UZBEKISTAN (BP)–There was a time when Maksud’s* heart raced each time the telephone rang. He recalls gripping the receiver and working up his courage to simply say “Allo” (hello). He felt exposed and at risk even behind the locked door of his Uzbekistan home.
Usually, within a heartbeat, a friend’s voice on the line cut the tension. Yet Maksud had to steady his own voice to sound casual and normal as he talked into the telephone.
What is normal for a Christian believer living under a government that has grown increasingly paranoid? In the current political climate, anyone who has religious convictions –- Christian or Islamic -– often is tagged as a threat to the government.
Uzbekistan became an independent nation in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Flags and state symbols changed, but the mindset of the ruling elite did not. Immediately after independence, some political controls eased, but soon the nation’s freedoms began to erode. In recent years that erosion has increased, and for some believers, state intimidation has now replaced the short-lived freedoms.
“My heart would pump like crazy each time I picked up the phone or answered a knock at the door,” Maksud says. “When I knew it was a friend, I would just praise God.”
For this believer, the world took a dark turn several years ago when local police took Maksud from his home and began questioning him about his faith in Jesus Christ.
“There is no law that says you can’t be a Christian,” he explains, “but the police will say that when a person becomes a Christian, he brings dissension to the family, and this is wrong.”
Police held Maksud for a day, questioning him about friends, family, faith and the other Christians in the area.
“They let me go, but for more than three months, there was such fear in my heart,” he says.
The police never visited again, and in time Maksud adjusted to his new status of living under state suspicion.
Maksud’s story is not unique. Uzbekistan has become one of the most repressive new independent states, according to U.S. State Department human rights reports.
“Only in Uzbekistan has the state formally criminalized religious dissent,” the report noted in 1999, for example. “Uzbekistan explicitly prohibits any kind of communal activity by such a group, even a Bible study in one of its members’ apartments.”
But this has not stopped the spread of the Gospel, says Ryan Stewart*, an International Mission Board worker who, along with his wife, Lauren*, lives and works among central Asia’s Uzbeks.
“Despite the crackdown, there continues to be growth in the church,” Stewart says of the situation. “The growth is not in waves like it once was, but this is still an exciting time for the body of Christ in Uzbekistan.”
In the early 1990s, the IMB launched a major initiative to help bring the Gospel to newly created nations in central Asia and Eastern Europe. This push included a focus on Uzbekistan where nearly 99 percent of Uzbeks are Muslim.
“We were seeing advancement in the early ’90s, but between 1995 and 1997 we saw very strong growth for the churches,” Stewart says.
Today, Southern Baptists working with the Uzbek church estimate between 4,000 and 5,000 Uzbek Christians worldwide.
Things slowed down toward the turn of the century, but now we see several different kinds of growth,” Stewart adds.
The couple and their team have seen people come to Jesus Christ after literally years of witnessing efforts.
“In a recent month, we saw one man decide to follow Jesus after being witnessed to for 14 years,” Lauren says. “About a week later, a woman believed after 12 years of witnessing, and then another man after nine years. It was as if God let it all happen at once to let us see we needed to just hang in there.”
The team also has seen church leaders go to a deeper level of trust in Jesus, which has deepened their trust in one another.
“We’ve seen [Uzbek] friends be tested and come through,” Lauren says. “The continuing loss of freedom makes it harder now, but we are more hopeful. We’ve seen some of these leaders take a stand for our Lord.
“The church has seen the same thing happen in China. It’s not easy, but if they can make it through, they will be stronger.”
Local believers share this conviction. One pastor has asked the Uzbek Christian community to pray that God will raise up more than 100 new leaders.
Lauren Stewart points to a new spirit of cooperation among believers. She explains this has been a focus of prayer by supporters of the Uzbek team for more than five years.
“We longed to see churches look to each other for support, but that has not always happened,” she says. “It is difficult for Uzbeks, even Christians, to trust one another.”
Ryan Stewart explains a new wave of leadership is emerging. “These men are stepping away from old ways that depended on a heavy-handed leader. These leaders want to work together more and encourage one another. That just didn’t happen. There is a new spirit of unity among our fellowships.”
The Stewarts’ team often calls on Ephesians 5:8: “For you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.”
“As believers we need to be light,” Maksud agrees. “If we live as honest and righteous people in the sight of God, this proclaims to our community the worth of our God.”
It may be a while until most Uzbek communities are free to openly consider the worth of God’s greatest gift -– Jesus Christ.
But Maksud believes the time will come. He uses the collapse of the Soviet Union as an example.
“God was in the changes of the Soviet Union,” he says. “Has God changed since those days? No. It’s the same God and He’s raising up from my people those who will serve and worship Him.”
*Names changed for security reasons. Michael Logan is a writer with 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.