Tashkent is a hectic, rapidly expanding modern city, with a population that is fast approaching three million. Yet the noise and frenetic energy of the central squares suddenly, within a few yards, gives way to the calm of wide, tree-lined avenues, green lawns and gentle fountains. People still find time to saunter along the streets, courteously greeting one another, untroubled by the speeding traffic. By religion the Uzbeks are predominantly Muslim and in 2007, Tashkent was nominated a ‘cultural capital of the Islamic world’. There are several important historic mosques and madrassahs in the city. During the Soviet period most of them were damaged by neglect or misuse (as warehouses, for example), but since independence (late 1991), there has been a massive programme of restoration. Moreover, many new mosques have been built as people are rediscovering their Muslim identity.
This does not, however, mean that there is hostility towards other religions. This has always been a place where believers of different faiths have lived side by side, as part of the larger community. In Tashkent, Jews and Christians of various denominations coexist amicably with Muslim neighbours. The largest Christian congregations are Russian Orthodox, but there is also a thriving Roman Catholic Church. The Lutherans are the smallest community, though their church is in fact one of the oldest in Tashkent.
The first Lutherans and Calvinists (Reformed Church) came to what is today Uzbekistan in the late nineteenth century, when the region was incorporated into the Tsarist Empire. They were mostly soldiers ‒ many of them high-ranking officers. By ethnic origin they were mostly Germans who had settled in the western parts of the Empire centuries earlier. They found life in Central Asia congenial and were soon joined by their families and other household members. By 1897, there were over 2,800 Protestants (predominantly Lutheran) in Central Asia. A ‘Bible Depot’ (a Protestant initiative for the distribution of the Holy Scriptures) was established in Tashkent in the 1880s. The idea of building a Protestant (combined Lutheran and Reformed) church, as distinct from the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, surfaced quite early on. However, it was only in 1896 that construction was completed. Designed by the Russian architect A. L. Benois (a relative of the famous artist and stage designer Alexander Benois, who worked with Diaghilev and Bakst), the new church was a handsome, neo-Gothic structure, built of the distinctive local yellow-brown bricks.
This was an auspicious beginning, but within some fifteen years the political and social environment had changed. The disastrous impact of the First World War was felt throughout the Russian Empire. In Central Asia, it triggered a series of local uprisings which, a few years later, merged with the Russian Revolution. The dissolution of the Empire in 1917 was followed by a bitter civil war and then, in the early 1920s, by the imposition of Soviet rule. The Protestant community in Central Asia was particularly vulnerable, not only because they professed a minority faith, but being of German origin, they were inevitably associated with the wartime enemy and thus regarded with suspicion. The ‘Bible Depot’ was closed by the Soviet authorities in 1918, but the church survived and continued to fulfil its mission. In the early 1930s, however, the anti-religious campaigns unleashed by Stalin became ever more aggressive. The Lutheran church in Tashkent remained open, despite constant intimidation, until 1937; that year, the last pastor, Genrikh Berendts [Heinrich Berenz], and his wife were arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where they died. The church was closed and commandeered for secular use.
Yet the community did not cease to exist. In fact, it even grew, as the original settlers were joined by an influx of workers and political deportees of the Protestant faith from other parts of the Soviet Union (notably the Baltic region). They were not allowed to conduct formal church services, but in private, they continued to worship and to study the Bible. In the last years of the Soviet Union, there was a perceptible improvement in relations between the state and representatives of all the major religions. Places of worship began to be returned to the care of their faith communities. The Evangelical Lutheran Church also started to reorganise itself. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this process continued in the newly independent successor states.
The Bible Society of Uzbekistan was registered with the Ministry of Justice in September 1993. The Evangelical Lutheran Community of Uzbekistan, one of the dioceses of the recently established Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia (ELKRAS), held its inaugural Synod in Tashkent in November that year. The meeting was infused with a sense of gratitude to Divine Providence; there was, too, a high level of ecumenical outreach not only to Christians of other denominations, but also to Muslims. Thereafter, Synods were convened annually until 2002. That year, the Tenth Synod was presided over by Bishop Kornelius Wiebe. Seven Lutheran congregations were represented. As the Bishop noted, there was much to celebrate: during the past decade over 1,000 people had been baptised and confirmed, in fact, in the last year alone, there had been 38 baptisms and 30 confirmations. Services were held regularly, in a mixture of Russian and German.
In the following years, the Lutheran community in Uzbekistan experienced internal organisational problems and severe financial difficulties. As a result, it was difficult to support pastoral and diaconal work, especially in outlying settlements; there were no facilities for the training and further education of preachers and youth initiatives, such as children’s camps and group activities were also hampered by a lack of funding. Given these circumstances, the Bishop decided to close several parishes (to the dismay of local congregations), and no more Synods were held. He continued to head the Lutheran church in Uzbekistan until his death in June 2015; gradually, with the support of ELKRAS and strong local lay preachers, the church was re-invigorated. The Lutherans in Uzbekistan have revived contacts with their fellow believers elsewhere and they have started to receive financial help for basic tasks such as repairs to the church roof.
On 27 November 2017 an impressive ceremony was held in the main auditorium of the Russian Drama Theatre in Tashkent, to commemorate the start of the Reformation, launched by the publication of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Participants included Protestants of all denominations, from all parts of Uzbekistan, including communities of Lutherans, Calvinists, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals, various Evangelical congregations and members of the ‘The Disciples of Christ’ (part of the US-based ‘Restoration Movement’). The Lutherans in Uzbekistan also received greetings and messages of support and fellowship from Protestants throughout the CIS, as well as from Europe and America. Thus, the event was not only a thanksgiving for Luther’s life and work, but it marked a new stage in the history of Protestant congregations in Uzbekistan, as well as the revival of their ties with the wider Christian world. Moreover, the fact that these celebrations of the Reformation took place in such a public setting in Tashkent bore testimony to the strong working relationship that these communities have developed with the Uzbek state authorities ‒ very different from conventional depictions of Christians in Uzbekistan. It also demonstrated the friendly, mutually respectful inter-faith relations that exist between Christians, Muslims and other faith communities. This spirit of cooperation was further illustrated by the ecumenical Protestant-Catholic service held on 22 January 2018, in the Roman Catholic church in Tashkent.
I knew very little of this history when I turned up at the ‘Kirche’ (as it is generally called) on a cold winter’s morning in 2016. My interest was initially sparked by the remarkable architecture. However, although I come from a Muslim background, some of my close relatives are Protestants, so I was curious to learn something about this community. I was warmly greeted by Pastor Lyudmila Schmidt and her husband Victor. They showed me round the church and patiently answered my many questions. I was struck by the calm beauty of the place. Neat and well-polished, it was obviously lovingly cared for by diligent volunteers. The Advent candles, however, were burnt down almost to stubs. Pastor Lyudmila, seeing my surprise, explained that it was very difficult to get special candles, as they had to be imported from abroad. I made a mental note to bring a set next time I came to Tashkent. By good fortune, I was invited to attend an international academic conference in Tashkent in the autumn of 2017 and so, with the help of the clergy at St Luke’s, Chelsea, I obtained a set of five fat Advent candles in the correct liturgical colours ‒ three purple, one pink (for ‘Rose Sunday’) and a white one for Christmas Day. In order not to risk breaking them, I carried them in my hand luggage ‒ to the amusement of various security officers. A few days later, I attended the Sunday service in the Tashkent Kirche and was relieved to be able to hand over the candles, still in good shape, to Pastor Lyudmila. I had expected the congregation to be very small, but in fact on this occasion it numbered around 40 worshippers, with eight singers in the choir; there were also some eight children in the Sunday school. It was a happy occasion: Bishop Alfred Eichholz (a visitor from Germany via Kyrgyzstan) officiated and performed a baptism. At the end of the service I presented my candles and everyone was delighted ‒ not just by the gift, but by the bond of fellowship that they represented. Since then, I have been in regular contact with Pastor Lyudmila and hope to visit the Kirche next time I go to Tashkent.
Shirin Akiner, January 2018, London