The stone cut out of the mountain. LDS Church leaders have just announced the creation of the new Central Eurasian Mission, set to open on July 1, 2015. Personally, I think it should be named the Silk Road Mission.
The mission is the result of a split in the current Bulgaria Sofia Mission, comprising Bulgaria and Turkey and contains 13 branches, four of them in Turkey, and the Russia Novosibirsk Mission, which currently includes two branches in Kazakhstan.
Turkey and Kazakhstan will be broken off from their respective missions to form the new one, but the bigger news is the inclusion of four other countries in the new mission: Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – all of them former members of the Soviet Union. Previously, these three countries had been administered by the Europe East Area but were not part of any mission.
But before you start wondering whether your kid is going to be sent on an Uzbek-speaking mission, let’s talk about what’s actually at stake, or at least the most likely path forward.
While a Muslim country, Turkey has enjoyed the presence of senior missionaries for many years and “regular” missionaries since 2012, when the Turkish government recognized the Church. However, despite ostensible religious freedom, proselytizing is still banned and all work must come from member referrals.
The Church was formally recognized in Kazakhstan in 2001. The country, which is roughly 70 percent Islamic and 30 percent Christian, only has branches in Astana, the capital, and Almaty, the former capital and largest city. Proselytism is openly allowed by the government after registration and approval of missionaries. (Similar to Russia. Hello, former USSR.) There are minimal Church materials in Kazakh, which is a barrier to entry.
Now as for the newcomers, membership in Kyrgyzstan has mostly consisted of stationed US military servicehumans in the past. It is, however, nominally the most westernized of these new areas, even if its relationship with democracy is tenuous at best. Despite being overwhelmingly Muslim, this could be the country most likely to receive full-time missionaries, if any of them do.
Tajikistan is known to have a few local members, but the population is overwhelmingly Muslim and has a cultural affiliation closer to Afghanistan and Iran than its other Central Asian brothers. The country endured a brutal civil war and is only now putting itself back together, but ethnic unrest in the Fergana Valley could make it difficult to bring in missionaries.
As for Uzbekistan, the country is run by a brutal dictatorship (though not quite as brutal as in neighboring Turkmenistan, which is curiously left out of this new mission). While there is a large presence of ethnic Russians in the country, the likelihood of actual missionaries showing up in Tashkent is low. But miracles happen, and that’s why we pray.
Azerbaijan is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim, but also reasonably secular, as are most of these post-Soviet states. Still, there is virtually no LDS presence in the nation and the likelihood of non-service missionaries in the country seems low. And if you’re wondering why this isn’t just part of the successful Armenia Yerevan Mission, I encourage you to Google Armenia-Azerbaijan relations.
There are many instances of countries being formally included in a mission while not actually being recipients of traditional proselytizing missionary work. Even Turkey was more or less on that list for many years. So while we surely cannot rule out the Lord’s hand in opening up the way for missionaries, don’t read into this as if surplus “surge” missionaries are going to take on Dushanbe in the immediate future.
But either way, now when a new missionary gets called to be Turkish-speaking, he or she can also brag, “Yeah, and like, Uzbekistan was in my mission, which was pretty dope.”
For those of you who have served in Turkey or Kazakhstan, I’d love your comments below, both to tell us about your experience and also to correct any mistakes I might have made in the article.
The mission headquarters will be in Istanbul. Go forth, Silk Road! May the waters of the Amu Darya never run dry!