New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Few Christians live in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia, except for Kazakhstan, but they are free to worship since independence from Russia. The Church cannot however run its own institutions, like schools or hospitals, or organise its own charity work.
Mgr Thomas Menamparampil, archbishop of Guwahati (India) and chairman of the Office of Evangelisation of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), talked to AsiaNews about the challenges and problems Christians face in Central Asia.
The prelate, who visited Uzbekistan, said, “In the year dedicated to Matteo Ricci, we look forward to our mission in Asia with great hope.” Catholics, he added, should not mechanically imitate the giants of the past, but engage in a creative competition to spread the Gospel and understand the special nature of local cultures.
Here is Mgr Menamparampil’s interview with AsiaNews.
Your Excellency, what was the purpose of your visit to Uzbekistan?
Bishop Jerzy Maculewicz of Tashkent had invited me to come to encourage the Christian community in Uzbekistan during their annual gathering in May. The number of Catholic believers is not high, but their faith is deep. Some 150 Catholics from all over the country gathered for three days with their missionaries for prayer and reflection. I spoke in English and my message was translated into Russian, which serves as a lingua franca among people who speak different languages like Uzbek, Polish, Croatian, German, Ukrainian, and Korean.
The Catholic community in Uzbekistan is made up largely of those people from the old Soviet Empire whom Stalin sent eastwards both as a punishment and in an effort to develop the eastern sphere of the Soviet world.
As soon as these nations in Central Asia won their independence, Pope John Paul II was quick in establishing relationship with them, seeking recognition for the little Catholic community. It has been a great change for the community from the experiences of the Soviet regime, but the situation is still far from ideal.
How is the faith of the Catholic community?
The Russian Orthodox faithful are far more numerous than the Catholics, and their Church is well established and formally recognised. The Catholic presence is feeble, except to some extent in Kazakhstan.
Governments have not formally recognised the Church as a legal entity in many of these countries. Applications are still pending. Whilst the faithful are free to worship since the time of independence from Russia, the Church is not allowed to run any institutions of its own like schools or hospitals, or organise works of charity in any formal way. Only the activities of the Missionaries of Charity seem to be tolerated. I met many sisters from India and had an opportunity to say Mass for them.
People with a Catholic background are rediscovering their faith. We need to pray a lot for these countries because, as of now, they have very limited possibilities.
Historians tell us there was a flourishing Christian community in Central Asia in ancient times, but the expansion of Islam wiped it out. There is hardly any trace left of that early Church, but we must hold onto our faith and believe that better days are ahead.
How large is the Catholic population? How are they integrated into the main stream?
The number may not exceed two or three hundred. But our Catholics relate well to the rest of the community. Thank God, the Muslim society in Central Asia is not inclined to fundamentalism yet. But we can never predict the future, since a country like Uzbekistan borders on Afghanistan.
The Soviet marginalizing of religion has brought in a certain indifference about religion into these countries. At present, they [Muslims] seem to look at Islam as part of their culture. The people are proud of their past, of the time when Timur ruled the world from Samarkand. Though persons like Timur and Genghis Khan remind many nations of tragic experiences, for their own people they are national heroes.
During a short trip around Tashkent, we visited a school in honour of Lal Bahadur Shastri, where the children sang Hindi songs for me. Then I proceeded with a priest and a brother who were accompanying me and reached the central square before a mighty statue of Timur.
We sat before that impressive representation of the glorious emperor and prayed, praised God for the mysterious ways in which he guides human destinies. [. . .] I am sure that prayer has not been wasted.
Excellency, do Christians have freedom to worship and propagate their faith? Is evangelisation permitted?
Christians do indeed enjoy freedom of worship. They can pray in their own churches, but not beyond that. They cannot worship in other public places. They cannot set up institutions or engage in social activities.
This situation is part of the Soviet heritage. I don’t know whether we could begin to speak of propagation of the faith in the usual sense at this stage. Here is where my formula of “whispering the Gospel to the soul of Asia” makes sense.
Of this, I am sure: in every place, there are searchers for the truth, and there are many like Jesus who feel that they have come into this world to bear witness to the truth.
Are there vocations? Is the faith growing in those places or is the strength of the community diminishing?
It may be too early to speak of vocations. But even during my short stay, I heard of ordinations of young persons who grew up in the region. I met seminarians—not too many of them, but an edifyingly significant number. The plants that grow in difficult soil are surely sturdy and strong.
I went to Uzbekistan as the chairman of the Office for Evangelisation of the FABC. I thought that the more difficult areas of Asia deserve greater attention.
In this year of Ricci, we look to our mission in Asia with great hope. It is not a mechanical imitation of the giants of the past that is important, but a creative imitation with eagerness to share the good news on the one hand, and with enormous sensitivity to local cultures on the other. That will count.