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Dr David Radford

Kyrgyz people convert to Christianity without losing their ethnic identity

David Radford teaches sociology at the University of South Australia. Over the past 15 years, he has conducted a variety of research on mobilities, identities and social change. He is currently exploring issues around migration and multiculturalism and their impact on diversity, identity, and belonging in rural and urban communities in Australia, with a particular interest in refugee background migrants.

In 2015 he published the book, "Religious Identity and Social Change" based on fieldwork that he conducted between 2004 and 2008. The sociological study explores the implication of conversion to Christianity in Kyrgyzstan.

The book on Protestants in Kyrgyzstan is considered important as it helps to understand the broader situation of Christians in this understudied region of Asia.

Could please tell us something about yourself?

I'm originally from Australia. But most of my life, from childhood through adulthood, I have lived outside Australia.

Recent Interviews

My interest in the topic came about when I was working in a non-academic capacity with a faith-based youth organization in India and became increasingly aware of developments and changes after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Around the late 1980s and early 1990s, a revitalization of religion was taking place both in terms of Islam and Christianity in Central Asia.  After my own studies of religion comparing Muslim and Hindu fundamentalism, I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to explore what was happening in Central Asia with its rapidly changing context. That’s what resulted in the book about Kyrgyzstan.

Could you give us an overview of the religious landscape in Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan has some 7 million people. Figures would say that close to 90 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims, and some 8 percent would be Russian Orthodox Christians and minorities. The rest, 2 percent or so, would be other religious groups, including other Christians, mostly Protestants.

But Kyrgyzstan has an interesting kind of eclectic history about what makes up Kyrgyzstan and its religious framework. All of these different elements impact the particular topic of Kyrgyz Muslims becoming Protestant Christians.

In terms of that religious landscape, the first interesting contextual issue was the role of Soviet secularization and its ratification up until 1991, when Kyrgyzstan got independence.

During the Soviet period, there were strong anti-religious policies towards all religious groups, Muslim and Christian, and certainly, this negatively affected Islam in Central Asia.

Along with promoting an atheist kind of framework and outlook on life, they also tried to replace religious rituals and practices with atheistic ones.  So, you'd have pilgrimages to the tomb of Lenin in Moscow.

You can see another example in what one of my respondents told me. When they were in class in school, they were told that Lenin “is who is, who was, and who is to come.” This, of course, is how the New Testament presents Jesus Christ.

These attempts at replacing religion with communist belief and practice were important because in 1991 when Kyrgyzstan became independent, the role of religion had been significantly diminished. Islam largely came to be associated with ethnic identity rather than a religious identity for many Kyrgyz in Central Asia.

Pope Francis inspects the cornerstone for the new Catholic cathedral in Bishkek before blessing it. (Photo: catholic.kg)

But the majority of them were Muslims, right?

The majority would certainly have had a secular or atheist outlook after 70 years of Soviet propaganda and education. At the same time, Islam in Kyrgyzstan had a particular form, and while it has its roots in Hanafi Sunni Islam, it was really what is commonly referred to as folk or popular Islam.

There were synchronistic practices that drew on some aspects of orthodox Islam but this was mixed in the Kyrgyz situation with shamanistic and animistic practices that were a part of their traditional nomadic heritage.

For instance, they might have the mullah (the Muslim prayer leader) come for ceremonies such as circumcision, funerals and weddings. But they are also as likely to go to a physical object for help. For example, they may go to a stream or a rock to pray, believing that there is power in that physical reality to help with healing, for wanting children, or whatever their personal needs were.

So, there was certainly this mixing. And of course, because of the Soviet context, they didn't have strong religious institutions or authorities. So that's kind of the Muslim context in which the Kyrgyz found themselves at the time of independence from the Soviet Union.

How about Christians?

Of course, there was the Eastern Orthodox Church with Russian Orthodoxy, and this had been there since the Czarist period before the communists took over. But it was largely focused on Russian or Slavic people.

The small Catholic community in Kyrgyzstan has historical roots in Franciscan missionaries, who brought faith there in the 14th and 15th centuries.

But only when Polish and German settlers moved in the 19th century the Catholic Church began to grow a bit more. Then, through forced migration in the Stalin period, Germans, Ukrainians, and other Central Europeans moved in.

Currently, there would be an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Catholics in Kyrgyzstan, mostly of Polish background, but again a mixture of Russians, Germans, and some Koreans.

However, many of these Catholics of European background left Kyrgyzstan after independence in 1991, so those numbers were also affected.

Kyrgyzstan also has a smaller number of Protestant churches, which include Baptists, Pentecostals and Lutherans.

Since 1991, we can see Kyrgyzstan developing itself into a sort of ‘marketplace’ for religious groups, which included a variety of Muslim groups not traditionally associated with Kyrgyz Islam, particularly from Turkey, the Middle East and Pakistan.

A number of foreign Christian missionaries from South Korea arrived at that time. Many Koreans moved into Central Asia during the Stalin period and were a focus for South Korean missionary engagement, although they also reached out to other groups as well. Missionaries from predominantly Western countries also moved in at that time and worked among Russian and Kyrgyz speaking populations.

A 3D model of the proposed Catholic cathedral in Bishkek. (Photo: catholic.kg)

Which group was the focus of your study?

My book particularly focuses on the Kyrgyz Christian community which was started around the late 1980s, and early 1990s by an ethnic German, who migrated during the Soviet period. He was originally from the Baptist Church. Actually, without the Baptist Church’s blessing, he went out on his own with a sense of call to reach out to the Kyrgyz community.

Some other Christian groups entertained a sort of ethnic prejudice toward the Kyrgyz community, and he was the first one to move beyond that prejudice to reach out to the Kyrgyz community.

What was the main finding of your research?

The research highlights the interconnectedness for many people between religion and ethnic identity.  What happens when religious mobility through conversion takes place?

The book argues that we can understand the religious conversion of Muslim Kyrgyz to Protestant Christianity through an understanding of the social, cultural, religious, and political context of post-Soviet Central Asia. Particularly, Protestant Christianity was seen as what we would say in sociology, a deviant religious identity.

It wasn't normal for Kyrgyz to be Christian. Indeed, embracing the Christian faith struck at the heart of Kyrgyz's identity. As in many other parts of Central Asia, the common saying was, “to be Kyrgyz, is to be Muslim.” The idea of religious and ethnic identity was interconnected.

But what happens when you don't consider yourself Muslim anymore? Do you stop being Kyrgyz because you stopped being Muslim? Or do you stop being Kyrgyz if your religious identity has changed?

The book speaks about the way Kyrgyz Christians have entered a dynamic process of engaging with this issue of identity — what it means to be Kyrgyz. This occurs through a process that seeks to locate their new Christian religious identity within the Kyrgyz community, not on the margins as it were.

The book describes how Kyrgyz Christians have challenged the Kyrgyz-Muslim identity construct by negotiating and reconstructing what ethnic identity means in light of their new Christian faith — drawing on from Kyrgyz cultural traditions, practices, beliefs, language and history. This answers the question: What does it mean to be Kyrgyz beyond a strictly Muslim framework? In other words, for many Kyrgyz Christian participants in the research, to be Kyrgyz is to be Christian, as well as to be Muslim. A few participants actually said that they felt a stronger sense of Kyrgyz ethnic identity because of their Christian faith.

The book also highlights the growth of the church. At the time of my research in 2004, upwards of 20,000 Muslim Kyrgyz had become Protestant Christians, and that's very significant in the context of the Muslim community around the world. There are not many places where such large numbers of Muslims have become Christians, in this particular case, Protestant Christians.

The research demonstrates that after 1991, some foreign missionaries were present. But the change of religion was largely an indigenous phenomenon. It was Kyrgyz Christians reaching out to other Kyrgyz Christians. It showed that even in religious conversion, people will seek to maintain continuity — socially and culturally — as much as possible.

What was your methodological approach?

I used a mixed methods approach. This included ethnography and participant observation, which is an approach that seeks to engage in community with the people that you're studying. I used an inductive approach. It means, while I had some knowledge about the religious conversion of Christian and Muslim communities, I wanted to explore religious conversion among the Kyrgyz Christian community and draw from the information they offered.

I was attempting to find out what was happening rather than trying to impose what I thought was happening in terms of conversion. I also wanted to focus on conversion from the perspective of those who were converting.

I lived in Kyrgyzstan for several years. I participated in several Christian events, went to people's homes and ate with them. I also conducted life history narrative interviews with nearly 50 Kyrgyz Christians, urban and an extensive survey with about 500 Kyrgyz Christians of different ages, genders, Protestant groups, and from both urban/rural locations across Kyrgyzstan. This was done to understand how prevalent the findings from the interviews were across the whole Kyrgyz Christian community.

Father Anthony Corcoran S.J., Apostolic Administrator of Kyrgyzstan gestures during the rite of Holy Confirmation. (Photo: catholic.kg)

Since this survey in 2008, how have things evolved in the ground?

Several different changes have taken place.

Certainly in 1991, when Kyrgyzstan became independent, it became probably the most “democratic country” in Central Asia. I say so because the previous Communist Party suddenly became the ‘Democratic’ Party of Kyrgyzstan. The structures tended to still be authoritarian with a democratic veneer.

Nevertheless, compared to the other countries in Central Asia, it was more democratic. Kyrgyzstan has held elections several times and has replaced leaders through a democratic process. The fairness of those processes may be questionable, but at least they have something of a democratic process.

Kyrgyzstan built its first post-Soviet constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion. So right from the beginning, they had constitutional freedom to practice and propagate their religious belief.

There have been over the years increasing restrictions with the growth of institutional Islam and also with some pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church that saw itself as the traditional pre-eminent Christian presence in Central Asia and in Kyrgyzstan.

There were pressures on groups that did not conform to particular religious identities and so increasingly restrictions have been implemented. Although there is still somewhat freedom of religion.

Kyrgyz Christianity grew very quickly in a few years and formed into local churches and groups.

There have been challenges within the Christian community over different factors including leadership issues. But in that kind of teething period of early growth, they continued to at least stabilize in terms of numbers. I don't think the number is growing as much now as it did in those early years.

How is your research impacting your own understanding of Christianity?

The research reminded me that when people embrace a new religious faith, such as Christianity, they want to feel that while the religious identity may be new, it needs to be their own, as it were, an indigenization of their faith.

Kyrgyz Christians read the Bible in their own language, not just in Russian, which was seen as a kind of colonial language. When Kyrgyz Christians can worship in their language, with their music, it reinforces to them that they're not betraying their culture or their cultural identity, but in fact, Christianity becomes a part of their Kyrgyz cultural identity.

One Kyrgyz Christian told me that before they became a Christian, they saw Christianity as a religion associated with Russians, Slavic or German people. One day someone invited this person to a Christian meeting. They walked into the meeting room and saw Kyrgyz people sitting around playing Kyrgyz musical instruments, using the Kyrgyz languages and melodies.

“As I walked into the room, I knew Christianity was mine,” she told me.

I think Christianity becomes global in the sense of people connect it with the global Christian community. But at the same time, it also needs to become local so that people's beliefs and experiences become real to their own context and their own cultural identity.

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