The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union sparked hopes among Christians for a new era of religious freedom. Sadly, these dreams have been only partially realized.
This has been confirmed in the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most severely persecuted for their faith. Five of the 15 former Soviet republics – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – make the list. Three others – Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus – are just outside the top 50, but are nevertheless characterized by Open Doors as countries with “high” levels of persecution.
Worse, in the 2016 list, two of the biggest jumps from the previous year – showing a sharp deterioration in religious freedom – came from a couple of these nations. Tajikistan rose from No. 45 to No. 31. Azerbaijan went from No. 46 to No. 34.
All of these countries have their own peculiarities, but certainly a unifying factor is the rise of Islamic extremism. It means that many Muslim states that are often thought to practise a more “moderate” form of Islam – and this includes those former Soviet republics where Muslims comprise a majority of the population – are rushing to regulate all religious expression, ostensibly to stall the rise of extremism.
Evangelical Christians, though generally small in number in most of these places, can find themselves a particular target.
Other factors are also at work in some of the countries, including a potent dose of what Open Doors describes as “dictatorial paranoia.”
In addition, we see moves in regions of the Muslim world towards a stronger religious observance among parts of the population. Again, this would seem to be in some measure a response to the rise of Islamic extremism.
A young church friend spent some years with a mission organization in one of the former Soviet republics, working especially with university students.
“When I arrived only a minority of the students observed Muslim rituals like Ramadan,” he told me. “But by the time I left I would guess that a majority were taking part. They would joke about it to me. ‘Fasting is good for my health, so I’m doing it,’ they would say. But it was clear that they felt a lot of pressure on them to become more religious. It happened in a relatively short period of time.”
He also noted that in his years in the country there was a noticeable increase in the number of mosques, with foreign countries often providing the financing.
This is a disturbing trend. The rise of Islamic extremism has been a tragedy for Christians in parts of the Middle East. But increasingly it seems that it has ramifications that extend right throughout the entire Muslim world. This is very much to the detriment of Christians.