by Al Simms
Al is the Director of People International.
If you enjoy travelling, culture and history, then Uzbekistan is the jewel in the crown when it comes to Central Asia. This area was in many ways the cradle of civilisation and learning. In the early 1400s, Mirzo Ulugbek built an observatory in Samarkand. He built a meridian arc into the ground, which he used alongside other instruments to calculate the orbits of the known planets. Incredibly, with a combination of his observatory findings and his mathematical skills, he was only a few minutes out from today’s highly precise calculations. Less than a mile away from the observatory lies the Registan, a monumental series of beautiful buildings with intricate mosaic finishing in a magnificent plaza. These fascinating buildings were historic centres of learning, but very much in partnership with the dominant religion of Islam.
The fascinating cities of Bukhara and Khiva are World Heritage Sites. As a tourist you’ll be made very welcome with no visa required for UK passport holders, comfortable trains, and a range of great accommodation and food at reasonable prices. However, it wasn’t always like this. Not long ago, all foreign Christian workers were thrown out of the country and a general clampdown took place. In 2016, a new leader took over, with a desire to promote tourism and promising to bring a greater degree of freedom. Prosecution of the former president’s daughter for widespread corruption hit the headlines and a new approach was taken to open up society. Changing the course of a nation is an uphill task and the system has not really reflected its stated ambitions. This is seen in very limited benefits to the church. Evangelical churches in Uzbekistan are unregistered, meaning they are without a legal support framework or protection. Uzbekistan is still a country set against the church of Jesus Christ.
It is a Muslim country and you see this reflected everywhere with mosques in every city picture you take. Although the call to prayer was banned in 2005, this has been allowed on some special occasions in recent years. There is an Islamic movement that seeks to re-introduce religious education, the wearing of headscarves and to push Islam more forcefully. This doesn’t reflect what the younger, bigger-city generation seek. They identify as Muslim but, for many, the upcoming generation are much more nominal and see their religion in terms of national identity. There are significant differences across the country, with more Western attitudes in the larger cities, versus the more conservative and rural views.
As you wander around the country, you will notice how many young people there are. Like many other countries in Central Asia, it has a young population with a median age under 28 years old compared to just over 40 in the UK. The Uzbeks are very friendly and the younger generation is desperate to practise speaking English. While Russian is the language of government, a legacy of its Soviet past, and Uzbek is becoming increasingly important in terms of national identity, English is seen as the language of the future, the key to unlocking business opportunities and a passport out of the country to work elsewhere. It is normal for young people to try and engage you in conversation, so don’t be surprised to get an invitation to have a drink or meal with them and their families. You could even be roped into helping with homework as they really want to speak with native English speakers.
In a forgotten city in a remote area of this country, there exists a church, unregistered of course, with a visionary Uzbek leader. When Covid-19 first hit, the region was badly affected and the price of food soared. With financial gifts from the West, the church was able to buy basic supplies and take them to their neighbours. The neighbours, who once wanted nothing to do with these believers, started opening their doors and accepting the gifts with many asking ‘why?’. The believers were able to respond by saying that they wanted to share the love of Jesus with people, which opened a number of gospel opportunities. Not long afterwards, the church leader received a call in the middle of the night; a church member’s father had coronavirus and was dying in hospital. He got up, went to the hospital and spent time with the dying man, who put his trust in Jesus, just before he passed away to be with his Saviour of only a few minutes. The church leader then walked around the ward and talked to several about Jesus, with an unusual degree of receptivity – when people are dying they need hope! Needless to say, the leader caught Covid but recovered well.
The local authorities have seen the kindness of the church in the community and the loving generosity of Christ’s people, and have become a little more tolerant with them as a church. This has helped the church to grow in confidence in the gospel and their identity in Christ, and it has been an encouragement to other churches that have not been quite so bold in their approach. However, the churches in Uzbekistan are persecuted, meet with much caution and are at best just tolerated. Arrests, detainment, questioning and fines are still commonplace, although imprisonment is now more unusual.
The local authorities have seen the kindness of the church in the community…
Typically, young people grow and excel in the use of the English language and then move to the big cities or move abroad to better jobs. This causes a real problem – imagine if your local church continually ‘lost’ its key young people and workers with no hope of ever getting them back. As a result, a micro-loans project has recently been launched and we are delighted that Echoes International is helping to fund this start-up project. The first stage is training a number of entrepreneurs – women initially, as they often manage their money more effectively. Small amounts of capital are released on a managed basis with clear expectations as to how it is used and a repayment structure agreed. Everyone on the scheme is partly and jointly responsible for one another’s loans. In this honour/shame culture, a collective responsibility encourages individual accountability. With a professional person providing business training, there is a trusted local mentor in situ to support on an ongoing basis and an assistant to help manage the finances. The short-term aim is to recoup the loans and expand the scheme beyond the women. Training and mentoring will also be provided to some who haven’t successfully applied for a loan, but can still start or develop a business. The aim is to provide meaningful employment for Christians to encourage them to stay and serve in their local church. Our prayer is that this may then develop as part of a community outreach programme.
Millions to Reach
Such churches are very unusual in Uzbekistan and most operate completely under the radar, often in the larger cities where anonymity is easier. Unlike beautiful places like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, much of the capital, Tashkent, was destroyed in an earthquake in 1966, apart from iconic buildings like Hotel Uzbekistan, built in the Soviet era, and the underground. Each subway station is elaborately decorated with chandeliers and artwork displaying Soviet and Russian space exploration. There are pockets of believers in Tashkent but the numbers are very low.
Across the whole country, it is estimated that just 0.2% of people have been reached with the gospel. Among Uzbekistan’s population of 33 million, there are about 65,000 believers spread across the whole country. This means that there are millions who have never heard of Jesus Christ who died, rose again and offers life to all who follow Him. The work of mission is not finished! There remains an immense task of reaching the unreached half billion people of Central Asia.
- for the Uzbek church to have confidence in the gospel and a growing desire to reach the nation with the good news of Jesus Christ
- for wisdom to run the micro-loans project in a God-honouring way
- for workers to be raised up in the UK to work in partnership with the church in Uzbekistan.