Catholistan: The state of the Church in Central Asia

An overview of the Catholic Church in several formerly Soviet countries.

The “-stan” suffix, when attached to a nation or territory, is a different version of the “-land” suffix attached to European countries.

Though most people are acquainted with Afghanistan, many have barely heard of such Central Asian nations as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—which used to be part of the USSR.

Unless you’re on an army base, it’s practically impossible to be Catholic in Afghanistan. But Catholicism is a possibility in the other -stans, although in some cases Catholics are such a tiny minority that they’re virtually invisible.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Pope John Paul II formed an Apostolic Administration in Central Asia, which consisted largely of a Muslim majority and some leftover Soviet atheism.

Christians, though they are in the minority, account for a sizeable portion of the population in much of Central Asia. However, the vast lot of Christians are Orthodox, not Roman Catholics. Of these Roman Catholics, most are descendants of Europeans exiled to Central Asia during Joseph Stalin’s tenure and the repressive heyday of the Soviet regime.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has a population of about 31.5 million, which is the highest number of the ex-USSR “stan” countries. The Church has an Apostolic Administration in Uzbekistan, where there are 3,500 Catholics and five parishes with nine priests, according to catholic-hierarchy.org

Tashkent, the capital city, had 7,000 Catholics in 1917, according to the website for Advantour, a company that provides tours of the Silk Road region. Back in 1917, construction was underway for a giant cathedral in the city.

Due to the Soviet regime, however, the project was put on hold—and wouldn’t see completion until the year 2000. Since then, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has stood as a stunning religious and architectural landmark in the Uzbek capital. It offers Masses in Russian, English, Polish, and Korean. 

Though such multilingual services are allowed, it is illegal to try to convert someone to Catholicism in Uzbekistan, which ranks at number 15 on the most recent World Watch List for Christian persecution compiled by Open Doors USA (the lower the number, the worse the oppression: North Korea is number 1).

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is among the most repressive nations on the planet for people, regardless of belief. 

According to the website of the Catholic community in Turkmenistan, around the year 1900, the Turkmen land included several thousand Catholics, many of whom worked to build area railways.

A Catholic church was built in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city, by a congregation comprised largely of ethnic Poles. This church was destroyed in 1948 by an earthquake that decimated the city and killed most of its population.

The Vatican established diplomatic relations with Turkmenistan in July 1996, at which point two priests were sent to the area.

The Church received formal recognition from the government in 2010, when, according to Zenit News Agency, Turkmenistan had 100 Catholics, 30 catechumens, and no church. The nation has an overall population of about 5.2 million.

Today Mass is celebrated either in individual homes or at the Vatican apostolic nunciature in Ashgabat.

Tajikistan

Tajikistan has a population of about 8.6 million. There were 326 Catholics in the country in 2010, but just 150 as of 2014, according to catholic-hierarchy.org. According to a 2012 article in AsiaNews, at that time there were three parishes in the country.

In the mid-1970s, churches were built in the capital city of Dushanbe, but many Catholics left soon after the end of the Soviet Union, as Tajikistan descended into civil war.

Tajikistan ranks at 31 on the World Watch List.

Kazakhstan

Stalin deported many thousands of Catholics to what is now Kazakhstan. In the late-1960s, two Catholic churches there were registered, before dissolving, only to re-register, according to the book Catholicism and Politics in Communist Societies, edited by Sabrina P. Ramet.

The Vatican established diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan in 1994. In the following decade, the capital city of Astana was given an archdiocese. The auxiliary bishop of this archdiocese, Athanasius Schneider, has received considerable coverage for his unhesitatingly traditionalist views. He is the author of the book Dominus Est – It Is the Lord! Reflections of a Bishop of Central Asia on Holy Communion.

Aside from the Astana archdiocese, Kazakhstan has two other dioceses and an Apostolic Administration. The nation has a population of about 17.6 million, 184,000 of whom are Roman Catholics, according to the Archdiocese of Melbourne (Australia), which has been involved with the renovation of a Carmelite convent in Kazakhstan.

In May 2016 it was reported that a (Protestant) church and Christian homes were raided in Kazakhstan, where, months before, a native Muslim who converted to Christianity was sentenced to two years in a labor camp.

Kazakhstan ranks at 42 on the World Watch List.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has a population of about six million. An estimated 500 Catholics live in this country, where a mission was established in 1997, according to the Union of Catholic Asian News.

Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country not on the most recent World Watch List for Christian persecution, and its Constitution guarantees religious freedom. 

Father Janez Michelcic, a Jesuit priest and a native of Slovenia, arrived in Kyrgyzstan in November 1998. He teaches Japanese at a university and helps out with the English-language Mass at the Parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Bishkek, the capital city. On Sundays, up to 60-70 attend the Russian-language Mass and about a dozen attend the Mass in English.

Father Michelcic is one of five priests in Kyrgyzstan, which also has one bishop, five nuns, and three parishes.

Even though the Holy See has diplomatic relations with the government here, “Since the Catholic Church in Kyrgyzstan is such a minute minority it cannot obtain the official recognition of a religious congregation,” Father Michelcic says. “But on the other side, because of its minuteness, nobody is bothering us.”

He knows of no tensions between Catholics and Muslims, who account for 75 percent of the nation’s population. “I suppose this is because, on one side, the number of Catholics is so small, and on the other side, the Muslims here are not radical,” he says.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Church enjoys “very good contacts with various Protestant denominations, and some contacts with the Orthodox.”

Father Michelcic says that although the local Catholics were born in Kyrgyzstan, they tend to belong to other ethnic groups, be they German, Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, or even Korean. A small fraction come from mixed marriages, in which one parent is of ethnic Kyrgyz origin. Full-blooded Kyrgyz Catholics are very rare.

Someone in Kyrgyzstan might convert to Catholicism every few years. Though such a convert wouldn’t be persecuted on an official level, “what happens in the family is another question,” Father Michelcic said.

Father Michelcic says he feels optimistic about the future of the Church in Kyrgyzstan, diminutive as it is.

About Ray Cavanaugh 3 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.