Uzbekistan: One Christian’s Dream
Paul Upsee* an American Christian living in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan in the Commonwealth of Independent States, believes the Uzbek people have the potential for a "people movement." (See note**) He explains, that Uzbekistan, while like the other central Asian republics, is an Islamic nation, there are several factors which make it open to the Gospel.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Uzbeks have been realizing the legacy of poverty left by Communism and its central planning economics. Despite its lack of rainfall, less than 8 inches per year, Uzbekistan was targeted for cotton production and became the world's third largest producer. This was accomplished through intensive irrigation. The water requirements of a thirsty crop like cotton led to a 13-meter (42-foot) drop in the level of the Aral Sea. Then the receding water left salt residues which made the land barren. Pesticides and fertilizers add to the pollution, which is spread in wind storms. The once arid but fertile land is increasingly desertified and barren. It's not a pretty place for Paul's family to live.
Furthermore, 47% of the land and 40% of the work-force is involved in the production of cotton. Faced with environmental suicide, the farmers must somehow switch to another, less thirsty crop or find another job!
Another production goal of Soviet central planning was gold. What the Uzbeks are learning is that the profits from that gold were not always brought home to Uzbekistan. Much of the profit was spent on defense or research, some was returned to Uzbekistan in the form of commodities and very little was spent to keep the equipment upgraded or the mines modernized. Consequently, though Uzbekistan also has deposits of petroleum, natural gas, coal, and copper, which they could develop, all their production equipment is WWII vintage and there's no money for improvements!
Factories are another area in need of refurbishing. Almost all of them date back to 1941 or 1942, when they were moved from northwest Russia to avoid Nazi air strikes. Still in production today, but without major retooling since WWII, they are huge relics filled with museum-like machines. The view from Paul's window looks like Chicago may have looked 50 years ago - large smokestacks everywhere and bad air pollution.
Disillusionment has made Uzbekistan ripe for the gospel. Communism, which wasn't paradise, at least provided the basics. The trains still ran, the stores still had food to sell, government functioned. Now nothing works. Paul must spend many hours each month just buying the necessities. With the old ways gone, the old leaders gone, and the future different for today's children, Uzbekistan is face to face with it's spiritual need.
At the moment, nationalism is the answer. Where Lenin's statue once stood in the central square, a globe with Uzbekistan in high relief now rests. The new statue in a nearby park is not of a military hero but of a poet, someone who wrote in the Uzbek language rather than Persian or Russian or any of the conquerors' languages. Paul's attempts to learn Uzbek are always appreciated. Theaters across the city of Tashkent are large, ornate, and full of enthusiastic Uzbek crowds celebrating Uzbek culture.
Possibilities for wide-spread Christian influence exist within this core Uzbek culture. Still today the Uzbeks live in very large extended family units called mahallas, which cover hazy geographic areas but distinct relationships. The leaders of these mahallas are called oxicals, literally gray bearded ones. Paul's dream is to gain the favor of one of these oxicals, be given permission to live in the mahalla, and reach out to the Uzbeks with the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel could spread along already existing family lines, quite likely aided by the strong tradition of hospitality within the Uzbek culture.
Paul knows that Jesus is the hope of Uzbekistan, but the Uzbekis don't know it yet. He met his first Uzbek Christian just a few weeks ago. She said, "God is at work among the few Christians here in Tashkent. Signs and wonders are happening among us! But we must be very careful and we are afraid." Pray for Uzbekistan.
*Not his real name. ** “People Movement”= a completely indigenous movement of believers within an otherwise non-Christian tribe, nation or culture