The Kyrgyz Baptists: A case study in religious persecution in Central Asia
The troubling treatment of converted Baptists highlights the growing problem of radicalization in Central Asia.
By Uran Botobekov for The Diplomat
The Diplomat (06.02.2017) – The International Crisis Group (ICG), in its annual report “Kyrgyzstan: State Fragility and Radicalization,” (*) noted that “the radicalization of the Islamic religion is growing in Kyrgyzstan.” The report emphasizes, “In the absence of political pluralism, a reliable state and economic opportunities, growing numbers of citizens are taking recourse in religion. Islam has become a central factor in public life since the end of the Soviet era… Increasingly families opt to have even crimes dealt with by local or religious leaders rather than the police and courts.”
The critical assessment by ICG of the religious situation in the region usually causes discontent among governmental authorities in Central Asian states. Yet this time some foreign researchers wrote a group letter to ICG, in which they have expressed their disapproval of the report. The open letter “Understanding Islamic Radicalization in Central Asia” from Central Asia scholars to the International Crisis Group was published in The Diplomat.
I do not intend to dispute the main causes of Islamic radicalization with the ICG and authors of the group letter; however, it should be emphasized that international organizations and research scientists analyzing the religious situation in the region usually emphasize only the Islamic radicalization in Central Asia. In this context, the critical state of other religious minorities subjected to persecution and pressure from the authorities and the Islamic Jamaat (Islamic society) remains underexamined. In this context, Kyrgyzstan faces a barbaric and terrifying situation that is a vivid example of the growing intolerance in the country and animosity of the Islamic majority toward the Christian minority.
For instance, 76-year-old Kanygul Satybaldieva, a resident of Ala-Buka district in southern Kyrgyzstan, died on October 13, 2016, after a long illness. She and two of her daughters had converted to Christianity a few years ago and have become regular members of the Christian Baptist Church. However, Satybaldieva’s husband remained a practicing Muslim. A unique and multicultural environment with coexisting religions had thus been created within a single Kyrgyz family.
The religious views of the deceased have caused intolerable problems related to her funeral. The local government and villagers that belong to the Hanafi branch of the Sunni Islam have not allowed her family members to bury Satybaldieva’s body at a local cemetery, arguing that the deceased had become an apostate of Islam and had followed Christianity till her death.
Her daughter, Jyldyz Azaeva, said that she appealed to the local administration and local counselors after the Muslim majority prohibited the burial of her mother at the local cemetery. A mullah (Muslim spiritual leader) of the district, Shumkar ajy Chynaliev, was the first to stand against the burial of the deceased at the Muslim cemetery. On October 14, he gathered villagers and demanded that Jyldyz Azaeva should abjure Christianity and convert to Islam again. Also, there have been calls for punishing the woman by stoning. According to her telling of the situation:
They demanded that I should abjure the Christianity and convert to Islam. They have recorded video of the meeting. I had to agree for the sake of my mother. They have forced me to. They have wanted me to serve as a lesson for everyone else. They have forced me to say surahs from the Quran to convert to Islam. I have failed, and the imam has laughed at me in front of the people. Then I have repeated the surah from the Quran and converted to Islam for the sake of my mother. I have asked them if they allow me to bury my mother. My mother’s body has started smelling after two days. But the crowd of Muslims has said no to me. They have said to bury my mother in my garden. I wouldn’t wish this situation on my worst enemy. The imam has said they ‘have saved me from the alien faith,’ or else I would be stoned.
According to her, no one in the crowd has tried to stop other Muslims from harassing her. The representatives of the local government and police have simply watched the situation unfold. Jyldyz Azaeva expanded on her account, speaking to radio Azattyk:
My mother used to read the Bible, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Psalms. These books have caused no harm. These holy books say ‘Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not covet, do not lie, fear the Lord’, etc. What’s bad in it? My parents have lived together for 50 years; my father has always prayed Namaz. The Muslim villagers could at least have compassion on my father. People get buried regardless of their status and religion. Criminals and terrorists get buried. Even animals get buried. My mother was an ordinary citizen of Kyrgyzstan, an ordinary person. Has she killed anyone? Or stolen anything? We haven’t caused any harm to anyone. We have been an obedient family. My mother’s body has been disentombed and thrown away twice just for her faith in God.
The district’s mullah, Shumkar ajy Chynaliev, called his talk with Jyldyz Azaeva “an explanatory talk.” “The deceased Kanygul Satybaldieva and both of her daughters have happened to adopt Christianity. We have conducted explanatory work with them. But the villagers still refused to give permission to bury her mother. Then we have visited other villages with Christian cemeteries. But they have refused, too. As we can see, the earth does not accept those who betray the Islam and she cannot rest in another peace,” Mullah Shumkar ajy Chynaliev has said.
During the conflict, the head of Ala-Buka district government Sonunbek Akparaliev strongly opposed Christianity. He stated, “What will happen with the Kyrgyz if everyone starts abjuring Islam and converting to other religions?” His words have become a clear and strong signal for local Muslims prompting them to abuse the body of the deceased Satybaldieva on the basis of religious animosity.
According to RFE/RL, with no prospects of changing the imam’s mind, Azaeva said her family accepted an alternative offer by local officials to arrange for her mother’s burial in the nearby village of Oruktu. But after her body was interred, the Muslim leadership there, too, objected to Satybaldieva’s presence in the cemetery and ordered the body exhumed.
The increasingly desperate family then accepted a proposal by local officials to bury Satybaldieva in the municipal cemetery of the district capital, Ala-Buka. But after her mother’s burial, Azaeva said both local Muslim and Christian leaders in the town agreed she must be dug up again and removed. The problem? Satybaldieva was a Baptist and thus outside of many Kyrgyz citizens’ traditionally accepted notions of Christianity, which begins and ends with the Russian Orthodox Church. Finally, Satybaldieva was buried in a secret location known only to local officials and the family.
Thus, the body of Kanygul Satybaldieva has been buried three times due to the pressure from the local Muslim Ummah. Local Muslims have unburied the body twice and thrown it away as if it were garbage, hoping it would serve as a lesson for those who would dare abjure Islam and convert to Christianity. After numerous incidents, Satybaldieva has been buried for a third time, but this time police officers haven’t reported the place of burial to the representatives of the Christian Baptist religion.
After international public outcry and criticism by human rights organizations, Kyrgyz authorities investigated this incident. Currently, the case of objection to the burial of Kanygul Satybaldieva at a local cemetery is being reviewed by the Ala-Buka District Court of Kyrgyzstan. The district police and prosecutor’s office have initiated a criminal case under article 263, on the “Abuse of bodies of the deceased and their places of burial.” The penalty under this article is either a heavy fine, or imprisonment for three to five years. Five persons have been charged in relation to this case.
The heads of local authorities and leaders of the Muslim clergy pleaded not guilty at a court session. One of the suspects, Maksat Koichumankulov, 30, has said that about 70 people had exhumed the body, among them the head of the district government and the leader of the local Muslim clergy. “But I am the only one facing the charge. This is unjust,” he added.
Another alleged offender, Bektur Kulchunov, has confessed that he was simply following the decision of the Muslim jamaat. “It’s unfair that only five persons are being judged. Other participants have been police officers, heads of local governments, who have supported us morally. Now they have made us scapegoats,” he has said.
Azaeva has also said that the five men, aged between 27 and 34, were only “carrying out someone else’s instructions” to dig up the body in their village cemetery. She is demanding authorities prosecute those they say ordered it, including the local mullah, imam, and governor. As of now, the representatives of the local government have laid the blame on the ordinary people. According to BBC’s Kyrgyz Service,the court convicted two of the men on three years’ probation (meaning they will not serve their sentences in prison). The court acquitted the remaining suspects.
This hasn’t been the first case in Kyrgyzstan where the Islamic majority has persecuted deceased Christian Baptists due to religious animosity. On October 22, 2016, the residents of Teploklyuchenka Village in Issyk-Kul region didn’t allow the burial of 60-year-old Christian Baptist Sydykbekova. A land plot on the village’s edge, separate from the local cemetery, was allocated for the burial of the “betrayer of Islam.” It serves as a vivid reminder to those who have abjured Islam and converted to another religion.
Another similar incident that was widely discussed occurred nine years ago in the Naryn Region of Kyrgyzstan. On May 17, 2008, local Muslims didn’t allow the burial of the body of a 14-year-old boy, Amanbek, whose father Alymbek Isakov and mother Saken Tumenbaeva had abjured Islam and become Christian Baptists.
When Baptists wanted to bury the teenager at the protestant cemetery, nearly 30 Muslims came and prohibited the digging of a grave by saying that “Baptists have no place in this life and afterlife.” They forced the father of the deceased teenager to abjure Christian Baptism and convert to Islam. However, he flatly refused to change his religion. Failing to get help from the police and the prosecutor’s office, the father buried his son right in the front yard of his house.
According to the State Committee for Religious Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic, the activity of Baptists in Kyrgyzstan started back in 1907-08, when the first German families moved to Kyrgyzstan. Currently Kyrgyzstan has nearly 3,000 followers of this religion and 50 houses of worship. The persecution and harassment of Baptists has become more frequent in Kyrgyzstan recently. There have been cases where Muslims have beaten Baptists and even burned down their houses of worship. In December 2005, in the Kyrgyz village of Jety-Oguz, a local villager who had converted to Christianity was killed. The killer has not been found to date, but the residents of the village of the murdered protestant have no doubt that he suffered for his religious views.
In practice, these threats and offenses have served to only strengthen the Christian faith and distance its followers from Islam. The problem of proselytism is usually brought up by the leaders of Muslim jamaats, while the authorities covertly support the radical actions of Muslims. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has turned a blind eye to the problems faced by Baptists because he doesn’t want to lose Muslim support during elections. He has used religious support to strengthen and centralize his power.
Even the Russian Orthodox Christian church, the second largest religion in Kyrgyzstan, ignores the Baptists and has called them “lost dissidents.” Punishments of these “renegades” and missionaries have also occurred in other states in Central Asia. In 2004, in the Tajik city of Isfara, protestant pastor Sergey Bessarab, who was an active missionary among the Muslims, was shot and killed. The investigation found that Bessarab had been killed by Muslim fanatics. Moreover, cases of beating of Muslims who have converted to Christianity have been reported in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
The Muslim majority justifies its actions toward the Christian Baptists by the canons of Islam, which prescribes execution for anyone abjuring their religion. Central Asian governments turn a blind eye to the radical actions of local Muslims toward these Christian Baptists, thereby creating a favorable environment for the development of takfir in future. Takfir in Islam refers to the practice of accusing other Muslims of non-belief or apostasy. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, today the Islamic State group widely distributes the practice of takfir, which has been promoted to the level of political ideology in its so-called Caliphate. The militants of the Islamic State kill innocent Muslims, slaughter Yazidis and Kurds, and commit terrorist attacks in the West, all under the guise of takfir. If government do nothing to stop Islamic radicals, then Christian Baptists in Central Asia may repeat the sad fate of the Syrian Yazidis in the future.
In Central Asia, the problem of Islamic radicalism keeps growing. The critical situation with Christian Baptists in Kyrgyzstan proves that there is a real threat. There’s one thing I’d like to say to the ICG and international researchers studying the topic: Islam in Central Asia only manages to grow radical amid the strengthening of authoritarian regimes and political repression in all five regional states.
(*) Kyrgyzstan: State Fragility and Radicalization
Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.