The small central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan is host to one of the world’s smallest Catholic communities: fewer than 1,000 inhabitants practise the faith, in a country of six million which is 90 per cent Muslim. But last year, Kyrgyzstan’s Catholics had reason to celebrate: not only was it the Catholic community’s 50th birthday, but they were inaugurating a new church, the first in a half-century.
The church is north of the capital city, Bishkek, and feels a long way from the capital’s shaded avenues and parks where the statues of Communist leaders still look down from their massive pedestals.
It’s a church of very humble size, recognisable from the outside thanks to the cross set on its rooftop which glistens when the sun passes over the Tian Shan mountains. It stands at the roadside, and is whipped with clouds of dirt rising from the ground every time a car passes.
“It’s a former house that we’ve transformed”, explains Mgr Anthony Corcoran, a Texan-born Jesuit and Kyrgyzstan’s apostolic administrator, as he invites me to come in. Inside, it’s easy to see the stages in which the place has been modified. “At the beginning of the 80s, we added a second floor”, he says. This was taken care of by Germans from the Volga, who had been made prisoners during the Second World War and who had been deported by Stalin. When it comes to Kyrgyzstan, it’s almost impossible not to mention Russia.
The country, 80 per cent of whose territory is mountainous, was for a long time under Russian domination. Up until the 19th century, Kyrgyzstan was a territory where different khanates settled. In 1862, Tzar Alexander II took control of the region. In 1936, the country became the Socialist Republic of Kyrgyzstan. The Bishkek Church was the second one authorised by Communists on Soviet land.
Fr Corcoran concludes his homily, which like the Mass is in Russian, with the 2nd letter of Saint Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians: “It is written: I believed; therefore, I have spoken. Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak. (2 Cor 4:13)” The 20 or so people who came around on that Sunday begin to scatter. A little earlier in the morning, there had been an English-language Mass for expatriates.
Living as a Catholic in Kyrgyzstan is a deep and sincere commitment
Fr Joseph Maciag, a Polish priest who has left his Lublin parish behind for a few weeks in order to lend a hand, says living as a Catholic in Kyrgyzstan takes a real leap of faith.
“I admire them,” he smiles. “It’s not like in France or in Poland, where being a Catholic is more of a tradition. Here, it is a deep and sincere commitment.”
As if to support this statement, there appears Ludmila, who is getting ready to clean up the chaplaincy. It’s hard to fight the stereotypes, she says. “If you’re from a Russian background, you are automatically Orthodox. If you are a Kyrgyz, you are automatically a Muslim.” Ludmila, who herself has a Russian and Jewish background, says Catholics are still very much outsiders: “We are perceived as a cult.”
“Most people don’t know who the Pope is,” adds Anatoli, a young IT technician and a fervent attender of the Sunday morning Mass in Russian. “I come from a family with little to no faith. When I told them that I had decided to convert, they were really surprised. They asked me a lot of questions because, like most people here, they don’t know anything about Catholicism.”
“We’re not very well-known,” Fr Corcoran confirms. The number of Catholics is estimated at between 500 and 1,000. “Sometimes I think about the fact that I could be in a parish in New York where the numbers are in the thousands.” God had had another plan for him, he says: “I am a priest in Kyrgyzstan. One might think that we are alone. We are indeed a small community, but it is maintained thanks to such fervour, such faith, that I have come to think that it’s almost too beautiful to be real.”
Still, 500 is enough to receive official permission to practise the faith. The government requires the signatures of 200 Kyrgyz people from every religious group to gain approval.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz state equipped itself with a Constitution that protects freedom of religion. A 2006 revision of the text consolidated religious liberty. The country has diplomatic relations with the Vatican; Mgr Corcoran is himself a member of Kyrgyzstan’s inter-religious commission.
Kyrgyzstan is the only democracy in Central Asia. It is also unstable. After one revolution in 2005 and then more revolutionary upheaval in 2010, the country had a decade of relative quiet. Since last October, however, it is once again in the midst of political trouble. The results of an election were annulled after the opposition claimed fraud. Mass demonstrations followed against President Sooronbaï Jeenbekov. He finally did resign and gave way to rival Sayr Japarov – who until then had been in prison.
Kyrgyzstan is also the stage of a soft power battle involving multiple forces, above all its neighbour China, which is a great provider of credit, especially for infrastructure. Its new silk road goes through Kyrgyzstan.
On the other side, Turkey also plays a major role. There is, for instance, a Turkish university in Bishkek. In addition, Erdogan’s government funds a lot of mosques, as do Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Russia still maintains its cultural influence too, through the presence of a Russian minority who stayed in the country after it had declared its independence.
The Russian influence also has a financial dimension to it, because many Kyrgyz people work in Russia. Meanwhile, the Russian influence is of a military nature: two bases are situated there. The US also makes its presence felt: there’s an American university, and during the Afghan war there was a Nato base here.
‘This is the first church we have actually built; until now, we used converted places’
Fr Rémi Remiginsi is coming back from Jalal-Abad. On his face, one can discern the fatigue that comes with more than 10 hours of travel on little roads cutting through the great mountains and their prodigious peaks. They are insurmountable in winter. From the perspective of the Polish Jesuit, who arrived seven years ago, the universal message of Christ is hitting a cultural wall. “The population is still very much showing signs of the culture of the clan system,” he says. “Being a Christian can be seen as “treason”.
Another problem is the language barrier. The priests speak Russian, which is common in the capital city – much less so in the countryside, where Kyrgyz is used in a majority of homes.
The Church in Kyrgyzstan is at a pivotal moment in its existence. Since the fall of the USSR and the country’s independence, emigration has depleted its numbers. “When the borders opened, more than 10,000 Catholics of German descent left the country to go back to Europe,” says Fr Janez Michelcic. On the bright side, there are around 20 baptisms every year. “A stable figure,” according to Fr Corcoran.
And as well as the new converted church in Bishkek, there has been another major development: a new brick church has recently been consecrated on the east side of the country in the city of Talas. “It is the first one we have actually built: up until now, we only had used converted places like the one in Bishkek”, Mgr Corcoran says. This new place of worship was paid for by the Catholic community, helped by donations – especially from German and Swiss Catholics. It has therefore been named after St Nicolas of Flüe, Patron of Switzerland.
“We are in the hands of God,” Fr Corcoran says. “They are guiding us on an apostolic mission. What’s better, what’s more beautiful than celebrating our 50th birthday with the consecration of a new church?”
Guilherme Ringuenet is a French journalist and photographer, who writes on history and religion.