KRASNODAR, Russia (BP)–Not everyone in Krasnodar, Russia, celebrated the unveiling of a nearly 40-foot monument to Catherine the Great.
To be sure, most people in the city center enjoyed themselves at the September 2006 ceremony lauding Catherine the Great’s generosity to the Cossacks in the 18th century in giving the northern Caucasus city to them for their loyal service to the czars.
Cossack men paraded in old uniforms from a bygone era. Most men wore heavy full-length coats trimmed in gold and red, along with baggy trousers stuffed into tall black leather boots. Perspiration trailed down the cheeks and necks of most of the Cossacks from underneath their wide fur hats.
Speeches, Orthodox blessings and festive songs celebrated a new era replacing Soviet times when communists decided to destroy the statue, which was regarded at the time as a commemoration of the deposed monarchy.
But the Soviets are gone, and the glory of the Cossacks, who fought for czars as a Russian militia, is back in fashion and power. Yet, this revival has not been good for everyone.
This area, known as the Krasnodar Krai, also has been the home for thousands of Muslims from a small people group known as the Meskhetian Turks. Russian nationalist groups spearheaded by the Cossacks in the area have sustained a low-level campaign of persecution against the Meskhetian Turks.
In a 2005 Washington Post article, Alexander Ossipov, an analyst at the Institute for Humanities and Political Studies in Moscow, called the Cossacks’ activities “soft ethnic cleansing.”
“The local authorities decided which ethnic groups were desirable and which were not. It’s government based on a racist ideology,” he said in the article.
The plight of the Meskhetian Turks in the Krasnodar Krai drew attention from U.S. officials in the mid-1990s. They complained to the Russian government about abusive treatment, which included denying Russian citizenship to Meskhetian Turks. This turned many Meskhetians into internally displaced people since they could not obtain residency permits or passports.
Or, as William Thompson* puts it, these people have been refugees in their own country since the early 1990s. Thompson, a strategy coordinator with the International Mission Board who is working to bring the Gospel to the Meskhetians, noted that more than 10,000 Meskhetian Turks have now been resettled in the United States by the U.S. government. “Southern Baptist churches have a wonderful opportunity to reach out to this community,” he added.
As Krasnodar unveiled their statue, one Meskhetian Turk family worked through final details of their departure. Days away from emigrating to the United States, they were feeling the tension of change and the unknown.
“The government wouldn’t let us live,” said Erdem Akar*. “Particularly in the Krasnodar Krai, they wouldn’t let us live in peace. They wouldn’t let our people work. Our neighbors were fair, but others would … tell us to move. We can’t live like this. Cossacks came into our area and went house to house, telling us to leave.”
Such dark days are now behind Akar and his family. One brother, who emigrated ahead of them, waited in Pennsylvania. But there is sorrow mixed with anticipation. They learned not everyone in their extended family would make the move. Another brother and his wife did not qualify as immigrants to the United States because U.S. officials said Akar’s brother had not supplied sufficient documents to prove he and his wife were residents of the Krasnodar Krai region. Such resident documents are vital since only Meskhetian Turks living in the Krasnodar Krai are eligible for this particular resettlement program.
“This is hard to take,” Akar said. “We’re used to living together. We can’t think how it will be living separated from one another. We will move and start the requests needed to get our last brother to America.”
Despite this setback, Akar is excited about his future. “The most important thing we look for in America is kindness from people and respect as people. We just want to be treated normally and for people to respect us.”
Thompson reflects on deeper opportunities for Meskhetian Turks in America.
“Our Southern Baptist churches send us [Southern Baptist workers] all around the world to tell others about Jesus, but here is a people group coming to where our churches are. What an opportunity. I’m praying that churches will step up and join us in this work.”
*Names changed for security reasons. Michael Logan is a writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 2-9, focuses on missionaries who serve in the former Soviet Union as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.