Kazakhstan’s Orthodox Christian community grows stronger amid Soviet-era Islam and atheism

Editor’s note: Ahead of the Seventh Congress of World Leaders and Traditional Religions to be held September 14-15 in Nur-Sultan, The Astana Times has launched a series of articles on the diversity of spiritual life in Kazakhstan. The first concerned Islam. This week, we profile Kazakhstan’s second largest religious group: Orthodox Christians.

NOUR-SULTAN – Orthodox Christians, one of the largest religious communities in the world, existed in Kazakhstan for several hundred years during periods of Islamic rule, Tsarist Russia, the Soviet period and subsequent independence . They continue to live in harmony with other religious communities in Kazakhstan who respect the principle of equality of all nations and religions. In the interview with The Astana Times, Archpriest Dmitriy Baidek, ecclesiarch at the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God, spoke about the history and holy places of the Christian community, and the importance of the next Congress of World Leaders and Tradition Religions.

Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Nur-Sultan. Photo credit: mitropolia.kz

Independent Kazakhstan Christians

Kazakhstan is home to some 3,834 religious associations from 18 religions and denominations. Among them, Orthodox Christians are the second largest religious group in Kazakhstan after Muslims with 345 registered organizations which is about nine percent, according to the Religious Affairs Committee of the Kazakh Ministry of Information and Social Development.

As a secular country, Kazakhstan nevertheless celebrates Orthodox Christmas with Muslim Kurban Ait (Eid al-Adha) as official holidays for all citizens.

Baidek explained that the church has always been open to people. It is “supranational” as Baidek puts it.

Indeed, in the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians, he says “here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all” , emphasizing the unity and equality of all believers in Christ.

Describing the community of Christians in Kazakhstan, Baidek said “the vector is moving away from the exclusively Slavic population towards a more diverse Christian population that includes more ethnicities”.

History of the Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan

The rise of Christian communities amid a predominantly Muslim population is associated with the settlement of Russian Cossacks in the lands of southern Kazakhstan which were annexed to the Russian Empire around the 17th century.

On the territory of modern Kazakhstan, the Russian Cossacks founded the first fortresses and built with them the first Orthodox churches.

Bishop Sophoniya Sokolsky, first bishop of the diocese of Turkestan. Photo credit: pravoslavie.ru

Last year, Orthodox Christians in Kazakhstan celebrated the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the diocese of Turkestan, the first in the region. In 1871, an imperial decree approved the decision to open the diocese of Turkestan, and in the same year Archbishop Sophoniya Sokolsky, known for his active temperament and enthusiasm, was appointed as the first bishop of the diocese of Turkestan.

“In his biography there are words that say he was like a young man running around the diocese preaching, doing works of mercy, opening new churches, even though he was already well over sixty -ten years,” Baidek said. “His energy, his temperament were those of a young man. They were such unique people, and since then Christianity, namely Orthodox Christianity, has grown stronger in these parts of Kazakhstan.

Although the Orthodox Eparchy was established in the 19th century, communities preaching the Holy Trinity have lived on the territory of Kazakhstan for many centuries.

“There are monuments which indicate that there were colonies which professed Christianity in the 9th and 13th centuries. For the most part these were communities venerating Nestorianism, which was rejected by the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, they were people who worshiped the Trinity, Christ and the Holy Spirit,” Archpriest Baidek said.

The Soviet period was a difficult time for representatives of all religions in Kazakhstan, Baidek said, and Orthodox Christians were no exception. Many in the Christian world felt humiliated by a colonial system that undermined their beliefs and religion. “The Bolsheviks certainly used our land in a rather barbaric way. In the 1920s and 30s the Bolsheviks destroyed many churches,” he said.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was built in 1891 in the central part of the present city of Nur-Sultan between Abay and Bigeldinov streets. In 1930 the cathedral was closed and soon after the building was demolished. Photo credit: kazislam.kz

Kazakhstan has also been a place of exile for many people. Karlag, one of the largest labor camps in the Karagandy region, was filled with people who were at the forefront of some of the great freedom struggles.

Yet even amidst the difficulties, there were people who had not lost their faith in a better future. One of them was Sebastian, the eldest from Karagandy, who had spent six years in the Karlag camp. After his release in 1939, he decided to stay and selflessly preach Christianity in the region, which greatly contributed to the formation of a religious community.

Despite the atheistic agenda of the Soviet era, many Christians were able to preserve their religious traditions. By becoming an independent state, Kazakhstan has given many people the opportunity to freely express their religion.

“Independence brought about the growing interest in religion, intellectual interest. People began to read, reflect and pay attention to matters of spirituality. They wanted to answer the “why” and “for what” questions. This kind of rise at least in Christianity took place in the 1990s and early 2000s, including among the young population,” Baidek said.

Orthodox Christian Sacred Sites in Kazakhstan

What makes a place holy? According to Baidek, people sanctify a place in honor and remembrance of the saints whose blood was shed there.

When, in 1995, Patriarch Alexy II visited the Karagandy region, he called the land of Kazakhstan “the antimines (a piece of silk or linen for the liturgical rite) stretched out in the open” referring to the sanctity of the whole Kazakh land. , where many pastors, monks and lay people were exiled from all parts of the Soviet Union. Many of them ended their lives in Kazakhstan.

Sketch Aksai Seraphim-Feognost. Photo credit: mitropolia.kz

There are many holy places in eastern Kazakhstan, Karagandy and Zhetisu regions. Of particular interest is the Aksai Seraphim-Feognost sketch, which is located on the territory of the Ile-Alatau National Park near Almaty at an altitude of 1,850 meters above sea level.

More than 100 years ago, the place was occupied by monks-priests Seraphim Bogoslovsky and Feognost Pivovarov, who gave up a comfortable life to serve God in solitude in the middle of the mountains.

But the two saints could not enjoy their peaceful solitude for long, because in 1921 the soldiers of the Red Army arrived. The monks gratefully received them, fed them and gave them tea, however, the soldiers then brutally murdered the monks the next morning.

In 2000, Seraphim and Feognost were dedicated to the list of saints for general church veneration. Many people visit the sketch every year to honor the martyrs.

The Significance of the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions

As a representative of the Orthodox Church, Archpriest Baidek said that Kazakhstan is setting a good example for the region by declaring its peacekeeping mission through the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions that it will host on September 14 and 15.

“The particularity of this congress is that it has been raised to a level where the spiritual leaders and the heads of traditional religions are brought together directly by the state, and therefore the dialogue is conducted at a high level. And any dialogue always serves the good,” Baidek said.

“The human mind is built so that we are afraid of what we don’t know, of what we don’t understand. Our fears, our fantasies, are born of ignorance. When we get to know a person better, they stop scaring us. They may be interesting, they may not be interesting, but they are not scary,” he added, stressing the importance of bringing representatives of various religions together.

Comments are closed.