November 2017

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Spiritual Freedom Coming to Formerly Soviet Central Asia!

by Keith Carey

The nomadic herdsmen had heard the sounds of hooves before, but not this many! This time it was a thunderous rumble. The cavalry of Islam was on its way, and life would never be the same.
It was the 700s, less than 100 years after the death of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. He started his movement in 622 and died in 632. By that time, his Arab-based, Islamic military force was unstoppable. Islamic armies that controlled the Arabian Peninsula were now moving west throughout North Africa and into Spain, but others were moving east into the Central Asian nations we will pray for this month: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan. This region was called “Turkestan,” for many years. It included the land of the Uighurs, which we will also cover this month, even though it’s part of China. The former Soviet nations are each named after the dominant people groups, though there are others that we will include in our daily entries. Most of these other people groups are unengaged, meaning they have no Christian resources or workers among them.
By the end of the 8th century, this entire region was Islamic, especially among the settled, urban populations, but it took several more centuries for Islam to penetrate some of the more nomadic peoples who were ancestors of the modern Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks. Even today, the Kyrgyz are Muslim in name only; they are much more involved with shamanism and the occult than the other major people groups of this region. They all remained part of the Sunni branch of Islam, with the exception of the Azerbaijanis, who became Shi’ites in the 16th century.
Through the centuries these six nations were all part of various powerful empires: the Persian Empire, the Mongol Empire, and in the case of Azerbaijan, the Ottoman Empire. They lived along the famous Silk Roads which joined China in the east with Europe in the west. These trade routes, which had been used since the days of the Roman Empire, were nicknamed the “silk roads” in 1877 by Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geographer. These people groups were key players in world trade.


The Rise of the Russian Empire
The thunder of hooves began again in the 18th and 19th centuries as the Russian Empire expanded further east and south. Going south, the Russians took what are now the six countries that we will focus on this month as well as other lands. The Central Asians were unprepared to resist the advances of the Russian Empire. The only serious opposition the Russians faced was from the Kazakhs, who fought them for nine years. By the 1860s, it was clear that Russia had control over this region. Russian farmers began to arrive to farm Central Asian soil in the 1870s, and by the 1890s, they were a dominant force. The Russians did not impose their Orthodox Christian religion on their new Muslim subjects, but they restricted Islamic teachings fearing that it could promote rebellion.
Things became much worse for the Muslim peoples once communism was introduced in 1917. The state’s official policy now promoted atheism, and all beliefs in a spiritual realm were viewed as superstitions or vestiges of the past that had no place in the “progressive” world being envisioned by the communists. Communist policies were especially harsh during the 1920s-30s. Religious schooling was banned in Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, women were not allowed to wear the traditional veil as one of the efforts to grant women civil rights and dilute Muslim culture. In Uzbekistan the government introduced competing Islamic ideologies to prevent the Uzbeks from unifying under one Muslim banner. It many cases religious clerics were killed by the communists. They closed mosques and used them for other purposes, just as they did with churches. The education system was intended to erase or at least weaken the Islamic heritage, and make Central Asians more like the Russians. The government of the USSR spewed out propaganda which portrayed Muslims as backward and superstitious.

After the Fall of the USSR
Despite these efforts, Islam remained an important part of the identity of the peoples of Turkestan, even if they had forgotten many of the tenets of Islam. This is true for both old and young, rural and urban. It was clear that “religion” cannot be eliminated by the state.
However, religion can be weakened considerably. Religious leaders outside of the former USSR stepped in to change this situation. Throughout the newly liberated Central Asian nations, mosques and religious schools were introduced by outsiders to strengthen Islamic beliefs and switch their allegiance to other nation states or religious organizations. Turkmenistan has taken on a policy of opposing efforts to revitalize Islam, because they believe this is part of an effort to radicalize and politicize religion. Unfortunately, anyone wanting to share the gospel of Jesus Christ is also highly suspect. Being adjacent to Iran and having a substantial Shi’ite population, Azerbaijan is more susceptible to influence from Iranian clerics trying to strengthen ties with Iran and with Shi’ite Islam.
There were efforts to take the gospel into this part of the world in the early 1990s. For example, the JESUS Film was sometimes used in Russian schools as part of moral teachings. Unfortunately, there was little effort to reach all the unreached in this part of the world. Mission efforts were mainly among Russian speakers, especially in the urban centers of Russia and Kazakhstan, leaving a very few to reach indigenous peoples whose heart language was not Russian.
Despite the lack of coordinated efforts, we have seen amazing progress of the gospel since the fall of the USSR 25 years ago. Though these are only estimates, here is what we believe is happening among key unreached people groups that had few, or often no followers of Christ 25 years ago.
Azerbaijanis: 10,000
Kazakhs: 16,300
Kyrgyz: 5,000
Tajiks: 2,600
Turkmen: 1,000
Uzbeks: 4,500
Uighurs (China): 400
Turks (Turkey): 5,000
Though these are all still unreached people groups, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, each of them have enough believers to establish a strong disciple making movement. We don’t know how many are now believers among the smaller unreached people groups we will pray for this month, but we know that they all need your prayers.

Let’s Pray!
• Pray for evangelists and missionaries to bring in a full harvest.
• Pray for the Holy Spirit to raise up pastors to shepherd the flocks.
• Pray for the good news to spread from house to house and family to family.
• Pray for believers to stand firm as they face persecution. Pray that they will be salt and light and walk in the fruit of the Holy Spirit even during the darkest times.
• Pray for a powerful disciple making movement among every major people group in this region.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey, editor, GPD

Dear Praying Friends,
How many of you remember the fall of the USSR on December 25, 1991? It was like God was giving the world a Christmas present in response to 70 years of prayer for freedom! I was in Kolkotta, looking for information on unreached people groups at the time, and I didn’t expect such a world-changing event to happen so suddenly.
It didn’t take long before believers were going into the former USSR trying to find those who would give Jesus a chance to give them spiritual freedom to go alongside their new political freedom. People brought in the JESUS Film, and many lives were touched in the former USSR. At the time, I was skeptical. It seemed that efforts went only in the urban centers.
But read on. You will find that the larger people groups that had almost no believers in 1991 now have at least a thousand, or usually thousands of believers. These groups are in the process of being reached. But the smaller ones are still left behind, so we will pray for spiritual toeholds among them as well. At the end of this month, we will pray for what is happening in Turkey, though it is outside of the former USSR.