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NEWS FEATURE: Christian Missionaries in Muslim Nations in Tenuous Spot

c. 2003 Religion News Service KHUJAND, Tajikistan _ In an unmarked church behind a public bathhouse in the center of this ancient Muslim city, a Pentecostal pastor is preaching on a subject that few Christians in Central Asia would touch with a 10-foot pole: the shortcomings of Islam as a faith. As Pastor Artur Musalyan […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

KHUJAND, Tajikistan _ In an unmarked church behind a public bathhouse in the center of this ancient Muslim city, a Pentecostal pastor is preaching on a subject that few Christians in Central Asia would touch with a 10-foot pole: the shortcomings of Islam as a faith.

As Pastor Artur Musalyan slowly makes his way to the main point of the hourlong Sunday sermon, many in the congregation of 200 are taking notes.

“It is the will of God that Tajiks and Uzbeks and Afghans and Arabs accept Jesus. But they won’t know about Jesus unless you tell them,” Musalyan intones, pausing to let a translator turn his Russian into Tajik, the language of the majority in this Muslim nation of 5.8 million people.

Minutes later, at the altar call, three young people come forward to be saved: two Tajik men and an ethnic Russian woman. To applause from the congregation, Musalyan proclaims: “Today in Khujand, three more children were born to our God in heaven. God, our father, is very happy.”

The Sunday morning scene at the Divine Love Church is a typical one, Musalyan later says, explaining that converts are plentiful, especially among young, educated people from nominally Muslim families in this city of 170,000.

But for all his apparent success, Musalyan has no illusions about the church’s extremely tenuous position in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic wracked by a civil war from 1992 to 1993 that pitted Russian-backed former communists against those seeking to found a Muslim state.

No matter how fiery his sermons get, Musalyan is careful about what he says outside the church, which itself bears no cross or even a sign. The pastor says he is content to keep a low profile and considers the Tajik government wise in restricting non-Muslim religious activity.

“If they gave us as much freedom as the Muslims have, we would simply be killed,” says Musalyan, who moved to Khujand in 1996 after doing missionary work in Siberia.

If there were any doubts here about the precariousness of Protestant missionary enterprises in mostly Muslim countries, they evaporated with the recent attacks on American missionaries in Yemen and Lebanon. A gunman out to “cleanse his religion” killed three American Baptists in Yemen in late December. An American missionary nurse was shot to death a month earlier in a part of Lebanon where local Muslim clerics had criticized proselytizing by foreign Christians.

While Khujand is quiet, the Tajik capital of Dushanbe has been the scene of some of the region’s worst anti-Christian violence. Three bombings of three different churches killed 10 people during a wave of religious violence in 2000 and 2001. Police arrested two students from a local Islamic institute in the deadliest of the bombings _ of a Korean Presbyterian church.

Despite such volatility, Musalyan founded the Divine Love Bible School in late 2001, just as U.S. troops were preparing to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan, Tajikistan’s neighbor to the south. The missionary school has about 50 students, most of them locals and over half of them former Muslims. Some plan to head south to evangelize the Afghans.

“Last Sunday, when the pastor was talking about sacrifice, I decided in my heart to become a missionary in Afghanistan. I’ll prepare myself for that and ask God to help me,” says Kuisinoy Maksudova, a local woman who “first heard about Jesus” in 1996 as a high school exchange student to the United States.

Maksudova says that initial encounter with Christianity came in a physical education class at the school she was attending in Little Rock, Ark. A girl gave Maksudova a Bible to read. “I told her, `No way. I’m a Muslim,”’ she recalls, explaining how Swedish missionaries in Khujand eventually converted her.

After learning Dari _ an Afghan language similar to Tajik _ Maksudova plans on moving to rural Afghanistan, finding work as an English teacher and converting local Muslims by “showing them Jesus through my love for them.”

While this is a common missionary approach to evangelization _ to work formally in a purely secular field and informally at proselytizing _ it infuriates some Christian humanitarian workers in the region who feel it is deceptive and leaves all Christian aid workers vulnerable to attacks by angered Muslims.

“If one missionary organization does this, then the local people may think that all Christian organizations are doing this,” says Eszter Nemeth, who lived for most of last year in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, setting up the Hungarian Interchurch Aid office.

“In Afghanistan, the situation is very explosive. This is a tribal society, a society of families. When the missionaries come in, they target the individual. They force him to confront his family,” says Nemeth.

At Khujand’s Divine Love Bible School, more than half the students come from Muslim families and know firsthand the intense pressure not to betray the faith of their ancestors. Musalyan says deep local allegiance to Islam is one of biggest stumbling blocks to faster church growth.

Only one in every five people who answers the altar call actually becomes a member of the church, Musalyan says.

Typically, he says, the new believer “goes home and says, `I believe in God. His name is Jesus.’ It is over right there. They take him to the mosque and have the mullah clean him up.”

Still, despite the difficulties and occasional threats of violence to the new Christians, the director of the Divine Love Bible School says former Muslims make by far the most effective missionaries to Muslim populations. Andrei, the school’s director who asked that his last name not be printed, estimates there are at least 100 missionaries ready to work in Afghanistan, both from Khujand and from other charismatic churches scattered across the former Soviet Union.

He says it is less of a leap for someone from a former communist country to work in Afghanistan than for a Western Christian accustomed to a higher standard of living.

“It is hard to give up a warm house and hot water,” Andrei says. “I don’t think Russians and Tajiks have that much to give up.”