fellow-villagers who had converted to Christianity under Shariah law. A crowd of several thousand demanded that the converts be punished. The police only managed to save the Christians by means of deceit, pretending that they were arresting them and removing them from the angry crowd in a police van.

The Islamic clergy have virtually condoned such pressure on Muslim converts to Christianity. Speaking to Keston in August in the town of Jalal-abad, the mufti of the region Dilmurat Haji Orozov claimed that the Kuruk-Kul villagers had not converted to Christianity for ideological reasons, but because they had been seduced by money. (END)