Kyrgyzstan has over three thousand various religious organisations registered, which maintain peace and dialogue between themselves. The constitution guarantees equal rights and freedoms to all religious people.
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Every Tuesday and Saturday a charity bus drives out of the Host Resurrection Cathedral in Bishkek. Sister Olga, a guard and a driver go to the two spots in the capital, where homeless and low-income people gather to have cooked meal. Olga Yakovleva has worked with the “charity bus” for six years.
“Who’ll take compassion on them? We just walk past them, while each of them has a story to tell – some come here accidentally, some were kicked out of the house, some suffered from misfortune,” she said.
This time, the staff of the Islamic magazine Ummah joined this honourable mission. The young people learned that the Christians feed homeless people on social media and decided to take part.
“We decided to take part because this idea is very interesting and honourable. In fact, all religions call everyone for helping those around them. We decided quickly to join the initiative of the Christian church because it’s cool to help out,” activist Bekzhan Yusupov said.
According to article 32 of the national Constitution, every citizen of Kyrgyzstan has a guaranteed freedom of conscience and belief:
Currently, the republic has 3,294 officially registered religious organisations, including 2,884 Islamic ones, 396 Christian ones, as well as the Jewish, Buddhist communities and Baha’i.
“Kyrgyzstan is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society. After we gained independence, we’ve had liberal policy in the area of religion. Nevertheless, the freedom of religion is supported very good compared to other countries,” Zakir Chotaev, deputy director of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, said.
This religious diversity has been established in the country historically – representatives of various religions have always lived in the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan. Archaeological evidences prove that various tribes and peoples living here in various periods have preached Zoroastrianism, Tengriism, and Buddhism. This diversity can be due to the Silk Road passing through the republic.
According to Akimzhan Ergeshov, representative of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, Islam has been on the territory of Central Asia since the end of 7th century. After gaining independence in 1991, the first Muslim organisation – the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims – was established and the first mufti was appointed.
The figures prove the dynamic development of the Islamic community. In the years of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyz SSR had 39 mosques, now there are about three thousands of them, and more than 80 per cent of people consider themselves Muslims.
Russian Orthodox church has been living and coexisting peacefully with the Islam for more than 150 years. Archaeological materials prove that Christianity emerged in the country’s territory back in the Middle Ages. However, the modern history of Orthodoxy starts from the date of accession of Kyrgyzstan to the Russian empire in the 19th century.
Later on, in the period of the USSR, the authorities pursued the policy of atheism, and since 1991, according to Aleksei Syromyatnikov, officer of the Cathedral of the Grand Duke Vladimir in Bishkek, the Orthodox Christians felt no oppression from the atheist government.
Today, the Russian Orthodox Church of Kyrgyzstan is the first confession after Islam by the number of attendants, and there are 54 churches in the country.
“For more than 150 years, local residents see not opponents, not enemies, but rather good neighbours in Christians. And we continue this tradition. Once there was a rare chance to build a church in the regions, the imams of neighbouring mosques used to help financially. It proves our friendly relations,” Syromyatnikov emphasised.
In addition to Islam and orthodoxy, Kyrgyzstan also has officially registered representations of other religions, which are not that numerous. One of them is Buddhism.
Not far from Bishkek, in the village of Mayevka, a small temple, which the Buddhists call “The place of path” is located.
Buddhism emerged in the territory of today’s Central Asia in the 1st century before Christ. Archaeological evidences in Chui region prove that large Buddhist temples were located here back in the 7th-13th centuries.
Modern Buddhism has existed in Kyrgyzstan for as little as 30 years. According to Oleg Tsoi, head of the Buddhist community, their religious organisation was registered in 1989.
“Our community was welcomed by the State Committee for Religious Affairs warmly and kindly. We’ve never had any confrontations,” he said.
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Kyrgyzstan also has representatives of one of the youngest religions – Baha’i. It originated in Persia in the middle of 19th century, and the first in the world Baha’i community beyond modern Iran emerged in Ashgabat back in the early 1880s. The first temple of Baha’i was built there in 1918.
This organisation was officially registered in Kyrgyzstan in 1992. Now the country has 12 Baha’i communities and a few hundreds of followers.
Asel Islamkhanova, a member of the national spiritual council of Baha’i in Kyrgyzstan, said:
Kenzhebek Botobaev, the senior priest of the Lutheran Church in Kyrgyzstan, recalls that other Lutherans and he had to face ostracism and misunderstanding of fellow countrymen. Before he adopted Lutheranism, he had worked in the police for 15 years and then was admitted to the theological seminary in Bishkek.
The Lutheran Church was officially registered in Kyrgyzstan in 2001. According to Botobaev, today there are about 600 people in Kyrgyzstan who deem themselves Lutherans.
“It was hard in the past, but now people understand religion and belief. Now we feel good,” he said.
Representatives of various religions admit that Kyrgyzstan has a unique situation, when people of various beliefs live peacefully together and hold joint events.
“Compared to neighbouring countries, we can say we have much more freedom, more perception of opinions, tolerance than in other republics,” Akimzhan Ergeshov said.
The joint campaign of provision of food for the homeless and low-income people can illustrate the peaceful coexistence and cooperation between representatives of various religions. The journalists of Ummah magazine, who took part in the campaign for the first time, share contacts with sister of charity Olga to hold joint charity actions in future.
“To maintain interfaith peace in Kyrgyzstan, we need to work with the young people, get the message across to them that we live in one state. And it’s not important whether you are a Muslim, a Christian or a Buddhist, you are a man and a citizen of this country, first of all,” Bekzhan Dzhusupov said.
This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»