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Christians in former USSR countries are not as free as they hoped they would be in 1991

by Cara Bentley

The Christian charity Open Doors says dictatorships and restrictions on Christian activity mean former USSR countries have returned to similar limits on their freedom as they had 30 years ago. 

On 18th August 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest during a coup by high-ranking members of his own government, military and police forces.

Although the coup collapsed after three days, it was a pivotal moment in the dissollution of the USSR, which crumbled in December 1991. 

Despite the advantages and newfound freedoms, how much has actually changed for Christians living in eastern Europe and central Asia in the last 30 years?

Premier spoke to Willem Hollander, who worked extensively in the region and is the international relations officer for Open Doors. 

 

Premier: It's been 30 years since the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. How has life changed for Christians who've lived through those changes?

Willem Hollander: Yeah, 30 years ago, they started very optimistic. We were actually living there at the time, for the first couple of years. And the Christians, they were very open, they were free, they could start churches - one of my friends actually built a church. And that was for the first ten years. And then slowly, things got different again, missionaries were sent out, Christian projects were closed. So, the government basically put on the screws again and controlled the Christian movement. So, especially the last 15 - 10 years, things are back to what they were under Communism, but now under the local regimes. Although it's very regional, there are differences between the different republics and countries, but in general, you can say that it's not much different anymore than it was before the independence.

It must feel so depressing for the people who lived through the Cold War and thought 'everything is going to get better when we bring this down' and then for it not to get better. How does that feel?

I think they are frustrated with it and people really hope the best still, that they can still continue with what it was like before a few years. But it doesn't look too good. Even this morning, I was told by a friend that it's a 'controlled democracy', 'controlled freedom' that they they're facing. So some things are being allowed, if the western press or Western diplomats available and looking at it, but the minute their eyes are turned in another direction, things become a bit more tough again. So yeah, it's not the freedom that they were expecting.

Which countries have it worst, obviously the USSR spanned a lot of what we now think of as several different countries. So where should we prioritise our prayers?

Turkmenistan is basically the worst. It could be compared as the North Korea of Central Asia, it really is not a good place to be as a Christian. So, it's very secretive there, so that is probably priority number one. And then for the other Central Asian republics, with what's happening in Afghanistan, people are getting worried that it might also come across the borders, as there have been refugees already. And it's known that already some of the Taliban are with the refugees. So, that concern. That's the next big prayer item, I think, to really pray against the extremism of Islam happening in these countries.

And is it different for different denominations? As the Orthodox Church has a close link with the Russian state, if you're an Orthodox Christian are you okay?

That's right. If you're Orthodox and you stay with the traditional church, you're basically okay, as long as you profession your faith within the walls of the church. It's not done to do teenage camps or children camps or reach the under 18s outside of the church walls, and even within the church walls, you have to be careful with what you tell them. But within the traditional churches, it's better, definitely in Russia, where the Orthodox Church is very much on par with the Government. Now, it's limited in the republics, because there the traditional church is much smaller. But most of the Christian groups face the same pressure, unless the pastor is very pro-government and he's got friends in high places, then there might be different freedoms.

Finally, you mentioned that we could pray for Turkmenistan. Is there anything else we can pray for more generally for the whole region?

I think the Bible availability is important. It's not easy to get Bibles in some of the areas and I think, you know, the Bible is the main book for us as Christians and to pray that the Christians can get a copy of the Bible in some of those countries, that would be really very good.

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