Marco Polo In 1271 the 17-year-old Marco Polo set out on the adventure of his life. His merchant father Nicolo and Uncle Maffeo had been all the way across Central Asia to Beijing, where the great Mongol emperor Kubilay Khan had sent them back with a letter for the Pope. In his letter he asked the Pope to send 100 missionaries to teach his people Christianity and Western science, and some oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Marco was setting out on the journey to China with his father, his uncle and two Dominican friars sent by the Pope. They sailed to Acre, and then joined a camel caravan to Iran. On the way, bandits attacked them in a sandstorm, killing several of the travellers. Marco was thrilled by the scent of danger, but the two friars decided the venture was too risky and turned tail.

In Iran the party could not find a seaworthy vessel, so pressed on overland through what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and the Gobi Desert, reaching the great Khan three and a half years later. Marco became a favoured diplomat, accumulated great wealth, and returned to Venice twenty years later. After another sixty years, three out of four of the main Mongol nations across Central Asia had become Muslim. We can only reflect on what might have happened if those two friars had not given up because of discomfort and fear; the Polo family endured hardship and danger for commercial advantage, whereas the messengers of the gospel gave up.

The great trading route that the Polos traversed is now called the Silk Road. Actually, consisting of a network of routes, it served as the overland route for merchants bringing silks and spices from China to Europe. As well as commodities, the Silk Road also saw the spread of religious ideas, as Buddhist monks, Muslim imams and Christian priests joined the caravans. It encompassed the Turkic lands of Central Asia, now called Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, from which the Turkish tribes conquered Turkey itself, finally capturing Constantinople in 1453 and renaming it Istanbul. There were also Persians in what is now Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Armenia and Georgia were islands of Christianity in a Muslim Sea.

There had been heroic missionary efforts centuries before, with Christians from the Nestorian Church of the East reaching all the way to China by 600 AD. Although the church in the West branded them heretics, the zeal for the gospel of their priests and merchants saw churches planted and bishoprics established all across Central Asia. Marco Polo met Mongol and Turkic tribes worshipping Jesus when he arrived in China. Tragically, all this was destroyed by Genghis Khan, and then totally erased by the Muslim Turk Timur (Tamerlane in English, 1336-1405), whose rampaging army massacred entire cities from Delhi in the east to Damascus in the west.

For four hundred years no one thought of taking the gospel to the peoples along the Silk Road. In Central Asia there was absolutely no witness. There were traditional Orthodox Christians in significant numbers under Muslim rulers in the Ottoman Empire and in Iran, who were given considerable freedom to worship and to organise their communities as they wished, so long as they did not attempt to evangelise their Muslim neighbours. For their part, these Christians thought their faith was just for themselves, and felt no desire or obligation to share with those around them. The Christian enclaves of Armenia and Georgia were passionate about their faith but had no missionary concern for their neighbours.
We shall now travel the Silk Road from east to west, surveying the current situation for God’s kingdom and his people. A full treatment would require a book, so given the constraints of this short article I pre-emptively apologise for the many omissions of important or interesting nuggets of information.

Central Asia In the 19th century Central Asia was conquered by Czarist Russia, and a few enterprising souls started Bible translations. The British and Foreign Bible Society had published gospels in Uzbek, Kazakh and Uighur by the end of the century, but very few came to faith, because Christianity was the religion of the imperialist occupiers, so becoming a Christian meant betraying one’s people. However, God’s Spirit was stirring up prayer, and in the 1980s his saints started to intercede for these closed lands to open up.
Everything suddenly changed in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the five Central Asian Republics declaring independence. The gates were opened to an influx of missionaries, who encountered populations in economic crisis, ideological confusion, and a spiritual vacuum. It was a time of rapid church growth, and an outpouring of miracles. I met a pastor who came to faith at the time, who told me they used to have a collection of crutches on one side of the church, and a box of spectacles on the other side! After ten years or so the economies improved and the revival petered out, but by that time a beachhead for the kingdom of God had been established, with churches planted in the main cities, and national leaders becoming established.
Today there is steady growth. Bibles have been published in the main languages, and in most places, churches are tolerated by the authorities. Some of the key spiritual strongholds resisting the gospel are:

Muslim identity: The 70 years of Communist rule weakened the hold of Islam, but people still hold on to their Muslim identity. Being a Kazakh or an Uzbek means being a Muslim, and conversion to Christ is seen as denying one’s heritage. Alongside this, as in much of the Muslim world, there is a widespread resurgence of Islam, fuelled and funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Occultic folk Islam: Folk Islam is very strong in Central Asia, which means ancient, pre-Islamic occultic practices are very common. People visit shrines to pray for blessing, tie amulets on themselves for protection, and consult spiritists to get healing or to curse an enemy. The result is many of the new believers have bondages and need deliverance ministry.

Alcohol and drugs: Many Central Asians are afflicted by the Russian addiction to vodka and drugs, which are a major social problem. However, this creates an opportunity for ministry, and churches have established rehab centres to help addicts find freedom. There are many believers who found Christ in prison after being sentenced for drug offences.

The plight of the 11 million Uighur and 1 million Kazakh people in the Xinjiang province of North West China is much more desperate. Fearful that their land was being taken over by Han Chinese immigrants, a few Uighurs committed terrorist attacks, provoking the Chinese government into the grossly disproportionate response of sending millions of people into indoctrination camps, where brutal brainwashing aims to eradicate Uighur identity and Muslim practice. Before this there were a few hundred Uighur believers, who were doubly suspect of disloyalty because of their faith as well as their ethnicity, and they too were imprisoned. Remarkably, their faith endured, and they were even able to lead some others inside the camps to Jesus. Some are even brave enough to keep meeting in house churches.

Persian World The people of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan speak dialects of Farsi, and in the past were all part of the Persian empire. Tajikistan was part of the Soviet empire, and its history has paralleled that of the other Central Asian republics.

Iran has seen the most remarkable turning to Christianity, with the pivot being the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979. While his Islamic Revolution was greeted by wild enthusiasm and high hopes for freedom after the seemingly despotic regime of the Shah, this was soon replaced by disappointment and disillusionment. An Iranian believer explained to me that before the revolution Iranians had been proud of their Shi’ite brand of Islam, as though it were a beautifully packaged gift, in bright paper and a fancy ribbon. When Khomeini came, he made them open it and eat the terrible contents.

Prior to the revolution the number of believers from a Muslim background probably did not exceed a thousand, but now some estimate there may well be more than a million. God has poured out his Spirit with many remarkable dreams and visions. Many Iranians have fled abroad, where they have found freedom to study the New Testament, and there are now Iranian churches springing up around the world. Wherever Iranians have gone as refugees you will find they have started churches. At the same time, many are still coming to faith inside the country, as a result of personal witness and gospel broadcasting. There is a movement of multiplying house churches, although they are persecuted by the government, with their leaders often arrested and imprisoned. At the same time, it should be noted that in their revulsion at the heavy-handed tactics of the regime many other Iranians are going back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism, or more commonly abandoning all religion.

Afghanistan is a much more tragic story, having been torn apart by war and violence for 40 years. First it was the Soviet invasion in 1979, and the Mujaheddin resistance, followed by civil war between various warlords and then the vicious Taliban government from 1996 to 2001. After 20 more years of civil war against the Kabul government and its foreign backers, the Taliban returned to power in 2021, banning education for girls, and resulting in near famine conditions in much of the country. The Taliban are mainly from the very conservative Pashto tribes in the south and east. A few brave foreign Christians are serving the poor through relief and development, while radio, TV and social media bring a message of hope. The number of believing Afghans is tiny, and they are often terrified the Taliban will find Christian content on their phones and arrest them. As in Iran, there are believers in prison in Afghanistan as I write. More positively, Afghan refugees have started to come to faith in Europe and USA, and we are seeing Afghan churches form in places like Greece, Germany and Finland. Others are finding a welcome in host country churches. Many are traumatised by what they have been through and need healing prayer and counselling.

Pakistan lies to the east of Afghanistan and is a blend of Persian and South Asia culture. ‘Pakistan’ means ‘pure land’, reflecting its origin as a homeland for Muslims fleeing the partition of British India, and so Islam is a strong part of the national identity. This has grown more assertive since independence, with the notorious blasphemy law making any criticism of Muhammad or the Qur’an a capital offence. Around 2% of the population are Christian, largely the fruit of 19th century mission efforts among lower caste Punjabis. They still enjoy a lot of freedom to worship, and even some freedom for evangelism, but the threat of being charged under the blasphemy law, or even Muslim mob violence, intimidates and silences many.
Caucasus The Caucasus region is the mountainous land between the Black Sea and the Caspian and is a remarkable hotchpotch of many races and languages, most of whom are unreached with no church and even no Bible in their language. For instance, the Chechens are famed for being fierce warriors and staunch Muslims. The Turkic Azeris of Azerbaijan have followed a similar path to the other Central Asian peoples, for at the collapse of the Soviet Union there were a handful of believers, but as Russian Christians have gone back to Russia a new Azeri church has emerged, with around 10,000 believers, mainly living in the capital Baku, and able to worship with a significant degree of freedom.

Special mention should be made of the historic Christian nations of little Georgia and Armenia, intensely proud of their status of being the first nations to accept Christ around 300 AD. Both have suffered a lot of persecution from Muslim armies and rulers over the centuries, and the Armenians in particular cannot forget the genocide they suffered 100 years ago. The violent expulsion of Armenians from Nagorno Karabagh last year is another wound in the national psyche. Many of the traditional Orthodox Christians have found a living faith in Baptist and Pentecostal congregations, who are waking up to their missionary calling to the other peoples on the Silk Road. It is deeply moving to hear Armenian believers pray forgiveness for the Turks who massacred their forefathers.

Turkey Missionaries to Turkey in the 19th century adopted the strategy of bringing renewal to the traditional Armenian churches, in the hope they would then reach out to their Muslim neighbours. God did use them to bring revival and many dynamic Protestant churches were born. Tragically, virtually all these churches were wiped out by the 1915 genocide, and then all the Greek Christians were sent to Greece in a population exchange in 1923. At that point there were no Turkish believers, a handful of traditional Christians, and no outreach to the Muslim Turks. However, in 1961 two young American OM missionaries arrived in Istanbul and Ankara, soon followed by other missionaries. They started an evangelistic correspondence course which has continued to be a major tool for outreach. The early days were very tough, with very few conversions, many arrests, and many workers deported. Gradually, groups started to coalesce, and lobbying by the European Union led to an easing of official opposition. Today there are an estimated 10,000 believers from a Muslim Turkish background, freely worshipping in approximately 200 churches of different sizes, led by strong and mature national leaders. The response of the Turkish church to the February 2023 earthquake was extraordinary for its speed, compassion, organisation and sacrifice. Many survivors and observers have been impressed, so the traditional prejudice against Christians has softened, and local authorities have become more open to cooperation. Despite these encouragements, the saints are still a drop in the ocean of the total population of 85 million.

Conclusion The Silk Road has been called the last frontier of mission, demanding action from the global church.

The first thing we should do is to pray for these peoples and nations. Please use the information in this article to intercede for the believers. We should send workers. National churches are emerging, but they need our help. We should give to relief efforts, translation projects, and evangelistic outreaches.

Get behind Flame as they follow the Spirit and respond to the need!
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