People in Kyrgyzstan are looking for Christ.
Four years ago, a Polish woman living in Dzanydzer (meaning “The New Land” in Kyrgyz) started looking for a catholic priest in Kyrgyzstan. As it turned out, there was already a Catholic parish in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, 30 miles away from Dzanydzer. The priest parish was able to visit the Polish woman, and now there are more than 30 people in Dzanydzer who attend the Mass regularly. Seven years ago two Jesuit priests were working on an evangelization plan for Kyrgyzstan. At this moment, two little girls came in, looking for a priest who would hear the confession of their dying grandmother in a village away from town. Today, in this village called Iwanowka, the third parish has already been created. This situation is similar all around Kyrgyzstan – it all starts with just one priest’s visit to a family or elderly person, and pretty soon a small parish is created.
The Church in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is one of the five former Soviet republics in central Asia that appeared on world maps suddenly as independent countries in 1991, but it remains relatively unknown. Kyrgyzstan borders with Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Size-wide Kyrgyzstan equals approximately 2/3 of New Mexico, with 90% of its surface covered with mountains reaching over 20,000 feet. The population is nearly 5 million, with a mix of Kyrgyzs, Uzbeks, Russians, Uygurs, Dungans, Germans, Ukrainians, Kurds, Tadjiks, Turks and Poles – a total of around 100 nationalities. Muslims dominate the religious landscape, but they are not radicals and their connection to the Muslim faith is loose.
Christianity came to Kyrgyzstan in the early Middle Ages, when the nestorians arrived. Their monasteries are still to be seen along the Silk Road from China to Europe. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Franciscan missionaries started serious evangelization work with the local peoples. Polish and German settlers arrived at the end of the 19th century and brought their Catholic faith with them. In the 1930s and forties, tens of thousands of Catholics were deported to Kyrgyzstan by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The first legal parish was established in the sixties. At the end of the eighties Jesuits took over the care for Catholics in the country. Right now there are 13 missionaries and nuns in Kyrgyzstan.
Other than the Bikshek parish, missionaries are visiting about 30 Catholic gatherings that are spread around the country, each between a few and few tens of souls strong. The most distant one is in Dzalalabad and was visited by a priest only once every two months, because the road going through the mountains up to 16,000 feet high is pretty often impossible to navigate. That was the reason that last year two new parishes opened, with chapel, parish priest and sisters: in Jalal-Abad and Talas. Parishioners are mostly Polish, but also Russian, German, Korean and native Kyrgyz. Most of them are elderly and very poor, but there are also quite few children and teens. In 2006 Pope Banedict XVI estabilished the Kyrgyzstan Apostolic Administration and appointed Nikolaus Messmer as its bishop, and this should help the Catholic Church in Kyrgyzstan to grow for years to come.
Charity and missionary work
The revolution in Kyrgyzstan in February–March of 2005 was caused primarily by poverty. Most citizens have no work and often they only eat what they can plant themselves in their gardens. Retirees are given approximately five to ten dollars per month, and one dollar will buy 10 small breads. Field workers, who might spend ten hours working hard in intense heat, are paid about one dollar per day, which is a considered a decent wage. Lots of children are either homeless or working instead of attending school. There are no medical services outside cities, and in the cities all the healthcare has to be paid in full by the patient, since there is no insurance system. Other major problems besides poverty are aloholism and the destruction of family structure, which are both the result of a legacy of 70 years of communism.
It therefore seems clear that charity is a major obligation of the Catholic Church in Kyrgyzstan. We distribute material help from abroad (mostly from Germany) among the sick, invalids, large families, and lonely elderly people. We especially care for houses for the elderly or invalids. Each time we visit such houses, we try to bring bread, apples, or tomatoes. I have never before seen people eating bread with such hunger. Some of these old people have only one pair of clothes – the ones they wear all the time – so we do our best to deliver clothes from charities from abroad. We show them religious movies (mostly animated ones since these are the easiest to understand), tell them stories from the Bible, sing, and (most importantly) have Holy Mass if a priest is present. For these poor people, what is most important is that they know someone remembers them and wants to spend time with them. In these houses for elderly, even the smallest amount of time spent showing them attention and praying with them makes a tremendous impact.
We are allowed by the authorities to visit 12 prisons, including a prison for women and minors. In two prisons we have prayer groups, where we meet with the prisoners on a regular basis to pray and explain the Bible. We also prepare them for the Sacraments, especially Confession. We have three such groups in the women’s prison, including one group in the part of the prison which is isolated for women with small children. These women mostly ask for soap for their children. One day’s food ration in prison is only one loaf of bread, so many prisoners are weak and tuberculosis is widespread.
The two topics prisoners want to hear about most are God’s love and mercy. All of them know the true meaning of injustice and suffering. In prisons we also show movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, which have proven to be immensely popular. In helping these prisoners, elderly and invalids, we minister to them regardless of whether they are Catholics, Muslims, Protestants or Orthodox.
Thank you for your time and help, God bless you all,
Brother Damian Wojciechowski, SJ
ул. Пушкина 20 а
ul. Pushkina 20a
Euro: Raika Bludenz, BLZ 37421, Kontonummer 30.448.021, Kennwort: Spenden – Kirgizstan