There are only few Orthodox Christians in Tajikistan , but they live in peace and harmony.
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Accurate data on the number of Christians, as well as adherents of other religions, are currently lacking in Tajikistan. Only during the 2020 general census will have a section about religious affiliation in its questionnaires.
“The cemetery is one for all, no divisions for particular ethnicity, the authorities are good to us, we try not to forget our origins, but everything is already so mixed up,” – his is a brief summary of the statements of the Hissar Orthodox Christians who have been living there since the middle of the last century.
Christians in Tajikistan are mainly associated with the Russian-speaking population. But as soon as we met with the Orthodox in the city of Gissar, which is 22 km from the capital of Tajikistan, it turned out that everything is not so simple.
Parents of 47-year-old resident of Gissar Igor Bogolyub arrived in Tajikistan due to their institute’s assignment in the mid-60s. The head of the family, 86-year-old Viktor is originally a Ukrainian from Zhytomyr who has a technical specialty. His working experience is almost 70 years. Together with his wife Valentina, who taught Russian language and literature at the Shurobi Afgon village school, they lived in Tajikistan for more than half a century and they are not going to leave.
“There were 18 specialists from one university who were assigned to come to Tajikistan, but today I am the only one left. Of course, during the [civil] war there were threats against me, but we didn’t leave anywhere,”says Victor Bogolyub.
“I was born in this village, which means that here is my homeland,” adds his son Igor.
He recalls the years of the civil war when he had to survive with friends of different nationalities.
“I remember the long line for bread, the number written on my hand, and how they went to bask in the nearest house in the cold, and we gave the numbers to those who remained in the queue to save our place in there,” Igor recalls.
According to Igor himself, Christians are well treated in Gissar, ethnicity and religion does not matter for his friendship with local Tajiks. He speaks excellent Tajik, and even in the local dialect.
Igor and his father have a family business – they have a workshop in Gissar for engines of agricultural machinery. Many local people work here. According to him, there are few Orthodox Christians left in his village – 10 people.
Due to the fact that Gissar is located near Dushanbe, Orthodox does not have a church here, and therefore they go on holidays to pray in the capital.
“I myself was baptized, I used to go to the Church often, now there is a lot of work – from early morning to late evening, that is why I visit there only on Christian holidays. Recently, my daughter went to Russia apply for citizenship, and there she was baptized, ”says Igor.
A resident of Gissar, Ahmadjon, says that his son-in-law is Russian who is a relative of Bogolyubs family.
“Evgeniy met my daughter at school, both young teachers, fell in love, wanted to get married. At first I was against this marriage, we are Muslims, my relatives would simply stand against me. Zhenya (short for Evgeniy) agreed to convert to Islam; the mullah examined him and let them marry. They married and moved to live in Russia, now they have a daughter. Today I’m analyzing everything and I think I would agree to let my daughter marry him, even if he didn’t accept Islam,”says Ahmadjon Dadabaev.
The resident of Gissar Svetlana Shchadrina also has an international family: her husband is Tajik. They have two children: Son Vlad, who is now called Validjon after the adoption of Islam, is already 20 years old, and daughter Camilla – 8.
“My son decided to convert to Islam, I did not interfere with him. I myself follow my religion, currently I am fasting, preparing for Easter. But when it comes to Ramadan, out of respect for my family, I fast as well, ”says Svetlana. She revealed that her daughter had health problems, and she took her to the Church to help her there. But the abbot, having learned that the child is from a Muslim, advised them to decide on her religion.
“He said that it was impossible to sit on two chairs at the same time, therefore he could not baptize my daughter, since at birth she was hearing azan, which means she is of Muslim descent. Camilla learned all Christian prayers by heart with me, but her father is against her adopting Christianity. The priest advised me to wait for the daughter’s coming of age so that she herself could decide on her own faith, ”says Svetlana.
“Sledgehammer to Granite”
We also visited the only cemetery in Gissar for Russian-speaking citizens. At the entrance, they saw a small building without windows and doors. As it turned out, in the past it was a gatehouse, where a sign with spelling errors immediately caught my eye: “Cemeteries of the city of Gissar”, and then theт a short couplet:
“The traveler does not trample my ashes, I am at home, and you are visiting.” (Translated from Russian) The gates of the cemetery were wide open; the graves were on both sides of the main path
As Hazby, a local resident, explained, not only the Orthodox are buried here, but also other Christians.
“There are many graves with non-Russian surnames, for example, Koreans, Tatars, Ossetians, Germans, Mordvinians, Chuvashs are buried. Therefore, I believe that this is a cemetery for Russian-speaking people, ”says Hazby. He considers himself a man of both religions.
“My mother is an Orthodox Ossetian, my father is a Muslim, a Tajik. I celebrate all holy dates, both Orthodox and Islamic, ”says Hazby.
Signs of vandalism are noticeable in the cemetery – a cross was dug at one grave, another has no fence.
“It is useless to fight such a phenomenon,” says Svetlana Shchadrina, sadly. Her mother and brother are buried here.
Metal crosses and a fence were stolen twice from their graves. The last time the vandals smashed the mother’s tombstone.
Shchadrina went to the police at the place of residence, but there she was sent to the police station, which is responsible for the cemetery. There, in turn, she was advised to turn back to her place of residence.
In general, they “kicking me around” for a long time, so I didn’t go any further, I didn’t have enough strength, ”Shchadrina complains bitterly.
Igor Bogolyub, as chairman of the parent committee of the only Russian-language school No. 1 in Gissar, says that every year local residents and their children spend community work days at the cemetery, plant flowers and trees, but vandals continue to loot.
According to Igor, this vandalism did not begin during the years of the civil war, when the Russian-speaking population began to leave in droves, but five years ago.
Local Orthodox christians pay attention to the fact that in Dushanbe the Russian cemetery is well looked after.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a place in the cemetery for new dead. Local authorities allocated land for a new Christian cemetery near the village of Gachak. But according to local residents, the place was chosen unsuccessfully, near the mountainside, and after several burials, the land began to be washed away by rains and mudflows, due to which they had to close it.
Now new graves appear on the former cemetery, even on the paths.
The situation in the Sughd region
According to the head of the social department of the main Directorate of the Agency for Statistics under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan in the Sughd Region, Shoira Ulmasova, non-Islamic organizations provide data on the number of staff in their organizations, on employees and salaries. But they do not have data on the number of believers.
According to Ulmasova, today 16 non-Islamic organizations operate in the Sughd region. Four of them are Orthodox. They are located in the cities of Khujand, Buston (formerly Chkalovsk), Isfara and in the Matcha district. 12 employees are registered In four Orthodox churches.
According to the Agency for Statistics, in the Sughd region there are more than a thousand Russian-speaking citizens. But few of them go to church. These are elderly women who did not left the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Khujand was rebuilt many times. According to the church’s clergy, the temple was build in 2010 after the previous one burnt. Now it is the only Orthodox church in Khujand, which is located inside the Muslim mahalla.
29-year-old Maxim Shcherbanenko, one of the young priests at the temple, was born and raised in Khujand. As a child, Maxim went with great-grandmother to church. He is a professional musician. He toured many countries around the world for about seven years. Later he returned home, began to serve in the temple and stayed here.
Half of Maxim’s friends are native Tajiks, Muslims who often come to the temple for help. Religion has never hindered their friendship. Previously, Maxim often heard from acquaintances: “Since you live in Tajikistan, among Tajiks, you must accept Islam.” But in recent years he did not hear such words. Maxim claims that society has become more tolerant and respectful to another religions.
“There are almost no Russian neighbors. Basically, these are Tajik and Uzbek Muslims. I have a very good relationship with everyone. During Muslim holidays, they bring us treats, but we, in turn, carry treats when we have a holiday, ”says Maxim.
On Sunday, when we visited the temple, its gates were closed. There was an announcement that, due to the danger of the spread of coronavirus, temple services were temporarily canceled.
Here we met with the rector of the temple, Father Mardarius. The temple, to our surprise, turned out to be quite small. Only three small buildings: one new, two old ones and a small garden. The total territory of the temple is only 6 acres.
According to the abbot, the church is supported mainly by donations from parishioners. Their small budget is allocated to pay for utilities, the issuance of a small salary to four temple workers.
“Despite the fact that all our neighbors are Tajiks, we never quarell. On the contrary, neighbors always help us during cleaning. They were especially helpful during the construction of the new building after the fire,”says Father Mardarius.
The temple’s residents are used to live modestly. The biggest expense is the payment for electricity and water. After several appeals to local authorities for help, they agreed to reduce the utility tariffs.
“But because of rising prices, this decline is sometimes almost imperceptible,” says the abbot.
At the moment, the Orthodox christians observe the longest Lent, which lasts 7 weeks. But there are few people who come to the service.
“Over the past four years, the number of parishioners has not changed. But those who die are twice as many as those who come to be baptized, ”says Father Mardarius.
Usually parishioners serve 20-30 people. On Sundays and on holidays a little more. Believers, mostly grandmothers who were baptized in Soviet times, who bring their grandchildren to the temple.
If you look at the statistics, more than 50 Orthodox Christians died last year, and only about thirty people came to be baptized.
“There are many Russian speakers who consider themselves Christians, but they don’t come to the church,” says the priest.
There are only three Christian cemeteries in Khujand. The old one is no longer available, it was closed. The second one is full, there are no places for new graves and the third new, where Christians are currently buried, is located near Khujand. Often during community work days, locals clean the cemetery and help take out the trash.
Maxim, said that in the rural regions, there are still many Russian Christian believers. But, not all cities and regions have temples where they can go to the service.
“In addition, there is less freedom of religion in the villages. And many Russian women, in order not to be left alone, marry Muslims and convert to Islam,”says Maxim.
There are no temples in Khatlon
In the Khatlon region there are not so many Orthodox Christians left – several dozens or hundreds. There are not so many temples left and therefore believers have to go to prayer in the regional center – the city of Bokhtar or even in Dushanbe.
Alexei Chirkov, a resident of the Yavan district, says that the local church, built about 50 years ago, is in in disrepair for several years.
According to Chirkov, now the Orthodox have received permission from local authorities to gather and pray in a single place.
Lyubov Melikova, a resident of the Yavan district, is 77 years old. Back in 1966, her husband came for military service in Tajikistan. She says that compared with previous years, the number of Christians has decreased, many have left for Russia.
Melikova herself is not going to her historic homeland; she likes Tajikistan.
The only thing that worries this woman is that due to the lack of churches, she is forced to cover 60 kilometers to go to Dushanbe.
“Now we are gathering in the same house, reading books and praying for the dead. We need a church so that Christians have a spacious place for prayer. I go to Dushanbe during our big religious holidays, ”she says.
Ismat Azizov, head of the department of religion, traditions, celebrations and ceremonies of the administration of the Yavan district, confirmed to CABAR.asia that now Christians who live in this area have problems with the church.
The number of Christians in Khatlon is not officially reported, but they live in many southern districts of Tajikistan.
According to Dzhunaidullo Vakhobov, head of the department of religion, traditions, celebrations and ceremonies of the city of Nurek, in the region there are only two Orthodox churches that are fully functioning.
“The Orthodox christians in Bohtar have no problems, they have two good, modern churches, they spend religious holidays there. They also have a cemetery, ”said Usmonali Nurov, spokesman for the Khatlon region.
Yasrib Khatloni, a local expert, is well acquainted with the Orthodox community in the region. According to him, there are no exact numbers.
Young Christians also migrate to other countries, like young Tajiks, so only the older generation can still be seen in the cities and villages of the Khatlon region.
“The exact number of Christians, mainly Russians, Germans and Koreans, is unknown, since they began to leave Tajikistan from the time of the civil war. There are only those left who have to keep their houses here. Many of them say that they are pensioners and have nowhere to leave, “said Yasrib Khatloni.
The remaining Christians live a normal life as indigenous people.
According to the Khatlon Statistical Office, there are 13 Christian churches in southern Tajikistan, including churches for Catholics, Evangelists and Protestants, but there are no official data on the exact number of Christians.
This journalistic investigation was conducted under IWPR project “Stability in Central Asia via Open Dialogue”.