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WORLDVIEW: The old ‘Great Game’ heats up in Central Asia

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Salaam may not know it yet, but he has a monumental decision to make.

A Muslim shop owner with an open door, a big laugh and a welcoming smile, Salaam attracts friends and customers from all over his town — situated on Central Asia’s ancient Silk Road. He’s a family man, a respected leader, a man of influence in this conservative Muslim community.

And he has a Bible.

It sits in his shop, right above his head on the shelf behind his desk, where he drinks tea with friends and customers. He hasn’t read much of it — yet — but he enjoys talking religion with the foreign friend who gave it to him.

Salaam energetically expounds on the superiority of Islam. Yet he already has become a Bible “distributor” — giving his copy to curious clients who see it on his shelf. Each time, his Christian friend brings him a new Bible.

Salaam and his friend have grown closer over time; their discussions have grown deeper. Salaam now knows in detail the claims of Jesus Christ, and he has seen the impact of the gospel in his friend’s life.

What will happen if Salaam embraces Jesus as Lord? He might be ostracized, run out of town — or worse — by the community that now respects him. Or, perhaps he will become a man of peace, quietly using his influence to transform his city for Christ and send the good news east and west along the Silk Road. Or, Salaam may choose to reject Jesus as Lord.

It’s a decision he will make sooner or later.

The future of Central Asia will be determined by many such individual decisions, made in the solitude of hearts and minds like Salaam’s.

For more than 3,000 years, chieftains and czars, nations and armies have contended for dominion over the region that stretches from the western tip of modern Turkey through Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and into western China.

Conquerors like the Han, the Persians, the Mongols, the Russians, the Ottoman Turks, the Arabs and the Cossacks have galloped across the region’s history, led by pitiless rulers from Genghis Khan and Tamerlane to Stalin and Mao. All have tried to dominate its lands and peoples.

In the 19th century, as Great Britain and Russia played out that era’s edition of the long contest, British author Rudyard Kipling gave it a name: the “Great Game.” In the 20th century, communism swept across much of the region as the Soviet Union confronted the West.

Today the Soviet empire is gone. Many of the nations and peoples of the region have regained their political independence. But the “Great Game” goes on. Russia has no intention of relinquishing its influence. China, Iran and Turkey are major regional players.

Militant Islamists, whether sponsored by Arab states, Iran or groups like Al Qaeda, want to turn the entire region (and parts of China) into a greater Muslim theocracy. The United States, China, Russia, Turkey and other states are determined that the Islamists not succeed.

“For the people of Central Asia, [Islamist rule] could mean swapping the regimentation of Soviet rule for the even more rigid ways of Taliban-style fundamentalism,” writes Amrit Dhillon in the South China Morning Post.

Great powers may create or destroy nations. But they do not determine the course of spiritual history. Individuals do — individuals like Salaam, who will decide whether God will be worshiped in truth within their hearts, homes, communities. And among their peoples. Salaam is a member of a people group that numbers in the tens of millions. Yet not a single indigenous follower of Christ lives within several hundred miles of his city.

More than 270 million people dwell in Central Asia today. Less than 1 percent have decided to follow Christ. Most of the rest have yet to learn about Jesus as Salaam has.

They “haven’t rejected the gospel,” insists a Christian worker who has lived in the region. “They haven’t heard the gospel.”

That is a state of affairs you can do something about. Remember: Individuals, through prayer, sacrificial giving and even setting foot in Salaam’s village, determine the course of spiritual history.
Bridges, whose column appears twice-monthly in Baptist Press, is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges