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Believers nurtured amid Turkmenistan ‘s challenges

ICC Note

In former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan , the gospel of Jesus Christ is spreading like wild fire despite persecution of Christians. New churches are being planted and previously unreached people are hearing about Jesus Christ in that country.

By Don Graham

Dec 19, 2007 Turkmenistan (BP)–For Josh Russell*, training church planters is a lot like roasting coffee. Inside a narrow storefront in Central Asia , the Southern Baptist worker details the art of transforming green coffee beans into steaming cups of java. Yet he grins as he remembers the first time he roasted — and nearly burned — an 8-pound batch of Mexican coffee beans.

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Russell is a nonresidential worker, which means he’s not able to live among the people he is trying to evangelize. It’s not a decision he made by choice. Russell served in post-Soviet Turkmenistan almost five years before being forced to leave. Though it made day-to-day ministry more difficult, it hasn’t diminished his passion for reaching the lost.

“What I do is help cast vision,” Russell said of his role. “We have to help Turkmen understand they need to love their own people; they need to take the Gospel to their own people.”

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Less than 2 percent of the 5 million Turkmen profess faith in Jesus. Here, Muslims represent the majority, though many claim Islamic faith in name only.

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But poverty isn’t the Gospel’s only enemy. Across Turkmenistan , churches are under attack. Believers are placed under surveillance or house arrest. Others are beaten or tortured. Persecution has caused some to flee the country, others have recanted their faith. Pastors are frequent targets.

“One [pastor] was beaten so badly he lost hearing in one ear,” Russell said. “His head also was held underwater to the point he almost drowned — multiple times.”

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Rashid* wasn’t prepared. He was a college student when government agents stormed his small church in Ashgabat, taking the names of everyone gathered there to worship. On another occasion, he was arrested and interrogated. Agents told Rashid he was “dangerous” because he was a Christian. After hours of browbeating, he was finally released even though he wouldn’t recant his Christian faith.

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Rashid, now 31, has attended several leadership events. He believes training is a turning point for the Turkmen church because it’s a source of unity and encouragement.

“We brought [back] with us new leaders,” Rashid said of the training. “They were strong, confident. And I saw the difference they made in their local churches.”

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“We let them know up front we’re followers of Jesus,” he said. “We make it clear we’re unique because we’re believers. Discipleship can’t just happen in a classroom. It happens because you’re watching me live. I’m watching you live. And we’re learning as we go.”

Above all, Russell is excited about the future of the Turkmen church. In spite of obstacles like poverty and persecution, there’s real evidence the Gospel is making progress.

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