Sunday, June 03, 2012

Millions of Uzbek Muslims live in Russia. Who will introduce them to Jesus?

My attention was captive as pastor Yusuf* talked. "It's illegal to possess a Bible now in Uzbekistan," he said. "If one is caught, he can be arrested and fined up to $2,000, which is almost two year's salary for an Uzbek." He continued, "House churches are illegal, and the government will no longer legally register new churches." I later learned that the very man I was talking with had been arrested and beaten for leading a service in a house church.

How often is God at work right in front of our noses and we don't even see it? When I look back at how God led our family to St. Petersburg, Russia and introduced us to some key people I'm almost left speechless and I wonder how I didn't see it when it was happening.

Millions of Uzbek Muslims live in Russia.
Who will introduce them to Jesus?
Walking down the streets of St. Petersburg or Moscow, you quickly notice that the people are not ethnically homogenous. A Westerner, unfamiliar with Russia, would just see an ethnically diverse culture. They would see people of different skin colors or different dress as quite "normal" and expected. But live in the country for a while and you quickly learn that chorniye (dark-skinned people), are not welcomed guests.

Exact figures are hard to find, but estimates for St. Petersburg alone put Central Asian migrant workers at around 1.5 to 2 million, most from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both countries closed to the gospel. One of the difficulties in finding exact figures is that many are in the country illegally. They have come for work on temporary visas, and often end up staying longer, getting paid under the table. Most end up doing unskilled and manual labor for very low wages. Living conditions are difficult and there is always a risk of being stopped by the police for a document check. Almost all of these migrant workers are Muslim-of a more secular and "liberal" stripe to be sure, but nonetheless, they are Muslim.

As time passed and we engaged in other ministries in Russia, I could not help but ask the question "Who is taking the gospel to these people?" After almost three years of asking that question I finally met pastor Yusuf.

A short conversation with pastor Yusuf and I quickly saw that he is passionate about reaching Central Asian immigrants in Russia. He sees God's hand of providence clearly at work in this spiritual battle. Satan has tried to close the doors in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But God has brought people out of those countries into Russia where they can hear the gospel. And when you hear the figures, it is hard not to see God's hand at work. At any given time an estimated 5 to 7 million Uzbeks are living in Russia. Statistically this is up to one-fourth of Uzbek1stan's population! Inside the borders of their home country they are virtually isolated from the gospel, but within the borders of Russia the doors, and their ears, are wide open.

A burden to reach overlooked people groups, including immigrant populations, runs deep within the DNA of InterAct. We are prayerfully exploring new ministry opportunities such as partnering with indigenous ministries like pastor Yusuf and his church to reach Central Asian Muslims. It may be that God is calling us to work in this field that is white unto harvest. Will you please pray with us?

(Tom Slawson, Interact Ministries prayer letter, May 2012)