Reaching the Nations

Kazakhstan

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 2,724,900 square km.  Occupying a vast area of Central Asia, Kazakhstan borders Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan and is the ninth largest country in the world.  Kazakhstan experiences a continental climate characterized by cold winter, hot summers, and arid to semiarid conditions.  The vast majority of the landscape is flat steppe.  High, rugged mountains stretch along much of the southeastern border.  The Tian Shan Mountains along the Kyrgyz border reach heights of over 20,000 feet (7,000 meters) and the Altai Mountains are found in extreme eastern Kazakhstan.  The Caspian Sea, the largest inland sea in the world, forms the southeastern boundary.  Lake Balkhash, which has both fresh and salt water regions, sits in east central Kazakhstan and the salty Aral Sea, which occupies only 10% of its original size, straddles the Uzbek border.  Important rivers include the Syr Darya, Ural, and Irtysh.  Desert covers many areas on the southwest.  Earthquakes and mudslides in the south are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include radioactive and toxic contaminants in the soil from the Soviet era, the diversion of rivers for irrigation from the shrinking Aral Sea, chemical pesticides and salts from the Aral Sea driven in large dust storms, water pollution in the Caspian Sea, and inefficient agricultural practices such as the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.  Russia leases the city of Baikonur for its space program.  Kazakhstan is administratively divided into 14 provinces and three cities.

Population: 15,399,437 (July 2009)       

Annual Growth Rate: 0.392% (2009)

Fertility Rate: 1.88 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: 62.58 male, 73.47 female (2009)

Peoples

Kazakh: 53.4%

Russian: 30%

Ukrainian: 3.7%

Uzbek: 2.5%

German: 2.4%

Tatar: 1.7%

Uyghur: 1.4%

Other: 4.9%

Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tatars, and Uyghurs are Turkic ethnic groups whereas Russians and Ukrainians are Slavic ethnic groups.  Kazakhs populate all regions and constitute the majority of the population everywhere except in most areas of northern Kazakhstan.  Russians are concentrated in northern Kazakhstan where they are the largest ethnic group as well as in patches stretching from Almaty to Russia along the Chinese border.  Ukrainians live in pockets along the Russian border and northern Kazakhstan from the Zhayya (Ural) River to northeast Kazakhstan whereas Germans live in pockets in northern Kazakhstan.  Uzbeks live in the southernmost areas and Uyghurs reside in areas between Almaty and China.  Kazakhstan's population has slightly contracted in size since 1989 due to emigration of Russians. 

Languages: Kazakh (64.4%), Russian (12.6%), German (6%), Ukrainian (6%), Tatar (2%), Uyghur (2%), Uzbek (2%), other (5%).  Kazakh is the state language and Russian is an official language used in business and communication between ethnicities.  Russian is spoken as a first or second language by 95% of the population.  Only Kazakh (9.9 million) and Russian (1.9 million) have over one million native speakers. 

Literacy: 99.5% (1999)

History

Kazakhstan finds its roots in Turkic and Mongol tribes in the 13th century.  A Kazakh national identity began to take shape over the following centuries as the Kazakh language became more distinguished.  Warfare and conflict with neighboring nations and peoples occurred in the 17th century.  In the 18th century, Russia gained control of Kazakhstan, which in 1936 became a Soviet Republic.  During the 1930s, a massive famine resulted in large population decreases.  Immigrants began arriving and settling regions of Kazakhstan, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when the USSR sought to rapidly increase agricultural output through the "Virgin Lands" program.  The program increased agricultural productivity somewhat but with drastic environmental consequences which continue today.  Independence from the Soviet Union occurred in 1991 and resulted in many Russians leaving the country as Kazakh nationalism reemerged.  Almaty was the original capital until Astana became the capital in 1998.  Kazakhstan has enjoyed greater stability and economic prosperity than other former Soviet Republic in Central Asia since independence.  

Culture 

Kazakhs are traditionally pastoralists and have relied heavily on their livestock for survival.  Meat is widely consumed and fermented mare's milk is a national beverage.  Alcohol consumption rates are lower than most nations whereas cigarette consumption rates are higher than most nations.  The Kazakh New Year is a major celebration.  Government moved the capital from Almaty to Astana to facilitate greater cooperation between Kazakhs and Russians and to better administer the large country from a more centralized location. 

Economy

GDP per capita: $11,800 (2009) [25.4% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.804

Corruption Index: 2.2

Partially due to infrastructure developed by the Soviets, Kazakhstan has the most developed economy out of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia.  Wealth is unevenly distributed and is most concentrated in the hands of oligarchs.  Abundant mineral deposits and oil reserves drive much of the strength and development of the economy.  Oil pipelines have begun to flow over the past decade carrying oil to surrounding nations with ocean access for worldwide distribution.  China in particular has taken keen interest in Kazakhstan's oil potential.  Large amounts of productive farmland that form an integral part of the economy as 31% of the workforce labors in agriculture.  Services account for over half the workforce and GDP.  Industry produces 38% of the GDP and employs 18% of the workforce.  Primary agriculture products include grain, cotton, and livestock whereas primary industries include oil and mineral extraction.  Nearly four-fifths of export commodities come from oil or mineral extraction.  Primary trade partners include Russia, China, and Germany. 

Kazakhstan experiences high levels of corruption which have persisted over the past decade.  Law enforcement has been accused of corruption by demanding bribes for crossing borders.  Bribery and corrupt practices have worsened in the oil industry as additional drilling and exploration has occurred.  Corrupt practices are claimed to be most prevalent in administration.[1]  

Faiths

Muslim: 47%

Christian: 46%

Other: 7%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Russian Orthodox  6,775,752

Catholic  250,000

Jehovah's Witnesses  17,225  195

Seventh Day Adventists  3,338  51

Latter-day Saints  141  2

Religion

Nomadic lifestyles and a communist legacy have been responsible for low levels of religious conviction among Kazakhstanis.  Many are culturally Muslim or Christian but do not view their identified faiths as important in everyday life.  Religious demography differs greatly based upon location and ethnicity.  Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and Tatars are historically Muslim.  Eastern Orthodox Christians typically include ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and other Eastern Europeans.  Most Catholics are ethnic minorities from Germany and Eastern Europe.  The highest concentration of practicing Muslims is along the Uzbek border.[2]  Protestants groups form two percent of the population and include many Germans and Koreans. 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index: 75th

The constitution protects religious freedom but government legislation limits some aspects of this right.  Some minority, non-traditional religious groups face government interference from worshipping, although most of these are not registered.  Religious organizations must have at least 10 members and unregistered groups can be fined.  Government has stepped up its fight to combat religious extremism.  There were no recent reports of societal abuses of religious freedom.  Formal registration of missionaries is required including a submission of what materials will be used in proselytism.[3] 

Largest Cities

Urban: 58%

Almaty, Qaraghandy, Karagandy, Shymkent, Taraz, Astana, Pavlodar, Ust'-Kamenogorsk, Kyzylorda, Semipalatinsk, Aqtöbe, Qostanay, Petropavlovsk, Taldyqorghan, Oral, Atyrau, Temirtau, Aktau, Kökshetau, Rudnyy, Ekibastuz, Zhezqazghan.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregation. 

One of the 22 cities with over 100,000 inhabitants has a congregation.  47% of the national population lives in the 22 largest cities. 

LDS History

The first LDS members to live in Kazakhstan lived in Almaty in the mid and late 1990s for business, and were instrumental in establishing a congregation in Almaty and introducing many native Kazakhs to the gospel.  Prior to 1999, there were no native Kazakhstani members.  The first baptism occurred in November 1999.[4]  Kazakhstan was included in the Europe East Area in 2000.  The Church received official recognition from the Kazakhstani government in December 2000.[5]  The first branch was organized in July 2001 in Almaty.  At the time no foreign missionaries served in Kazakhstan.[6]  Elder Nelson visited Kazakhstan in September 2003 and dedicated the country.[7]  Foreign missionaries first arrived in the early 2000s but were restricted to Almaty.  Jurisdiction for missionary work in Kazakhstan transferred from the Russia Novosibirsk Mission to the Russia Moscow Mission and then to the Russia Moscow West Mission.  Elder Paul Pieper represented the Church at a world religions conference held in Kazakhstan in the late 2000s.  LDS missionaries were assigned to Astana in March 2011.

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 141 (2009)

In early 2001, Almaty had 25 members.  By the end of the year, there were 46 members nationwide.  Membership increased to 80 in 2003, 102, in 2005, and 125 in 2007.  Nearly all members live in Almaty.  In mid-2009, one native member lived in Astana. 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 1 Groups: 1

As of April 2010, only one branch met in Almaty.  A handful of members also met in a private home for sacrament meeting in Astana. 

Activity and Retention

70 attended a cultural night held shortly following the Church's recognition in 2001.[8]  44 attended the organization of the Almaty Branch in 2001.[9]  Elder Nelson visited in September 2003 with 90 in attendance.  Some members in attendance traveled up to 13 hours from distance cities.[10]  In early 2010, missionaries reported that approximately 50 members were active in Almaty but some estimates place the number of active and semi-active members as high as 80.  Active membership nationwide is likely 60-70, or 43-50%. 

Finding

Street contacting and the member referrals of interested friends and associates have represented the main finding methods for missionaries in Almaty.  Missionaries in 2010 reported that many investigators were found through teaching English and piano lessons. 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Russian, German, Ukrainian, Korean

All LDS scriptures are available in Russian, German, Ukrainian, and Korean.  Large amount of Church materials are translated in these languages.  The Liahona magazine has 12 issues in Russian, German, Ukrainian, and Korean a year.  Kazakh LDS materials are limited to the Sacrament Prayers, a basic unit guidebook, the Articles of Faith, and hymns and children's songs. 

Meetinghouses

The Almaty Branch meets in a small church-owned meetinghouse. 

Humanitarian and Development Work

The Church has participated in humanitarian work in some hospitals and orphanages.  In 2003, aid was distributed to those affected by the May 2003 earthquake.[11]  In the late 2000s, the Church conducted neonatal resuscitation training and donated hospital equipment. 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

The Church is legally registered with the government.  Full-time missionaries may openly proselyte once approval is granted to missionaries on an individual basis.  Sometimes this approval can take weeks to obtain, limiting proselytism activities for newly arrived missionaries to Kazakhstan.  Local members provide invaluable service and assistance in maintaining legal standards and obtaining required documents for missionaries, humanitarian projects, and church registration. 

Cultural Issues

Irreligiosity and secularism challenge church growth as most have little or no interest in learning about religion as a result of decades of communist rule.  With few members and a tiny foreign missionary force, diligent and efficient missionary programs are required to gain converts.  Suppressed religious freedom during the Soviet era provides opportunity for growth as many do not actively participate in their identified religions but have some religious background.  Tolerance for non-Muslim religious groups appears higher among Muslims in Kazakhstan than in many other Central Asian nations due to the large Orthodox minority and the suppressed religious expression of Islam for much of the twentieth century.  

National Outreach

Mission outreach only occurs in the city of Almaty, which accounts for 8% of the national population.  An additional 6% of the population lives in Almaty Province, leaving 86% of Kazakhstanis residing in provinces with no Church outreach centers.  Over 700,000, or 5% of the national population, live in Astana, where missionary work commenced in March 2011.  Although the population currently reached by the Church remains small, abundant opportunities for missionary work and Church growth exist in Almaty as it is the largest city and a major center for business and industry in Central Asia.  Most living in Almaty are unaware of the Church's presence in the city and know little of LDS beliefs, teachings, and practices.  Large swathes of the city remain unreached and provide an easily accessible, highly populated field for expanded outreach with the assistance of local members and missionaries.

Visits by mission leaders occur regularly despite Kazakhstan's remoteness from the rest of the Russia Moscow West Mission.  This has been partly due to foreign missionaries serving in Russia leaving periodically to renew their visas.  The low productivity of the mission in Russia has reduced missionary numbers, creating greater challenges in expanding proselytism with full-time missionaries in Kazakhstan as missionary resources become stretched between the two countries and Belarus. 

The Church has explored prospects for opening missionary work in Astana for many years.  In late 2009, mission leadership began pursuing registration for a congregation in Astana but the lack of native members challenged more immediate outreach.  Some members live in remote, large cities without congregations and if may one day facilitate expanded mission outreach in other large cities.  Many missionaries and Church leaders agree that the Church's progress in Kazakhstan will be integral in developing outreach in other Central Asian nations without a current Church presence. 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Convert retention between 2003 and 2010 appears poor to modest as church attendance in Almaty only increased slightly over this period despite membership increasing from 80 to 140 nationwide.  Early efforts of expatriate members in sharing the gospel quickly developed a congregation and introduced many Kazakhs to the gospel; retention rates have dropped with the exodus of key expatriate families and the shift to missionary-based proselytism.  The first native converts fellowshipped one another and taught and baptized new converts without the assistance of full-time missionaries.  The introduction of full-time missionaries appears to have reduced convert retention levels, in part due to periods of focus on monthly baptismal goals and reduced contact of investigators with local members before baptism.  Cooperation in proselytism efforts between full-time members, older converts, and new members will be essential for high retention of new converts to ensure long-term church growth.

Ethnic Issues and Integration

The diversity in cultures in Kazakhstan creates challenges integrating various ethnic groups into the same congregation.  The Soviet legacy has helped to mute some of these differences and allow for greater cooperation between ethnicities.  Missionary efforts in Almaty are directed toward both Kazakhs and Russians, and the Almaty branch has successfully integrated members of various ethnicities.  Other ethnic groups are largely unreached.  Future proselytism efforts in northern Kazakhstan will need to meet needs of both Russians and Kazakhs simultaneously as both live in the same region in large numbers. 

Language Issues

Foreign missionaries have not developed proficient language abilities in Kazakh for gospel teaching.  This has resulted in some reliance on local members for teaching, providing greater opportunity for convert fellowshipping.  Missionary work is conducted in Russian as it is widely spoken across Kazakhstan, is learned by foreign missionaries in the Missionary Training Center and in the Moscow Russia West Mission.  Senior couple missionaries rely on translators to accomplish much of their humanitarian work. 

Additional translations of Church materials and LDS scriptures into Kazakh appear likely.  Minority Turkic groups speaking languages such as Uyghur and Uzbek will likely not have Church materials until greater membership growth occurs among them.  Russian language appears to be highly functional for initial outreach for these groups as it is spoken by 95% of the population, although not all second-language speakers speak and read at a high level of proficiency.

Missionary Service

As of early 2010, about 50 full-time missionaries had served in Kazakhstan since Almaty opened to full-time missionary work.  A missionary zone functions in Kazakhstan and senior couple missionaries serve in Almaty and Astana.  In October 2009, six elders and two sisters served in Almaty.  Kazakhstani members have willing served missions despite their small numbers.  In mid-2008, four missionaries were serving from the Almaty Branch. 

Leadership

The first Melchizedek Priesthood ordinations occurred in early 2001.[12]  A traveling Patriarch visited Kazakhstan in 2008 and gave 18 Patriarchal blessings.  Local members have led the Almaty Branch through most if not all of its history. 

Temple

Kazakhstan is assigned to the Kyiv Ukraine Temple district.  Temple trips occur infrequently due to the small size of membership, travel expenses, and long distances.  Prospects for a closer temple appear unlikely for many more years. 

Comparative Growth

Two LDS congregations, 51 Seventh Day Adventist Churches, 195 Jehovah's Witness congregations, and 543 Protestant churches, 265 Orthodox churches, and 93 Catholic churches operate in Kazkahstan.  Many Christian denominations have experienced membership decline over the 1990s through emigration.  However, these groups have gained converts among the Kazakh and other historically Muslim peoples.  Seventh Day Adventists have seen decreasing numbers of congregations and converts over the past decade, although Jehovah's Witnesses have experienced continued expansion of national outreach.

Kazakhstan is the only former Soviet Republic with an official Church presence.  Most former Soviet Republics outside Central Asia have experienced greater membership and congregational growth than Kazakhstan.  Russia and Ukraine each had over 10,000 members by 2006 and over 50 congregations.  Growth in some other Muslim nations has been greater than Kazakhstan, such as Pakistan and some nations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.  However membership growth in Pakistan, Indonesia, and many other Muslim-majority nations has come primarily from among Christians rather than Muslims, whereas in Kazakhstan success has been achieved among both groups.  The Church operates openly in Kazakhstan but not in Pakistan due to threats of violence from extremist groups.  Kazakhstan offers a relatively pluralistic and favorable environment  for outreach among both Muslims and Christians, in contrast to most other Muslim-majority nations.

Of the six Turkic nations (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan), Kazakhstan is the only nation where the Church has gained a significant foothold with strong native membership.  The only other Turkic nation with an official Church presence is Turkey, where congregations are led primarily by expatriate members, and most of the few converts are non-Turks.

Notwithstanding Kazakhstan's key strategic and geopolitical location as the gateway to Central Asia, its status as the most religiously pluralistic and tolerant of the Central Asian nations, and relatively wide religious freedom, the Church's entry into Kazakhstan has been belated and anemic.  No LDS missionaries were sent to Kazakhstan throughout the initial years of religious freedom in the early 1990s when other denominations experienced rapid growth.  The Church gained a foothold in Almaty around the turn of the century only fortuitously through the efforts of capable expatriate members, and not through any planning or effort of the institutional missionary program.  When missionaries finally entered in the middle of the decade of the 2000s, receptivity had waned considerably from that experienced in the initial years, political conditions had become less favorable, and both Muslim and Orthodox groups had implemented counter-proselytism policies. Whereas Jehovah's Witnesses maintained 195 congregations and Adventists had 51 congregations across Kazakhstan in 2009, only a single LDS congregation operated in the nation until missionaries entered Astana in early 2011.  Although visa and registration requirements limited expansion of missionary efforts during the 2000s, the lack of utilization of favorable opportunities for church growth throughout the 1990s appears to reflect a lack of priority and resources assigned to the nation by LDS mission planners and the focus of resources on Russia and better-known nations in Eastern Europe rather than any absence of opportunity.

Future Prospects

High member involvement in missionary work, developed local leadership, and registration with the government provide a positive outlook for future growth.  A mission headquartered for Central Asia is likely due to long distances from mission headquarters in Moscow.  Kazakhstan appears the most likely nation to support a potential mission among former Soviet Republics in Central Asia.  Church efforts for establishing mission outreach in neighboring nations have been based from Kazakhstan and will likely continue.  The severely limited number of members living outside of Almaty and Astana as well as membership requirements to register congregations in new areas will restricts missionary work outside of these two cities for the foreseeable future. 


[1]  "Kazakhstan country profile," Business Anti-Corruption Portal, retrieved 24 April 2010.  http://www.business-anti-corruption.com/en/country-profiles/europe-central-asia/kazakhstan/show-all/

[2] "Kazakhstan," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127366.htm

[3]  "Kazakhstan," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127366.htm

[4]  "Kazakhstan," Country Profiles, retrieved 23 April 2010.  http://lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/contact-us/kazakhstan

[5] "Kazakhstan recognizes Church," LDS Church News, 17 February 2001.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/39339/Kazakhstan-recognizes-Church.html

[6] "First LDS branch created in Kazakhstan," LDS Church News, 11 August 2001.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/40323/First-LDS-Branch-Created-in-Kazakhstan.html

[7]  "Elder Nelson Dedicates Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic," Ensign, Nov. 2003, 124-25

[8] "Kazakhstan recognizes Church," LDS Church News, 17 February 2001.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/39339/Kazakhstan-recognizes-Church.html

[9]  "First LDS branch created in Kazakhstan," LDS Church News, 11 August 2001.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/40323/First-LDS-Branch-Created-in-Kazakhstan.html

[10]  "Elder Nelson visits Kazakhstan," LDS Church News, 13 September 2003.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/44312/Elder-Nelson-visits-Kazakhstan.html

[11]  "Kazakhstan," Country Profiles, retrieved 23 April 2010.  http://lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/contact-us/kazakhstan

[12]  "Kazakhstan recognizes Church," LDS Church News, 17 February 2001.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/39339/Kazakhstan-recognizes-Church.html