I wonder how many of you have been to Switzerland recently? If you’ve been fortunate enough to go skiing, you will know that a coffee costs an extortionate amount and as for a meal, well that’s a king’s ransom!
If you travel on 5 hours east from Istanbul, you arrive in the country of Kyrgyzstan, often referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’. Nestled up against China on the eastern flanks, the country is surrounded by beautiful mountains, is wonderful for walking and yes, you can even do a spot of skiing in winter! Lake Issyk-Kul is one of the most fascinating lakes in the region, with 118 rivers flowing into it and none out. It is at high altitude and is very deep, yet despite -30c temperatures in winter it never freezes!
Then there are the local people, friendly, welcoming and often wanting a selfie with you. Find a local eatery and you can get a cup of tea for 5 pence, or if you’re feeling peckish, you can get a massive plate of meat for about £1 or just over.
Parts of Bishkek (the capital) are modern and vibrant, with a few new swanky hotels, whilst the countryside is much more primitive, delightfully authentic and sometimes stuck in a time warp, with the horse the main mode of transport and even a few eagle hunters remaining (that’s hunting with eagles, not hunting eagles!).
Kyrgyzstan gained its freedom in 1991 with the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc and, with its newfound freedom, the church grew quite quickly for a few years – to around 0.5% of the population. This growth has plateaued and the growth that remains is largely found in the cities. During recent years, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been funding a huge programme of mosque building to the extent that there are now more mosques than schools. Yet whilst the majority would identify themselves as Muslim, much of this remains nominal, although it is evident that there is a growing antagonism towards believers. Persecution of believers in rural areas is becoming quite common and so, when people do become followers of Jesus, they often end up moving to the cities where they can live more anonymous lives. In fairness, the government is worried about any form of extremism (and who can blame them?) and sometimes believers and churches feel the impact of this.
Amidst all of this, the church in Kyrgyzstan has stagnated and in some cases has lost its vision. We need to pray that God would revitalise the church and give its leaders a real heart for gospel work and mission within the country. Sadly, there are many people who have still not heard of a Saviour who loves them, gave his life for them and was raised from death to new life – in order to offer them life to the full.