CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008

The conversion of Kyrgyz to the Christian faith - A case study on a new religious movement in the post- Soviet era

by David Radford (Flinders University of South Australia)

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.



Kyrgyzstan, like many of the republics of the former Soviet Union, has undergone rapid political, economic and social change since independence in 1991. One such striking change has been the adoption of the Christian faith by significant numbers of the majority, and historically Muslim, Kyrgyz people. I refer to their conversion to Christianity as a ‘new religious movement’ because, while Christianity is not a new religion to Central Asia, it has been visibly represented by the Russian Orthodox Church, Protestant Christianity is new as a religious option for the Kyrgyz. This paper focuses on the Kyrgyz context on applying some of the key propositions that Stark and Finke (2000) have put forward in explaining how religion and new religious movements develop in society. 

Religious Economy

Stark and Finke have put forward the case for a ‘religious economy’ – a ‘market’ as a sub-system within society covering all aspects of religious activity. The religious economy is made up of current and potential members, a set of one or more organizations seeking to draw and sustain members and the religious culture offered by the organization. Similar to a commercial economy elements of ‘supply and demand’ cause the ‘market’ to ebb and flow. They further posit that religious demand is stable over time and that religious change is largely the product of supply-side transformation (2000:194). An understanding of how a ‘religious economy’ works gives some keys to help explain what has happened in the Kyrgyz context.

Soviet Policy of Secularisation

Kyrgyzstan was a former Muslim republic of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan is sandwiched between a number of Central Asian republics with China on its eastern border. Elements of shamanism, animism, totemism, Islam and Soviet Communism have been woven together to shape who the ethnic Kyrgyz are today. In particular, the 70 years of enforcing Soviet Communist ideology and government policy has had a significant impact. The effect of the ‘Soviet experiment in secularization’ (Froese, 2008) can be seen in former State policy which had, as part of its purpose, the removal of religion from society. Among the Muslim states of Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, this took the form of the dismantling of Islamic courts, closure of mosques, the arrest and imprisonment of clerics and the removal of Islamic studies in the education of Muslim youth (Froese, 2008:60). Public religion was suppressed by state coercion, control and regulation. While this certainly reduced public expression and open declarations of religious affiliation it did not remove all sense of religiousness. Traditional manifestations of Kyrgyz religion however, was maintained through family cultic practices [such as baking of bread for the ancestors, and covert visitations to sacred places].

Soviet indoctrinization in all areas of society and the threat of consequences for religious adherence were enough to severely limit the amount of religious capital [Religious capital, the individual’s familiarity with and connection to a religious tradition 2008:185] that the Kyrgyz were able to build or pass on to their children. The more urbanized also became more ‘Russified’, imbibing an outlook that had few traditional elements and that was almost exclusively materialistic. Classes on ‘Scientific Atheism’ were an important part of Soviet education/indoctrinisation. Some respondents spoke of officials visiting schools and asking if anyone believed in God. A positive answer meant an immediate failure grade. One teacher respondent commented how they prepped the children to answer in the negative regardless of what personal beliefs were held so that they could give the answer that was expected to avoid trouble. While a ‘negative’ response to the ‘God’ question was not indicative of a student/teacher’s real heart belief nevertheless most of those interviewed respondents largely imbibed the ideology over time, while maintaining elements of some religiosity especially in a more urban environment.

Respondent: It’s interesting when we had an exam on scientific atheism before entering the room almost everybody said, “God please forgive me, help me…I know that you exist…Bismillah”, or something like that.

As well as low levels of religious participation the Kyrgyz were unable to develop effective religious organizations to promote, foster and spread religious ideas and practices. The Kyrgyz traditional spirituality was already an eclectic mix of decentralized and multi-varied religio-spiritual elements practiced in a highly personal way. Soviet policy further encouraged that privatization of religion while reducing strong religious sentiment. The Kyrgyz were Muslims because their ancestors were but not because they were particularly religious in belief or practice. Whatever religious feelings were present were kept for the home. The end result was a kind of religious monopoly upheld by the collective powers of the state. The ‘Church of Communism’ together with all its rituals and community reinforcement held sway and allowed little competition or alternatives (Froese, 2008:29). A belief that ‘religious demand’ could be replaced by the ideology, rituals and organization of communism combined with a throttling of ‘religious supply’ (i.e. no competitors) largely prevailed in Kyrgyzstan.
Respondent: Later…I realized that Communist leaders actually used many biblical principles but tried to apply then without God…we used words that I used for Jesus in the Bible and we used them for Lenin, “He was. He is and He will be.”
This is also demonstrated by replies to a question I raised as to why so many Kyrgyz were now becoming Christian believers compared with the situation prior to independence in 1991.
Respondent A: After 1991 the permission was given to believe anything you want. Before it was forbidden to talk about God. And after independence they gave us choice and said you can believe whatever you want. 
Respondent B:  I just knew that there was no information available. If you were a Kyrgyz you were Muslim. If you were a Russian you were Christian.

Respondent C: Nobody cared about Religion… People were afraid…[Now] there is  freedom, you can buy any book and read it.

Post Independence 1991- Conversion of the Kyrgyz to Protestant Christianity

Following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991significant changes took place and Kyrgyzstan experienced a flourishing religious revival.  Part of this religious awakening included several thousand Kyrgyz embracing the Protestant Christian faith. Protestant Christianity was a new religious phenomenon for the Kyrgyz who have not had significant Christian presence among local ethnic Central Asians since the 14th century. This was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Kyrgyz identified themselves as Muslim, even if it was only as an ethnic marker. The only real association with Christianity for the Kyrgyz was the Russian Orthodox Church, which was a symbol of Russian ethnic identification. Jesus, Isus Kristos, was the Russian god not the Kyrgyz god. Added to this was the ethnic bias and prejudice that many Russians had towards the Kyrgyz. In the words of the ethnic German who is considered to be the father of the Kyrgyz church, “We considered the Kyrgyz to be animals.” A prejudice reversed after independence.  And thirdly, a common communist propaganda regarding Christianity was that they were secret sects engaged in evil rituals. These people were called ‘Baptists’. It was alleged that members sacrificed their children and ate them and at night members of the opposite sex would gather together to engage in sexual orgies, even between immediate family members. How is it then that several thousand Kyrgyz would brave the real threat of being labled a ‘Russian’, a ‘Baptist’, a betrayer (kafir)and become associated with the Christian faith? 

Religious Demand and Supply

Stark and Finke hold that religious demand in society is in fact fairly stable over time. The apparent evidence for this religious demand can be suppressed or may flourish through a number of factors. A religious monopoly occurs when one religious group, its ideology and activities, are favoured and supported by the State and other religious groups are forced out of public circulation [i.e. Soviet Communism vrs all religious groups]. Religious supply is cut off. However, in the event that state power is no longer utilized to support this monopoly deregulation takes place. To the degree that deregulation takes place it will tend to be pluralistic – resulting in a number of religious ‘firms’ active in the religious economy. Pluralism takes place because it is not possible for one religious group to meet all the different needs/preferences that all the people have. When there is freedom for religious expression the religious economy behaves like other economies. The controlled monopoly crumbles in the wake of a competitive religious market and new ideas and new religious suppliers arrive who are highly motivated and start to offer alternatives that were not available before. Religious pluralism grows as an increase in individual religiousness increases. While not a ‘religion’ per se the ‘Church of Communism’ and the ideals it propagated functioned as a deliberate attempt to replace and monopolise the religious sentiment of the people. The failure of the Soviet system and the crumbling state of the financial economy removed this monopoly. People in Kyrgyzstan wanted, indeed needed, alternatives to make sense of their economic situation and the dismantling of the all encompassing Soviet system [ i.e. no bread in the stores, the sudden collapse of factories and work so that skilled professionals were left to barter goods in the bazaar or turn to taxi driving to make a living].

Soviet ideology and practice created the environment for new religious opportunities and acceptance for the Kyrgyz that were not present prior to communism. Certainly, the seventy years of sustained anti-religious policies of the Soviet Union caused a major decline in the religious and cultural capital of the Kyrgyz. Their traditional syncretic expression of religion (see Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed) had been seriously curtailed. As it was, the Kyrgyz traditional religious expression was mostly either a way to connect with their ancestors or a desire to experience supernatural powers to meet personal needs. Large numbers of Kyrgyz were simply not religious at all. It was not just that they were not religious they did not even know about religion and there was large-scale ignorance about Islam (Froese, 2008:183ff).  

Interviewer: Were you a religious family at all?
Respondent: Absolutely not.

Interviewer: What does that mean? If you were not religious what did you think about religion or God when you were growing up?
Respondent: My family never thought about God.

Interviewer: Not a part of your thinking at all?
Respondent: Never. I never thought about it.

It was also interesting to note the number of respondents I interviewed who had almost never heard about Jesus Christ and had little or no idea about Christianity prior to conversion. This religious ignorance resulted in a severe reduction of the religious capital of the Kyrgyz especially regarding Islam. It is this kind of environment that provides fertile ground for the potential introduction and acceptance of new and even alien religious ideas and firms.
New and different religions or religious cults do best with people who have little religious capital…converts need not re-learn an entire religious system because they begin with none.   Therefore, a lack of religious capital does not predict an aversion to religion but rather a potential openness to atypical religious ideas.  If this is the case, then the Soviet population in 1989 represented a sea of possible converts to a wide host of religious missionaries (Froese, 2008:183).
It was all new to the Kyrgyz, especially when it was communicated outside of a Russian ethnic box. In Stark and Finke’s terms there were large un-served preferences or ‘niches’, religious niches, among the Kyrgyz in the new, open environment that they found themselves in after independence. There was not a strong local Islamic religious authority to hold them and there were many who rushed in to fill the ‘religious demand’ vacuum that suddenly opened up. Foreign Islamic groups and Christian missionaries entered (as well as groups such as the Hare Krishnas, Jehovah Witnesses and the Bahai). And to one degree or other all these groups found adherents.

The Kyrgyz and Protestant Christianity

In this context significant numbers of Kyrgyz have mbraced the Protestant Christian faith since independence. A few members of local Baptist churches (with mostly Central Asian Russian and German members) as well as an increasing number of foreign missionaries began to actively reach out to Kyrgyz people with some success. These ideas and groups were considered foreign to traditional Kyrgyz spirituality and Kyrgyz risked much ‘social capital’ by becoming believers. The first believers particularly faced persecution – ostracism from family, threats [e.g. you will never be buried in a Kyrgyz cemetery] and even physical punishment. It was ‘expensive’ to join.

 Stark and Finke point out that those joining higher tension groups (sects) require a higher degree of commitment. These groups usually have an ideology of exclusivity - a strong belief that one needs to join their particular religious group/ideology in order to be ‘saved’ and leave their past life.

Interviewer: So they [Christian believers] said, “It’s up to you. You have a choice what you will do with your (shaman) tools and with your gods (spirit helpers).” What happened after that?
Respondent: I believed and I decided to choose Jesus. But it was difficult to make a decision and throw them into the fire. Because I got used to them, so I took them off and put them together. When I did that the brothers were so happy. And there was fire in the oven and they opened it and showed me the fire. I was standing near the fire and looking at my tools and saying to them “good bye.” So I threw them into the fire. Then I felt that some kind of power left me and went into that fire. I didn’t notice that I was feeling heavy. When I had thrown them into the fire I felt so light.

 It is especially true in those groups that hold to a monotheistic view of the nature of God. And in particular, a God who is seen as dependable, responsive to human need and showing personal care and concern. That commitment is reflected in a higher level of missionary zeal. They want others to share those beliefs and are willing to be personally involved in sharing that message with others.

Respondent: I started giving out the books I brought from the church to my friends and village and to my classmates. And [the Christian] brothers and sisters in Naryn said, “Whatever you will ask, God will give you.” So I came home and I have written down on the paper all my needs, I said, “I need a tape recorder, I need a good things and money.”  [The brothers] said, “… you’ve forgotten to write the most important thing.” I asked, “What I have I missed? I am going to write it down now.” They said, “You haven’t asked God for the salvation of your family.” I was so ashamed [but]… in one month all six of my brothers and sister were saved and then we started praying for our parents and after two years my mother and after four years my father was saved.

Stark and Finke also comment that the growth of religious firms in the religious market is not so much that individuals seek out those firms but rather that individuals are found by those firms. “Converts do not find a new faith, a new faith comes to them (2000:122).” While not negating an individual’s religious desire, they claim that effort pays in competition. The great majority of those I interviewed [49 respondents] did not initiate meeting a Christian believer but rather had a Christian believer approach them. Other things being equal, the harder the organization works the more successful it will be and theology plays an important role. “Only vivid conceptions of an active and concerned supernatural can generate vigorous religious action.” The Protestant Christian groups that the Kyrgyz joined fall right into this category – of exclusivistic religious groups, requiring high commitment and fostering missionary zeal.

Social Networks

But how did the numbers of Kyrgyz grow? Was it through mass public evangelism? Literature? Foreign missionaries? These all had some impact. However, over 80% of the Kyrgyz I interviewed came to faith through people who were ethnic Kyrgyz. Though the Russian Baptist Churches and foreign missionaries had an initial influence it seems that the real growth was spread by Kyrgyz Christian believers through the influence of social networks. To become a believer one risked losing social, cultural and religious capital. Those most likely to accept the faith were those who were a part of that social capital (network of personal and familial relationships) and affirmed cultural capital – their Kyrgyzness. In other words, relationships that were ethnically Kyrgyz and people who were known and trusted by these new believers. This highlights what Stark and Finke state: “In making religious choices, people will attempt to conserve their social capital.” (2000:119).

Changing Kyrgyz Identity

But given the close relationship between Kyrgyz ethnic identity and religion (the Muslim faith) how is it that these Kyrgyz have risked social stigmatization to align themselves with a religious tradition alien from what they grew up with? The answer, at least in part, lies with the earlier comments concerning the general ignorance of religion and culture that accrued over time with Soviet anti-religious and secular policies. According to Stark and Finke religious affiliation and conversion will increase for ethnic congregations when members’ investments in religious and cultural capital decline.” (2000:125). The loss of religious and cultural capital that occurred through Sovietisation provided a context for Kyrgyz to accept another religious identity while still considering themselves as remaining within the Kyrgyz community.

After the first couple of years there also appeared to be a development of decreasing tension with the social/cultural environment and with their sense of Kyrgyz identity.  Kyrgyz Christian believers began to find similarities between their new faith and their culture, for example, in the use of Kyrgyz language in ritual expression (e.g. in worship songs and in the use of Kyrgyz words for God, Kudai, Tengir, and Christ, Isa Mashayak) and in the affirmation of their cultural ways and symbols.
Respondent: Even if we take the boz ui [yurt]…The tunduk [top of the yurt] had three woods and symbolizes the cross. And also it symbolizes the Trinity - God, Son and the Holy Spirit. It symbolizes the three in one God. And light comes through the Trinity. Our women are supposed to wake up early and [are] supposed to open the roof in the morning to receive [God’s] blessing.

Some respondents also claim a historic connection with Christianity in pre-Islamic times when there was a significant Christian community that existed in Kyrgyzstan.

Respondent: We are Kyrgyz but now we are Kyrgyz Christians. The good news about Jesus did not only come to us today. It came to Central Asia before Islam and history can prove it. It is why I think that we do not come to new faith our old faith came back to us [mine]. Maybe we even became Christians before Americans.

The question remains for the future: where will Kyrgyz believers and the religious firms they align with fall in the continuum of high tension relationship within the wider Kyrgyz community? Will they become increasingly absorbed back into the religious/cultural framework of their people? If so, how far will they go in reducing tension while maintaining a sense of their need to be exclusive? Will social capital needs override religious commitment? How far will they allow syncretism or indigenization to go before they will no longer be seen as traitors (kafirs)? Or will there be a reaction against what may be perceived as ‘evil’ Kyrgyzness, a line drawn in the sand so to speak that clearly differentiates the Muslim from the Christian Kyrgyz?


Stark and Finke speak of the fact that there are many individual religious niches/preferences in society and that one religious firm will not be able to meet all those preferences. As long as there remains an unregulated religious market in Kyrgyzstan, and the freedom to choose religious preferences Stark and Finke’s propositions indicate that there will be a plethora of religious opportunities available [both within Islam and Christianity] and people willing to join them. For Kyrgyz Christian believers the future will unlikely be a homogenous Kyrgyz Christian Church but rather a growing group of firms/churches that are as varied as the eclectic makeup of the Kyrgyz spiritual world. There is evidence that this is already taking place with a variety of Christian denominations and groupings that can be found along the high/low tension continuum with their Kyrgyz socio-cultural environment and across various theological perspectives– a Christian Kyrgyz marketplace so to speak.  However, the question remains, if in the future, strong regulatory forces dominate, and suppression rather than freedom returns, what will this new religious movement among the Kyrgyz look like and how will they respond?