November 2008

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Central Asia Today!

by Krista Wells

Oil wealth, the silk road, Islamic extremists and war; these all sound familiar when we think of Central Asia. There is much more going on beneath the surface than the nightly news would lead one to believe.

Today’s Economies in the Former Soviet Central Asia

Central Asia has experienced major economic changes since the demise of the USSR in 1991. Under Soviet rule, communist ideas were adopted and some national heritage was lost. These countries have endured hardships and divisions among their own people, and are in the process of transitioning into countries that can stand on their own. However, economic stability and religious freedom seem to have an inverse relationship.

As former Soviet Republics declared their sovereignty, conditions worsened in these areas because they were not equipped to lead themselves. According to the “UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific,” poverty increased in the former Soviet Republics throughout the 1990s. Azerbaijan had a poverty level of 62 percent; Kazakhstan reached 43.8 percent, Kyrgyzstan 64 percent, and Tajikistan 83 percent. Conditions improved after the turn of the 21st century. Azerbaijan’s poverty rate dropped to 29.3 percent; Kazakhstan fell to 18.2 percent, Kyrgyzstan to 45.9 percent, and Tajikistan to 64 percent. Unfortunately, although there has been an improvement in the economy, the distribution of wealth in many of these former Soviet countries is especially favorable to the rich.

Kazakhstan has done especially well since independence. Today it is a stable democratic country as well as a doorway to transformation of the surrounding nations. Russian influence remains in the country, since nearly half of the population is ethnically Russian. Only 47 percent of Kazakhstan is Muslim (mostly ethnic Kazakhs) and 46 percent are Orthodox Christians (mostly Russian). Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources and has the political stability to be self-sufficient. Since 1991, the country has undergone many political, social and economic reforms, and they even managed to pay off their national debt in 2000, seven years ahead of schedule.

According to IRIN, a news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the current world food crisis has affected Central Asia considerably. This year, crops were destroyed by an unusually harsh winter and spring floods. Kazakhstan placed a ban on wheat exports so they can take care of their own food needs and control internal inflation. Neighboring countries, especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are suffering because of their dependency on Kazakh wheat. Tajikistan does not have the ability to supply its own country with wheat yet: wheat production must double. After the destruction of their own crops, many Afghans have moved to Iran to find work because of damaged crops. Some of these people have been deported back to Afghanistan.

Malnutrition has made its presence known in this part of the world. After the separation of the USSR, countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan did not have the resources to make iodized salt. Lack of iodine in the diet has incredible impact on brain development, especially for pregnant women. Of the Central Asian nations, UNICEF reports Tajikistan to have the highest percentage of chronic malnutrition among children, 27 percent. Children with chronic malnutrition experience stunted growth and missing vitamins and minerals, as well as intellectual setbacks.

Child labor is still prevalent in Central Asia according to IRIN. Many children work to support their families, but in some cases they are forced in the fields by the government. Tajikistan is one of the poorest Central Asian nations; Tajik children work very hard, long hours to take care of their families. However, in Uzbekistan, schools have been closed in past years to send the children to harvest in the cotton fields for very little pay. The government highly benefits off these precious children’s labor. Several clothing companies have joined in a boycott against Uzbek cotton.

Iran’s 21st Century Spirital Revolution

Though most people in the Central Asian nations are somewhat secularized Sunni Muslims, Iran and Azerbaijan practice Shi’ite Islam. In recent years, Iran has taken a greater role in trying to gain political power for Shi’ite Islam in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Krikor Markarin (not his real name), a researcher with U.S. Center for World Mission, has been researching Iran for several years. The Iranian government is controlled by Shi’ite Muslim clerics who promote draconian measures to force surface Islamic behavior on the people of Iran. In doing so, they are driving the Persian people away from Islam, thus creating a spiritual vacuum. When there is a vacuum, something must fill it. In the United States, it is filled by secular humanism; Christianity is what is filling the void in Iran.

The youth of Iran are specifically drawn to Christianity. Seventy percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 30. This is significant because most people accept Christ in this age range. Every act of the Iranian government to prevent the spread of the gospel makes the church even stronger. The more repressive the government is, the more interested in Christianity Persian youths become. Because there is nothing for them to be involved in, they gather to talk and fellowship with other believers.

Demand for Bibles is sky-high in Iran. The Word is very precious to Persian believers. Markarin told a story of one woman that loved the Lord so passionately she could not stop herself from sharing about Jesus everywhere she went. She and her husband were running late one day, but had to stop by the grocery store. Her husband told her not to do her usual thing and evangelize the entire store. She tried her best to follow his instruction, but she could not help herself. She handed out Bibles and preached Jesus to everyone she saw. Then, as she was getting ready to leave she saw a Muslim leader sitting by the exit. She thought about going to talk to him, but was afraid and decided to go back to the car. As they drove away, she turned to her husband and said, “We have to go back.” When she went back, the Muslim leader was still sitting there. She handed him the Bible and with tears in his eyes, he looked at her and told her Jesus had appeared to him the night before and told him to wait in that spot and someone would bring him a Bible. God is moving mightily in Iran!

Christian satellite broadcasting is widespread. Christian programming is not allowed in Iran, but the government is corrupt and there are loopholes. A recent survey suggests that 70 percent of the population has seen Christian broadcasts, and every family knows at least one person that is a Christian. In fact, there are so many faithful viewers that programming has been able to shift to a discipleship focus.

Once a house-church in Iran reaches 25 members, the group splits in half and multiplies their numbers. The Iranian government has been infiltrating these groups with people who pose as new believers. They have forced all members of several house-churches to sign a contract promising to never meet again or face punishment. The young church in Iran is on the doorstep of major growth, but also major persecution. Believers face imprisonment and threats of violence. The government is currently working to pass a law that would call for the execution of any Muslim that converts to another religion.

Prayer Request

Pray that the new believers in Iran would be strengthened to withstand persecution. Pray for their protection and the ability to continue spreading the gospel. Pray for church growth among every people in Iran.
Pray for creative ways of getting the Bible to the people of the Central Asian nations. Pray for a hunger in these nations for the One True God.
Turkmenistan is in the midst of major political changes. They are making the transition from a political leader who enforced a personality cult to a more reasonable form of government. Pray for political leaders in Turkmenistan to serve the needs of the Turkmen people. Pray that their new political leaders will learn to be servant leaders and embrace the Servant King.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

You may wonder why we haven’t done a “current events” issue before. Our main reason is that we work about six months in advance, so what was in the news in April may no longer be current. At the same time, the unreached people groups of Central Asia, or any other region for that matter, are facing the same challenges they faced a couple of years ago.

One of the issues you will see in this prayer guide is persecution. Our biography will deal with the brutal murder of workers in Turkey, a country that is currently going two different directions. Most Turks are so opposed to Islamic extremism that they have forbidden women from wearing headscarves on college campuses. Instead of wanting to distance themselves from the West, many Turks favor joining the European Union. But there is also a violent minority in Turkey. As one person who lives there pointed out, anything you read about Turkey is true somewhere in Turkey.

The other country in this region that is going two different directions is Iran. Their youth have grown up in such a controlled environment that many are rebelling. In some cases, this means watching MTV, but in other cases, Persians are seeking Christ. Let’s pray that the stifling environment will lead Persians to Christ rather than to Western hedonism. While you are at it, you can pray that for just about any people group in this region.