FALLS CHURCH, Va. (ABP) — Baptists have begun sending aid to Kyrgyzstan, home of a growing humanitarian crisis stemming from violence fueled by ethnic intolerance that has killed hundreds and driven hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks from their homes since June 10.
Baptist World Aid, the relief-and-development arm of the Baptist World Alliance, pledged June 18 to send an initial $5,000 in response to an appeal from Baptists in Russia who are providing assistance to those affected by the violence.
"The Baptist World Alliance is deeply troubled by the disturbing reports of conflict in Kyrgyzstan," said Raimundo Barreto, director of the BWA's Division of Freedom and Justice. "We urge the worldwide Baptist family to pray for our sisters and brothers who are in the midst of the violence and have been forced to flee to makeshift refugee camps. We pray that order and peace may be restored soon and urge the national authorities and the international organizations to do all at their powers to ensure the safe return of refugees to their homes."
Observers say violent protests that led to the resignation and expulsion of President President Kurmanbek Bakiev in April reignited old ethnic hostilities in the former Soviet republic that gained independence in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
An interim government, meanwhile, has been unable to enforce order in the southern part of the country as fights between rival gangs have driven more than 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks into refugee camps in neighboring Uzbekistan, where they report tales of brutal beatings, killings and rape in the southern city of Osh.
"We fear for our lives," a Baptist eyewitness wrote in an e-mail that circulated on Russian-language websites and quoted by Christianity Today. "Hear our desperate cry!"
Kyrgyzstan's 5.5 million people are nearly 70 percent Kyrgyz. Uzbeks comprise about 15 percent of the population, but they are concentrated in the south, where ethnically homogenous neighborhoods have lived peacefully side by side for the last 20 years. Political instability has allowed unresolved animosity over land ownership and employment to rekindle. In 1990, more than 300 people died during clashes, before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent in troops to quell the violence.
The Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists in Kyrgyztan reports 64 churches with a total membership of 3,100. That is down from about 13,000 Baptists in 1987, as Uzbekistan's emigrating Russian population has dropped from 45 percent to less than 10 percent.
Despite a draconian law passed in 2009 to stop the conversion of Muslims, who make up 75 percent of the population, the ethnic-German president of the Kyrgyz Baptist union said recently he sees a bright future for starting ethnic Kyrgyz congregations the country, William Yoder, who works in the external-relations office of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Russia, wrote in Christianity Today.
Yoder said the Kyrgyz Baptist Union reported that its churches in Uzbek areas of Osh and Jalal-Abad had so far escaped damage, thanks to government tanks and soldiers that managed to repel approaching mobs. The government has been criticized for what some view as a weak response to ethnic violence.
Baptists in Central Asia are part of the European Baptist Fellowship, one of six regional fellowships of the Baptist World Alliance.
"We have all been saddened to learn of the violent conflict which has broken out in the south of the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan, especially the attacks on the ethnic Uzbek community," Tony Peck, general secretary for the EBF said in a news release. "We are appealing to the member Unions of the EBF for some immediate help."
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.