The mufti here in Bishkek spoke at a conference on religious tolerance a few days ago. He has recently returned from a trip to the United States and said that if Muslims want Islam to be more respected in America, Muslim countries need to allow religious freedom in their own countries.
The muftiâ€™s only concern with allowing religious freedom is his perception that many of these Christian sects buy their members. Iâ€™ve read this accusation over and over in the news here in Central Asia and it is by far the most common criticism of new Christian sects.
Certainly there is reason for the muftiâ€™s concern- there are many who do join a specific church because of the financial assistance they might get. But what is a Christian to do? Weâ€™re commanded to help those in need. Many denominations do give assistance to a variety of people, but is it any wonder that they probably feel a greater responsibility to those who have joined their church?
This is major reason why I think the LDS churchâ€™s humanitarian aid is so important. It goes to water projects, wheelchair donations, mitigating natural disasters, and so much more. A load of wheelchairs was sent to Kyrgyzstan when there were almost no members here, and none of those members needed a wheelchair. Uzbekistan has requested humanitarian aid when there are no local members in the country- they wouldnâ€™t even be allowed to practice if they were. Of course, there are plenty who think this humanitarian aid is an effort to influence governments which brings along its own set of problems.
The other common concern- especially from foreignersâ€™ perspective- is that becoming a Christian takes away a personâ€™s culture heritage. For example, we spoke to an attorney who was advising some missionaries from another church about an Afghan refugee family living in Kyrgyzstan that had joined their church. That church was trying to help those Afghans go to Canada as refugees. But when the Canadian officials were checking into their background, the neighbors told the officials that they were no longer Afghan because they were Christian. The Canadian government refused their application because the government was worried that this family wouldnâ€™t be able to integrate into an Afghan immigrant community in Canada.
Many people in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan wouldnâ€™t feel quite so strongly about this. I have asked a number of Kyrgyz if changing religions is acceptable and nearly all have said itâ€™s fine as long as the family agrees. Afghanistan is much more religiously observant than Central Asia. But still, Central Asians are culturally Muslims in much the same way that most Jews are culturally Jewish instead of religiously Jewish. And even though very few of those cultural traditions conflict with the gospel, it is still seen as a radical change for many people. It’s also important to remember that there isn’t any one correct way to be a Mormon.
These two issues, and many more, come up all over the world, but itâ€™ll be a little different everywhere. Itâ€™s interesting that even though almost no one has heard of the Church here, there will be, as always, plenty of preconceptions about it.