Hidden millions: Central Asian Muslims migrate to Russia

Editor's note: Names were changed for security reasons

MOSCOW, Russia — They flock to Moscow by the thousands—Azeris, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and others—drawn by the promise of jobs snubbed by many Russians.

Fifteen years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the economies of many of Central Asia's ex-Soviet republics continue to struggle while capitalism in Russia flourishes. The boom has triggered a flood of Central Asians, often young men who come in search of a better life. They find work in construction, factories and market stalls. Low-paying by Russian standards, the jobs provide enough to send money home to their families.

They also provide missionaries with a unique opportunity to share the gospel. Statistics vary on numbers of Central Asians migrating to Russia, but estimates are in the millions. More than 1 million Kyrgyz alone work in Russia, some 20 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population. The demographic picture is blurry, but Christians working there say what is certain is that the overwhelming majority desperately needs to know the love of Jesus Christ.

Islam is the standard faith community across Central Asia. The region is home to one of the lowest ratios of evangelical Christians in the world—just one believer for every 2,700 people. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Southern Baptists have seen significant advances for the gospel there, including the start of more than 1,400 churches. But while much attention is focused on Central Asia, little is being done to reach the hidden millions of Central Asians living and working in Russia. Only a handful are there from Great Commission Christian, but none from the SBC.

Ostracized or marginalized by their Russian neighbors, as well as the Orthodox church, most Muslims have virtually no access to the gospel.


Who will tell them?
The International Mission Board is establishing a witness among these peoples, beginning in Moscow. The task requires large numbers of short-term volunteers from churches to distribute evangelical materials specifically tailored to Muslims.

"They need to get access to the gospel in a way they can understand," said Daniel Powell, an IMB strategist coordinating work among Muslims in Russia. "We call that widespread seed-sowing. We don't know where God is going to water the seed, but we've got to distribute the seed."

Church partners are needed to send long-term teams to Russia—people willing to be responsible for reaching a Muslim people group for Christ. In either case, friendship is the key.

"Russians in Moscow do not treat Muslims well," Powell said. "Muslims who are here as illegal aliens don't get a lot of 'warm fuzzies' from Russians they meet. ... If you show them friendship, they'll respond."

He recalled an encounter while prayerwalking with a volunteer team in a Muslim neighborhood in Russia. A Muslim woman was using the Quran to preach Islam to Russians gathered outside a mosque.

"Two Southern Baptist women who couldn't speak any Russian found out she spoke English," Powell said. "They went up to her—scared to death—and started talking. They struck up a friendship and presented her with a Bible."

She initially refused.

"But because of the friendship they showed, she  took the Bible and promised she would read it," Powell said. They became her friend."