Report from Kazan, Tatarstan

Region is crucial in evangelization of Muslims

Never before in history has God moved so powerfully to draw millions of Muslims to Himself throughout the world. This is especially true in the former Soviet Union where over 50 million people claim ethnic ties to groups which are traditionally Muslim. Although atheism was promoted by the communists, many Muslims remained tied to their ancestral faith, if not through worship, then through strong ethnic identification with Islam. Now many Muslims in the former USSR are coming to Christ. This is evident in the city of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a region with a population of one million which declared its autonomy from Russia in 1991.

Tatarstan is a significant linchpin in the Muslim movement throughout the former USSR. The Tatar people, numbering over seven million, are the second largest Muslim group in the former USSR (the Uzbek people claim 15 million). The Tatar language is part of the Turkic group and is closely related to Kazakh, Uzbek, Uighir, Bashkir, Turkmen, Kirghiz and Tadjik.

Tatarstan is in the center of a large region consisting many of the former USSR’s unreached nations, such as the Chuvash, Mari, Mordvin, Baskir, Komi and Udmurt peoples. These groups are a varied mix of Finnic, Turkic and ancient tribal peoples, each claiming a distinct land, language, culture, and national history. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union each of these ancient nations are reclaiming their rights to national sovereignty to varying degrees.

I was in Kazan, Tatarstan for four days in November 1994. I interviewed about a dozen Tatars who had come to Christ in recent years and was offered a wide variety of opinions.

Although there is little danger of violent conflict, tensions between the two groups continue to grow. One month before I arrived, for example, thousands of Tatar Muslims gathered to commemorate the 440th anniversary of the defeat of the Tatars by Czar Ivan the Terrible. This is still a sore point between Tatars and Russians. Shortly after the gathering, authorities passed a new law requiring all Christian churches to reregister with the Tatar dominated government. The following is a day-by-day account of my meetings with about a dozen people who have an intimate knowledge of Christian missionary work among the Tatars in Kazan and the outlying region:

Nov. 8th 1994 – We arrived at 6:30 A.M. on the overnight train from Nizhny Novgorod, the weather was well below freezing. We were met at the train station by two elders of the Baptist Prayer House. At noon we spoke to a Tatar lady named Alsu Gafurova who had many interesting things to say about the Tatars. She is a professor at the University of Kazan and speaks fluent English. She recommended that the department of foreign languages at the university help us with translations. We had some doubts about this, since none of the university’s Tatar translators professed Christianity. A knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology is a prerequisite. Alsu seemed to think that only the “Russified” Tatars, such as herself, are open to the gospel. She maintained that the ties to Islam among Tatars are so strong that it would be unusual to find a nationalistic Tatar converted to Christ.

We then visited the flat of a woman named Rima. She had previously translated an evangelistic tract from English into Tatar. She has met over a hundred American, English, Swiss, Swedish, Finnish, etc. missionaries and has translated several Christian books from English into Russian. I asked her if she considered herself to be a Christian, because she had made a comment about “betraying Allah.” She paused for a few seconds and said, “No … I cannot say Jesus Christ is the Lord of my life.”

We spoke with Alsu for several hours. I discovered that although she helps with many Christian missionary outreaches in Kazan, few of the missionaries know that she is not genuinely converted. Alsu is open to Christ and wants to help us, however, she is torn between religions. I soon found out that Alsu is typical of many Tatars who make an outward profession of Christ, but are then unable to cut their cultural ties to Islam.

Nov. 9th – Oleg Aleksandrov, the Russian man who wrote an article on Kazan (see the Fall 1994 issue of The Champion), gave us some more contacts with Tatar Christians who might help us as translators. According to Oleg, the Russian Orthodox churches conduct some of their services in the Tatar language. In addition, many young people are studying Tatar again. The government is trying to develop Tatar as the national language of Tatarstan. There are many Tatar newspapers and books available in the kiosks.

Oleg spoke of the great importance of having the Bible and Christian literature in the Tatar language. Only portions of the New Testament and Psalms have been published in Tatar. Oleg told us that evangelism going on among the Tatars with some minor problems.

“Last Sunday, the Church of Christ could not meet in their rented hall. It was some kind of political situation. Authorities passed a new law concerning reregistration of churches. Some churches have begun to lose their buildings. Government officials began to refuse rental of their buildings to churches after the new law was passed. Most of the authorities in Kazan are Tatars. Russians only work in the industrial complexes – the local military, helicopter, and aircraft engine plants – but they do not govern,” Oleg told us.

Our next conversation was with Shamil, a Tatar who came to Christ many years before perestroika. Shamil has had some Bible school training and now pastors a small house church in Kazan. Shamil has had many experiences working with western missionaries, but has mixed feelings about this.

Says Shamil, “Before you come to minister in our country you need to understand us. Some missionaries have caused us problems because they did not understand the situation with the Tatars. They promised to start permanent works here, but soon left the country never to return.”

Shamil also spoke of the closed attitude of Tatars living in the outlying towns and villages toward Christianity. “It is easier in the city for Tatars to come to Christ. Kazan is like Europe; it is not the Far East. It is easier to repent here – but recently we had a nationalistic revival of the Muslim movement. They produced a lot of problems for Christians.”

Nov. 10th – Our next interview was with Reshat and Rosa Fazliamedov. Reshat accepted Christ a few years ago at the institute in Kazan while studying to be a radio engineer. He now co-pastors a church.

Reshat and Rosa gathered a group of Tatar converts to Christianity for a home group meeting about a year ago. “If a Tatar person accepts Jesus Christ, there is no literature,” said Reshat. “Churches work only with Russian speaking people because of the lack of literature in Tatar. It is therefore difficult to work with Tatar speaking people.” Their Tatar home group was scattered, however, due to strife between local churches of rival denominations.

Reshat explained that the deep resentment against the Russians, coupled with the fact that Ivan the Terrible forced many Tatars to be baptized, works against evangelicals attempting to reach Tatars with the gospel. Words such as – “Cross,” “baptism” and “Christian” – are hated by Tatars.

“Tatars understand baptism to be a curse,” said Reshat. “Translators must be acquainted with both the language and the culture of the Tatars.” Reshat said that the translation team will use special words for “baptism” (immersion), and special names for “Cross” and “Jesus Christ” which are closely related to Turkic. “It is also necessary to understand Islamic theology, because it is possible to unknowingly offend Muslims,” said Reshat.

When Reshat first attended church, he had great difficulty in accepting the fact that Mohammed was a false prophet and that Jesus Christ is God. Reshat and Rosa were offended at first, but then the Holy Spirit opened their eyes when they read passages in the Bible about false prophets. “This was a great temptation to overcome before I could be baptized,” said Reshat.

Nov. 11 – Alphia Samgunova, a Tatar girl whom I had met during a prior trip to Kazan in June, visited with us the next day. Alphia speaks English very well and will be in an English class this year at the University of Kazan, where she is studying Russian literature.

Alphia says she wants to help network Tatar Christians from her Baptist church with the charismatic and Pentecostal Tatars. Alphia thinks it is a shame that Christians are sometimes adversarial in their relationships toward each other. She said, “Many of the Russian Orthodox and Tatar people say to us: ‘How can you preach to us when you are not united?’” Alphia says disunity in the Protestant churches is due to differences in doctrines.

Alphia related her experience ministering to her Tatar friends at the university. “We had a problem with one of our Tatar friends. He felt as though he was under some kind of demonic oppression and asked us to pray for him. He prayed to Jesus Christ to be set free. But he soon became afraid that he had betrayed Islam. He invited two priests from the mosque to come to his dorm room to pray for him. They later confronted us and told us that we should follow the faith of our fathers. Later we were able to talk to our friend again. We read the 17th chapter of John to him because Muslims cannot understand the Trinity. He did not become a Christian, but he decided not to follow Islam.”

Alphia lives in the town of Nizhnykamsk, about six hours by bus from Kazan on the Kami river. She explained the difference in openness between the smaller towns and the large cities. “In Nizhnykamsk, Tatars are more quiet and some are interested in Christianity. Kazan has had some problems with cults and with some over zealous evangelists. But in my city people are more open because they have never heard the gospel.

“Now there are many mosques in the villages and towns. The government has made a decree that every village must have at least one mosque. In Nizhnykamsk, the mosque is very strong. People are hungry to know about God. The best way to reach them for Christ is not to preach to them but to become their friends. Tatars are hospitable and they place great importance on friendship. It is not important for them to hear new ideas about God, but to know about your life.

“Sometimes my relationship with our relatives is a problem. When my brother and I became Christians, our relatives called us ‘traitors.’ Sometimes they refused to talk to us. Many Tatars don’t like Russians. They view Christianity as being the Russian Orthodox Church and they see evangelicals as being cults.”

My four day trip to Kazan was the most interesting period I have had thus far in the former USSR. I am looking forward to returning.

Other highlights of the trip

Meeting with the editors of Zhivoye Slova (Living Word) – The staff of this newspaper in Nizhny Novgorod has grown from four to eight since last summer and the newspaper is now a 16-page bimonthly edition. This is the only Christian periodical I know of in the former USSR which I can say has a higher organizational and professional quality than Predvestnik. The editor is a former medical doctor and is serious about making Zhivoye Slova the best Christian newspaper in Russia. We agreed to cooperate by trading distribution lists (Predvestnik is distributed to 20,000; Zhivoye Slova 10,000). We also traded back issues and reprint permission of all articles.

My “chance” meeting with Elena Fedorenko in Moscow – At a church meeting in downtown Moscow, I happened to come across Elena whom I had met in the summer of 1991. She was then working with an American friend of mine in the Christian Youth International office. Elena is now working as a secretary for a missionary organization and plans to begin a Christian newspaper by the summer of 1995 with a first run of 100,000. They are using MacIntosh computers, which is the same system I set up in Kiev, Ukraine. I hope to spend some time with Elena in the summer in order to help them begin their newspaper. I hope that Predvestnik in Kiev can be of some assistance in providing a workable model in helping them to get started.

Part of the plan for 1995 is to get Predvestnik on-line via the internet with some other Christian publishing endeavors in Russia – Elena Fedorenko, Zhivoya Slova, and Paraklesis. By adding Christian leaders in St. Petersburg, Minsk, Alma Ata, Vladivostok, and other regions, we would have the beginnings of a Christian news gathering network on-line which would blanket the former USSR. Predvestnik already has a computer modem and should have an internet account by the time you receive this letter.

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