Alymbek Bekmanov, a chair of the steering committee of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious centre in Kyrgyzstan, tells about the first appearance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and how they interact with the people and the authorities in the interview to cabar.asia.
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cabar.asia: When did Jehovah’s Witnesses first appear in Kyrgyzstan? What is the history of their appearance and spread?
Alymbek Bekmanov: The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kyrgyzstan dates back to nearly 60 years ago. In 1956, Jehovah’s Witnesses started preaching here. The first representative was Emil Yantzen, who was born in Talas, north of Kyrgyzstan. He heard the truth in 1949 in Russia, when he was sent to a corrective labour camp.
Afterwards, he returned to his homeland and settled down near the village of Sokuluk, where the first meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses was held in 1958. The meeting is a group of baptised people who gather together.
In 1993, we already received official legal status, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since 2004, we have had a branch office. The first Kyrgyz became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1974.
What is the general ethnic composition of Jehovah’s witnesses in Kyrgyzstan?
We have Uzbeks, Russians, Kyrgyz, Koreans, Dungans, Uighurs. The seeds of God’s kingdom were sawn mostly in Russian, so the number of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses prevailed.
However, back in the 90s, many Kyrgyz started to study the Bible. Once publications were published in Kyrgyz, the number of Kyrgyz followers has increased. Now the number of the Kyrgyz is even greater than of the Russian because many Russians have left after the breakup of the Soviet Union and after local revolutions.
However, it’s not important for us whether there are more Kyrgyz or others. It’s none of our business. These people decide themselves whether they become Jehovah’s Witnesses and learn the truth about God.
I started studying about Jehovah’s Witnesses after the army, in 1992. I started first, then my friends followed, then my relatives – I have 4 brothers and two sisters – then my parents joined us. I have a large family and the majority of them are Jehovah’s Witnesses now.
Before that, we had considered ourselves Muslims, just like others. We were taught atheism at school back in the Soviet Union, and we knew virtually nothing about God. Those who trusted in God were seen differently, they were deemed weird.
I’ve had a question since my childhood: why people died? And no one could answer this question.
I went to the army and in 1992 demobilised following the collapse of the Union. I was at the third year of the technical college when I entered a library and saw a woman who was speaking about God. I approached her and asked the same question: why do people die? And they started answering my question: why people die, where we are heading, why we get old. It turned out that it was all written in the Bible. Why people were created to exist forever, not to suffer a while and die.
What is the fundamental difference between the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian movements? As far as I know, there are strict prohibitions of military service, blood transfusions, etc.
Jehovah’s Witnesses strictly follow the Holy Scriptures. The Holy Scriptures say that, for example, the paradise would be on earth. Not somewhere in heaven or under the ground.
After death, a man would not live, he would turn into ashes. The Bible doesn’t say a man would continue to live somewhere. Other religions say there would be paradise in heaven or somewhere else. This is one of the differences.
The second reason why I’ve become the Jehovah’s Witness is that the Bible says there’s only one true God and his name appears in the Bible more than 7 thousand times – Jehovah.
God has sent his son to save the world through him. Nothing says that God and Jesus are equal, that’s another difference.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not prohibit military service, it’s up to a person. But the Bible says: do not kill a fellow man. Fellow men are all people. The army will train to kill, won’t it? That’s why the Jehovah’s Witnesses were prisoners in concentration camps during the First and Second World Wars not to kill others.
However, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t refuse to serve in the military if it’s alternative, non-military service, for example, landscape gardening, or helping out.
As for blood transfusion, it comes from the Bible, too. The Bible says that blood is sacred, it’s like soul – blood may not be eaten, or consumed. It’s a strict rule. And second, many people got infected and still get infected with such diseases as hepatitis, AIDS because of blood transfusion.
The area of the Jehovah’s Witnesses branch office in Bishkek is 1.5 hectares. It contains administrative buildings, sports ground, as well as houses for Bethelites – employees who serve in the branch office. They are provided free of charge.
We also obey the authorities, but don’t take part in the elections because we preach the kingdom of God, the rule of God. And God appointed his son, Jesus Christ, to be the prince. It means that we already have a designated prince, ruler, while the existing authorities are in their proper places. Otherwise, there would be chaos.
Even Jesus didn’t intervene in politics, didn’t take part in elections. We do just the same, although we don’t deny the authorities. This is our strict neutrality.
We, Jehovah’s Witnesses, respect the authorities, even pray for them. We pay tribute to the authorities: pay taxes, live according to the state laws. Those Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t pay taxes should be investigates. One cannot be Jehovah’s Witness if he violates the laws that don’t contradict the laws of God.
However, if the authorities say, “take the weapons and kill someone”, it would be explicitly against the law of God, and we obey God rather than laws of the state.
There’s some biased attitude towards Jehovah’s Witnesses. Which problems does your organisation encounter?
We stick to neutrality. We don’t intervene in politics, don’t take part in demonstrations, etc. Sometimes, we can have problems with neutrality because we don’t take part in elections, for example. Although, it shouldn’t be a problem because every man has a right to elect or not elect.
The second problem may be misunderstanding by people. They don’t understand if a person of one religion suddenly becomes a Christian, Baptist or anyone else. It causes misunderstanding.
This is a relevant problem in rural areas, when rural people don’t understand it, and start exerting some pressure. A few years ago, we had an incident in Toktogul, when our meeting house was burnt down. Afterwards, we took this case to court and cleared it up. Now they treat us normally in Toktogul, and understand we are a global organisation, not some sect.
However, you must admit that any religion can encounter difficulties in any place.
Which problems do the followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses face locally? How tolerant are the people of Kyrgyzstan to your followers and the organisation as a whole?
Christians were also treated badly in the first centuries, back in the days of Jesus. In majority of cases, a representative of any religion has a prejudiced attitude towards those who start following different religion. The same is true for Kyrgyzstan.
But religion should not be inherited. For example, if I was born in Rome, I automatically become a catholic, or in India – a Hindu, or in Arab countries – a Muslim. Religion is not a heritage; religion is a form of worship. A man must come to religion deliberately and have a right to choose.
We’ve had cases of misunderstanding, even from law enforcement, of ill treatment. But we have a legal department and never ignore such cases, go to law and have even won some cases.
There had been cases when some followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses were manhandled and we had solved these issues in court. Such cases were in the past. In recent years, both the authorities and law enforcement bodies have understood who the Jehovah’s Witnesses are. We are an open organisation, not a sect, as some tend to think. We keep in touch with them, consult them, our literature is checked by the State Commission for Religious Affairs.
Special role in the organisation is assigned to the translation department. All texts are translated into local languages and then sent to Germany, where brochures and books of Jehovah’s Witnesses are published.
Last year, we opened a branch office at Osh, and on March 7 in Zhalal-Abad. It means that the authorities have started to understand there’s nothing scary about us.
According to the amendments to the religious freedom law, Kyrgyzstan prohibits calls for religion in the streets and in other public spaces. Street preaching has been on the directions of your community. How do you call for religion now? Did if affect the growth of your community in the Kyrgyz Republic?
A law prohibiting distribution of religious literature in public places and from house to house was issued in 2009. However, sharing information about our faith was not prohibited.
A ban on proselytising is a very complicated concept. How can you contact people if you don’t tell about your faith to other people? This is our key activity – to preach God, the kingdom of God to people.
However, we are law-abiding people, we don’t distribute literature from house to house or in public places. All we do is share our faith, and those who are eager to learn and get our literature come to us and receive it in designated places.
The map shows settlements in Kyrgyzstan with the followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I wouldn’t say the ban has had a strong impact on us. Despite the fact that many Jehovah’s Witnesses have left Kyrgyzstan for other countries, the number of our followers keeps raising. Now we have more than 5 thousand followers and more than 10 thousand of those interested.
As you can see, the number keeps raising. We don’t see any particular difference because now we have a website, which has publications in more than 973 languages, including Kyrgyz. The world is changing now, applying new technologies.
How can you explain the closed nature, non-publicity of your organisation in media, public organisations?
We often meet state authorities – ministry of justice, State Commission on Religious Affairs, even the presidential administration, and many foreign entities. However, we don’t join the interfaith council because people try to unite for decision-making, and we know that God decides everything, so we don’t participate.
The Holy Scriptures say that religion and the state should be separated from each other, if they are united, it’s the violation of the laws of God. Sometimes we strictly obey the neutrality law, which is why many people think we are closed off.
However, it doesn’t mean we don’t ever establish relationships. When some issues arise, we always express our opinion, but we don’t insist on it because we don’t intervene in the politics and affairs of the state regarding its management. But, if need be, we always express our opinion and concerns. And we don’t emphasise what way it should be done. We have never acted this way and will never do.
We respect the followers of other religions because they are our neighbours, they are people. They live in a democratic republic; they have a right to choose whether to become a Baptist or a catholic. It’s their right. We always respect their decision and never challenge it.
What are the sources of funds of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Do you have only donations or any other commercial funds?
We have a not-for-profit organisation and it’s totally funded out of voluntary donations. We have donation boxes everywhere, but you must admit that they are not enough to construct buildings like that.
As we are a global organisation working in more than 240 countries now, our shortage of funds is covered by voluntary donations of believers in Japan or America, for example. Our donations can only cover maintenance and utilities services.
We have over 8.5 million Jehovah’s Witnesses across the globe. Suppose, every follower contributes only one dollar… And wealthy people can contribute 100 dollars.
These funds are redistributed properly because no one steals them, but rather tries to contribute. These funds are enough to help the regions where natural disasters occur. We help our co-believers and even their neighbours build houses, etc.
We have Bethelites, i.e. employees who serve in the branch office, we also have missionaries who serve around the world. Also we have field supervisors who perform services, attend meetings, follow up, etc. They are all volunteers, without a pay but a benefit to cover expenses.
For example, Bethelites don’t ask for a pay, but they need money to live. So we are granted a moderate benefit to cover their needs. And our organisation takes care of them. This is not a pay, it’s a moderate benefit, at the subsistence rate.
There are wealthy volunteers who may help free of charge sometimes. The majority of volunteers help this way. There are volunteers who don’t ask money, they ask only to cover their travel costs.
You must admit it’s much cheaper than hiring someone and paying wages. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have enough money as we are a not-for-profit, religious organisation, which is fully dependent on donations, just like in the first century.
This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»