March 2012

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Muslims in Eastern Europe Searching For their Place

by Keith Carey

When people think of Eastern Europe, they usually think of Eastern Orthodox or Catholic Slavic peoples, not Muslims. Though there are some Slavic Muslims, most of them have an Orthodox Christian background. Despite the decades of atheistic teachings they received during the Communist years, some Slavs did convert to Islam, and they are often viewed as traitors by their neighbors. Other Muslim peoples are viewed as potential enemies.
Why is this? To find out, we need only look at the history of this region. We will only describe what happened during the Tatar and Ottoman Turkish invasions in this issue of the Prayer Digest; but we will be telling only part of the story. The point is that for hundreds of years, when Slavic peoples have thought of Muslims, they have thought of brutal invaders. Such a situation creates a barrier to getting the gospel out to the Muslims in this region.

From North of the Black Sea: The Mongol Empire

The Mongols rolled out of the eastern steppes in the 13th century and were virtually unstoppable, conquering everyone in their path. Nomadic Turkic people who later became the Tatars were among those driven out of their homeland by the Mongols. The Tatars were conscripted by the Mongol conqueror, Batu Khan, to march west, obliterating Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary. Those who did this were referred to as Tatars, or Tatarus, in reference to a hellhound from Greek mythology.

The Mongols withdrew to ceremonially honor the death of the Great Khan Ogendei thousands of miles to the east in what is now Mongolia. This withdrawal kept the rest of Europe from being overrun by the Mongols. The Tatars settled in Eastern Europe where they remained vassals of Batu Khan. His realm was known as the Kipchak Khanate, better known as the Golden Horde. (A khanate was a Mongol controlled state). It was during this time that the Tatars converted from their shamanistic ways to Islam. To appease their subjects, the small, pagan Mongol elite encouraged Islamization by sponsoring the building of mosques. Some Mongol leaders used Islamic rhetoric about jihad to rally the Tatars to their raids. Ironically, the Mongol elite did not become Muslim until the 1400s when their empire was dissolving.

The Golden Horde was especially powerful by the 1370s when it stretched from Lithuania to Kazakhstan. For the next 200 years their armies brutally dominated Christian Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe through enslavement, high taxes, and harsh direct rule. Though the Tatars were only one of the Turkic peoples who acted as occupiers and oppressors, anyone who filled this role was labeled a “ Tatar.”

In the 1400s, the Golden Horde was losing power. They faced new challenges from the Black Plague, which decimated much of the world at that time, rivalries for power from within, and emerging empires on their borders. The Muslim conqueror Timur, also known as Tamerlane, managed to burn the Golden Horde’s capital at Saray to the ground. The Golden Horde splintered into smaller, weaker states that were soon challenged by Russia’s Ivan the Terrible. Though Tatars from Ukraine’s Crimea raided Russia, burned villages and sent thousands of Christians to Muslim slave markets, Ivan eventually got the upper hand. He destroyed a Tatar army and began to consolidate a new Russian Empire with himself as the first tsar, Russian for Caesar. Ivan’s army invaded a Tatar territory, destroyed it, and forced the remaining inhabitants to convert to Orthodox Christianity. He went on to crush two more khanates. The last to fall was the Crimean Khanate, which wasn’t conquered until the 18th century by Catherine the Great. The tables had turned; the Muslim Tatars were now controlled by the new Russian Empire.

From the South of the Black Sea: The Ottoman Empire

The Tatars were not the only Turkic peoples to be driven from their homes by the Mongols in the 1300s. During the 8th and 9th centuries nomadic Turkish tribes converted to Islam. They began to conquer new lands for Islam and gathered war booty for themselves. The more settled and highly Islamized Seljuk Turks sent these nomads into the eastern edge of the Byzantine Empire. In the 11th century a tribe known as the Ottomans began to dominate the other nomadic Turkic peoples. The emerging Ottoman Empire extended into what is now known as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Though they seriously threatened the Western European states, their biggest threat was to Eastern Europe, especially to what is now Greece and Bulgaria.

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire that survived and flourished centuries after Rome’s demise in the 5th century. After chipping away at the ancient empire for many years, the Turkic Muslim based Ottomans finally conquered the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, in 1453. The Byzantine Empire was finished, and waves of Christian refugees moved to the west where they helped instigate the Renaissance. No doubt they also told horror stories about the “Terrible Turks” of the Ottoman Empire.

The Muslim Ottoman Empire looked unstoppable at that time to the Europeans. The Ottomans controlled all the sea routes to the east, which is why in 1492 the emerging Spanish Empire sent Columbus west to look for a route to trade with India and China. Though it became weakened during the following centuries, the Ottoman Empire was a threat to European peoples until its demise soon after World War I.

Today’s Legacy of Fear

Russians and other Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe feared the raids of Muslim Tatars for hundreds of years. When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 because of the Communist Revolution, the Tatars broke away from Russia and brutally expelled Slavic people from their lands. In 1920 Russia’s Communist Red Army destroyed the Tatar nationalists and made Crimean Tatar land part of Ukraine. In the 1930s Soviet dictator Josef Stalin forced 30,000 to 40,000 Tatars from their homes to work on collective farms. Half of the Tatar population died during this time.

For hundreds of years Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbians, and other Christian peoples feared the wrath of those they called the “Terrible Turks.” Christian peoples from these nations were glad to see the demise of the Turkish Muslim-based Ottoman Empire after WWI. Turkish people are still looked upon with suspicion and often hatred in such places.

It will take people who are not just Christian in name only to reach the Muslims in Eastern Europe. Those who reach out to these Muslims must exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit and be willing to love unconditionally so that Muslims will see a difference between those who are Christians in name only, and those who are true followers of Christ.

Pray for the Lord to raise up hundreds of such people to go to the Muslim peoples in Eastern Europe that we will pray for this month.

Suggested web sites for more Information:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Tatars
http://euroheritage.net/ Tatarcrimeahistory.shtml
http://www.allaboutturkey.com/ottoman.htm
http://www.boisestate.edu/courses/reformation/magazine/1510/ost/turk.shtml

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

Dear Praying Friends,
Every country and region is affected by historical events, and Eastern Europe is no exception. For many hundreds of years the peoples that make up this region have been mainly affected by the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Like the Russians that dominated the area for centuries, the majority of the people in Eastern Europe speak Slavic based languages. But there are also people groups in the region that have their roots in the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire that rivaled Russia for influence. These people groups live mainly in various parts of southern Russia, while some have migrated west to countries like Ukraine and Georgia. Unlike the Muslims in London that we will pray for next month, most of these people have lived where they are for hundreds of years, and the old ways are sometimes fading away. They have lived through decades of communism which weakened their Islamic beliefs.
Today they are perhaps among the least dedicated Muslims anywhere in the world. Though their dedication to Islam may not be strong, their interactions with so-called Christians have often been so negative that they might not give Jesus Christ a chance. Why consider the ways of someone whose “followers” oppress you? It will probably take outsiders to reach most of these Muslim people groups. Yet, there are those from the groups who have embraced the Savior and are sharing Him with their Muslim neighbors (see days 1-3 for excellent examples). Pray for more native cultural insiders to spread the good news of Christ to the Muslim peoples of Eastern Europe and to their original homelands far to the east.
In Christ,
Keith Carey, managing editor, GPD
Keith.carey@uscwm.org