How did your personal journey and background bring you to the position you are in today?
I joined the NGO sector in Russia in 1994 as a young Christian believer. I first joined the Russian Orthodox Church but wanted to be more active on social issues, not only those issues that the church was addressing. Thus, I subsequently became involved with the Community of Sisters of Mercy in St. Petersburg. For three years, I worked as a volunteer and nurse in a hospice in St. Petersburg, together with my Christian sisters and brothers. While I was volunteering, I simultaneously studied Orthodox theology.
After my work with the Community of Sisters of Mercy, I moved to a bigger ecumenical NGO, the Christian Interchurch Diaconal Council of St. Petersburg (CIDC). There I was involved with roundtables initiated by the World Council of Churches (WCC) throughout Eastern Europe. It was a very large initiative that aimed to implement ecumenical activities in post-Soviet Europe. I worked with an ecumenical body that involved a multitude of participants: Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran (both German and Finnish), and Pentecostal. I was very committed to this job and worked at it for nearly 7 years, finishing as Executive Director. It was at that point that I was invited by DanChurchAid to join their country office in Russia. I first worked as a program officer, then as Russia Country Director, and later transferred to Central Asia, where today I work as Regional Director. My office represents Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and will hopefully soon begin activities in Uzbekistan. This is my long short story! What specific motivations have you drawn from faith for your work in development?
Basically, from my understanding of the Church and what it means, focusing on development was a logical decision. Being Christian does not only mean attending Church, but also helping others. I was very inspired by some theologians and traditions in the Orthodox Church, but especially in the Lutheran tradition. Church life is not only theology and prayers; it is more active than that. I believe that the Church must play an active role in civil society. What role does the Orthodox Church play today in Central Asia?
It is more or less the same for all post-Soviet countries. Administratively, all dioceses which are active in post-Soviet states still belong to and are accountable to the Moscow patriarchy. Though politically the countries are independent, all of the churches still report directly to Moscow. Of course, this is excluding Armenia and Georgia, which were traditionally outside of the Moscow patriarchy.
The situation in Central Asia is similar. There are two dioceses [known as eparchies] which have local bishops, but they still under the direction of the patriarch.
Has adherence to Orthodoxy declined since the breakup of the Soviet Union; what is the situation in different countries in Central Asia?
It depends. In Kazakhstan, the Russian church remains strong and relatively wealthy, due to the fact that many Russians still live there, and there are many business links with Russia. In Kyrgyzstan it is completely neglected because due to the political situation, ethnic Russians are leaving the country; thus the diocese is very poor. The central Church authority in Moscow is not very interested to develop the church in Kyrgyzstan; they do not see a political expediency to do so. The Russian Orthodox Church reflects Russian political policy, and as such, Kyrgyzstan is not a priority, nowadays at least. It is the same situation in Tajikistan. I do not work in Turkmenistan but will soon to going to Uzbekistan to scope possible projects; I will be able to comment in more detail then. Can you speak about your work with DanChurchAid in Central Asia?
DanChurchAid arrived in the region in the mid 1990s. DanChurchAid is a faith-based organization, so it was very important to contact religious communities in Central Asia from the beginning, to help start programs or at least to offer resources to church-based organizations to become involved in social activities. DanChurchAid's international work is focused on five programme types; all linked to DanChurchAid's concept of diakonia
and its development principles. Furthermore, we work with two cross-cutting policies that are implemented throughout our national and international work. These cross cutting components include ensuring gender equality
and keeping a rights-based focus
. Our programmatic focus includes the following thematic areas: right to food, political space, HIV and AIDS, humanitarian assistance, and humanitarian mine action. More information can be found on our website - www.danchurchaid.org
I must say that our work in the region is special, because there were very few church-based organizations and communities that wanted to get involved in social work, at least at the time we arrived. At the same time, there were many secular NGOs whose missions were in line with the mission of DanChurchAid. Most of our partners in Central Asia are non-faith-based NGOs, though we do actively try to develop relationships with religious organizations. We work with two Christian organizations in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and support several initiatives with Muslim organizations. Some specific examples of these partnerships include:
• Church (ROC) based NGO “Delight and Consolation” works with vulnerable children and disabled in the town of Kant in Kyrgyzstan;
• The Lutheran Church of Kazakhstan works with minor single mothers, abandoned kids, and the homeless in the city of Astana in Kazakhstan;
• Faith-based (Muslim) NGO “Hadisi” works with HIV prevention and other health issues in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan;
• Faith-based (Muslim) NGO “Arysh” works with internal migrants (“squatters”) in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan; and
• Faith-based (Muslim) NGO MHAIDS works with people living with HIV/AIDS in Tajikistan.
We recently conducted research in Kyrgyzstan, resulting in a paper entitled “The Muslim Community in Kyrgyzstan: Social Activity at the Present Stage.” In this report we analyzed the resources available within the Muslim communities, and what can be done by development and international organizations to support the Muslim community and its work in the social sector. How do faith-actors specifically engage in development in Central Asia?
The role generally is not as large as we would wish. Again, the post-Soviet context is special. Religion was prohibited in Central Asia and in Russia. Now people who are trying to identify themselves with their religious roots are quite confused; there is no tradition in the region. The problem of education of religious leaders and theologians is serious. In general, many imams in the villages in Kyrgyzstan can barely understand the core of Muslim theology, reflected in how they interpret Muslim teachings. They are also very scared to interact with the state; they think that they still need to hide. The state is trying to control the religious situation in the country. There is a lot of confusion around involvement in social life and activities by religious actors. Many religious leaders believe that if they are active in terms of civil society participation, they will be considered political/religious extremists. There is much confusion between political activities of believers and political/religious extremism. My personal opinion, and also that of DanChurchAid, is that we need to initiate sustained dialogue, including international NGOs, religious leaders, faith-based NGOs, and the government, to be able to distinguish better political and religious extremism from the desire of believers to participate in civil society. That needs to be the main discourse. Have you seen successful examples of faith-inspired actors working on civil society/development initiatives?
Yes, I have. It is still very much about doing charity, which for me is the first step. There are many grassroots initiatives and religious communities who help people & for example, working with disabled children and work on HIV/AIDS prevention. There are activities, but I would not say that there is a systematic network of faith-inspired actors working on development. The examples that I cited are still very spontaneous and need a lot of help and resources. Is the trend towards increased involvement by faith actors in development work?
I cannot say so with certainty. I believe from what I see in Central Asia though, that you simply cannot ignore the type of force and power that is behind faith-based actors. More and more people are getting involved with religious communities, especially in Kyrgyzstan and even more so in Tajikistan. Our research has shown that the role of religious communities is actually growing quite strong. Whether or not faith-based actors engage in development work very much depends on our international donors, NGOs, and faith-inspired organizations working with religious communities and leaders to initiate dialogues and involve educated communities. Otherwise, we will have a serious problem, as faith actors will remain marginalized from development and political life. What faith institutions working in the region have a transnational character and work on development issues across borders?
The Aga Khan Network is very active, doing a lot of good projects. That is the only organization I would really name. Some international organizations, such as UNDP, support a few projects with religious leaders, especially on HIV and migration. I cannot say, however, that these are large scale initiatives. They are rather attempts to work with religious leaders. Are you aware of any religious movements working in Central Asia?
There are many movements. I hear about Hizb-ut-Tahrir, for instance. We hear of preachers involved in different movements and we hear about the Institute of Dervishes; again the problem is that in Central Asia people are very confused and they tend to have negative connotations of religious movements. In the full version of the report we have written, there are some examples of religious movements. Are there challenges working as a Christian faith-inspired organization in Central Asia?
There are many questions about our aims, and some people are suspicious and confuse us with missionaries. It takes time to explain the aim of DanChurchAid in the region, but it works. When I arrived to Central Asia at the end of 2007, with the aim to establish a regional office, I was told by many not to call the organization by its name, but rather create a local title or use an abbreviation without revealing our faith identity. We did not agree, and now we are called DanChurchAid, which is translated into Russian and local languages. It works. People have questions, but when we explain openly and clearly who we are, they do not have a problem with us doing work.
Another actor with a large mission in the region is Catholic Relief Services (CRS). As far as I know, nobody questions their faith background; they are clear that they have a purely humanitarian mission. I personally have not seen any examples of groups using the crisis as an opportunity for missionary work. We often collaborate with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), and I know that the Russian Orthodox parish was very involved in relief work; neither group encountered any challenges.
I can tell you that in Tajikistan, for instance, some Christian organizations have difficulties in having Christian affiliations, and in professing any link to faith in an open way. Does the specific country context determine how openly or not a faith-inspired organization is able to work?
Yes. Kyrgyzstan is definitely one of the more liberal countries in the region, but it also depends on how clear you are about your mission. Faith-based organizations and especially Christian-based organizations in the region must be very open and transparent about their activities. They must not be lazy. Groups need to spend enough time to explain to people that very few Christian-based organizations proselytize; they just want to help and develop the country. What do you know about missionary groups in Central Asia?
There are some charismatic groups from Korea; the Church of Christ is the largest missionary movement in Kyrgyzstan. Still, they are not as active as we see in other post-Soviet countries. There are traditional Pentecostal and Baptists groups as well, but they were present even during Soviet times. More traditional Christian churches like the Lutherans and Catholics are very weak, but they have been here since Soviet times, especially among the German and Polish communities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Turning to Kyrgyzstan, the country has recently gone through a tumultuous period, and is working to create sustainable peace and development. What are the main challenges today, and what roles have and do faith-inspired actors played in the process?
The situation is very confusing. You probably know that the main issue here now is ethnic conflict between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations. For instance, when I spoke to Uzbek young men directly involved in the conflict, they called their actions jihad, meaning holy war. This shows how little people understand their own theology. How can you call a conflict jihad when the conflict is between two Muslim groups? Many people say that religious leaders from both sides of the conflict were provoking the conflict, because for them it was a chance to free the Uzbek population and gain some autonomy for themselves.
I think the Muslim religious community is passive and understaffed in terms of well-educated theologians who understand that real Islam has nothing to do with the idea of jihad. Thus there are many wrong connotations surrounding the word jihad. Many religious leaders are now trying to stop the conflict, but they could have been involved more in the earliest stages of the conflict; that would have helped to calm tensions. That did not happen. Now, religious leaders are playing an important role in the reconciliation process. We need to support these initiatives directly, providing them with tools and training, and teaching them how to speak to people and how to help people to understand the real meaning and teaching of Islam. Do you have any examples of what faith-inspired actors are involved in reconciliation work?
The Foundation for Tolerance International, a Kyrgyz NGO, is doing reconciliation workshops in the south of the country. They take one religious leader from an Uzbek community, and one from the nearest Kyrgyz community, and initiate a dialogue between them. Through these dialogues, people realize there is no difference between them, or at least, the difference is not one of religion. The workshops aim to teach the two groups that they share a common religion and use this as a bridge to healing interethnic problems. What role did DanChurchAid play in the relief and now peacebuilding efforts following the ethnic violence?
We first initiated a large humanitarian aid program. We arrived in the region ten days after the conflict began. We are a member of a global alliance, called ACT Alliance, an alliance of 100+ churches and church-related organizations working on development and relief, with whom we have our own system of appeals through the Geneva-based secretariat; so we managed to raise humanitarian aid funds rather quickly. Our humanitarian relief program included psychosocial programming, run by a consultant from Sweden. The psychosocial program works with religious leaders on how to overcome the consequences of and how to recover from the psychological scars of conflict. DanChurchAid’s strategy closely links its projects in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. What is the situation in Kazakhstan surround the role of faith-inspired actors in development? How is it different from that in Kyrgyzstan?
In Kazakhstan, we work only with the Lutheran diocese, which is doing great work in the capital, Astana, with marginalized women and children and the homeless. The biggest problem I can see is that they are careful as to which issues they become involved in. They don’t want to be associated with human rights or gender work; they rather focus on their mandate to help specific vulnerable groups. They don’t try to get involved in bigger issues, including civil society. They are very scared, and don’t want to be visible. We do not work with Muslim communities and we do not have any contact with the Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan. You’ve mentioned many times that faith actors are reluctant to engage in development given the political sensitivities. Do you think international development organizations can and should engage with religious actors on development issues?
You are correct, there are sensitive issues, but there are still a number of religious leaders who understand the necessity to engage in development and feel that it is absolutely logical to be involved in social activity and civil society. First, international organizations wishing to engage religious actors need to identify the right people, and secondly, the mission must be clear and open from the beginning. Also it is very useful to contact the relevant authorities, for instance, in Kyrgyzstan the State Agency on Religious Affairs, which both tries to maintain control over the situation and also to observe who is who in the country. Overall, I believe engagement is possible and needed, but there are many sides, actors, and circumstances you need take into consideration when beginning such activities. What are the aid coordination bodies in which faith-inspired actors are involved?
There are many bodies that coordinate the activities of NGOS. There is a UN cluster system, including UN agencies: UNDP, OCHA, UNDP, among others. There are also several NGO coordination mechanisms initiated by DanChurchAid. DanChurchAid has three regional programs in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia: Political Space, HIV/AIDs, and Humanitarian Aid. Within each program type, there are distinctive coordination mechanisms with groups of NGOs. In relation to religious organizations, UNDP and the Global Fund on HIV/AIDS and Malaria work to maintain good relations with religious organizations, and occasionally organize roundtables and consultations. Health-related issues are very serious in Central Asia because of how migration is spreading diseases such as HIV/AIDS. That is why the Global Fund is trying to challenge religious leaders to become engaged. These initiatives are not, however, very systematic or successful, but still they try. The challenge for us as well is to promote greater involvement of religious leaders in our HIV work. What are the gender challenges facing Central Asia? How do you see faith involved here?
The main challenge traditionally in Central Asia is that women have an expected traditional role to play. Women stay home to take care of children and the house, and have nothing to do with the outside world. It is very difficult to discuss some sensitive issues with women as well, including sexual life, which is necessary when we speak about health-related issues. Men decide everything, and women sit and listen to what their husband says. It is very difficult to overcome this traditional division.
Especially in Kyrgyzstan, there are many active women’s movements, which we call “self-help groups.” Women often create groups to try to improve their economic situation through mechanisms such as micro loans. There is a big potential in this field for increased roles of women, but still traditional roles are very strong and often it is difficult to reach women, as they are not supposed to speak with others besides their husbands.
There are many international and national NGOs working to challenge the gender status quo, especially in Kyrgyzstan, but there is still much work left to be done. What are some examples of gender-focused organizations?
There are a lot of crisis centers that help women to overcome domestic violence. There are also organizations that work with women to explain elections and the importance of voting. On health, men traditionally decide everything in the family, but if you explain the situation to women, they are able make changes, for example in sexual behavior. There are groups that talk to groups of women on health related issues. Are religious leaders engaged in promoting gender rights and overcoming traditional understandings and stereotypes?
Yes, but they mainly rely on progressive female activists, who are not always well recognized by the official mosques. There are some very strong local activists in community-based organizations with whom we work a lot. Because of their strong societal positions, these women are able to enter into dialogue with religious leaders.
The best example of such kind is an NGO called “Mehr-Shavkat” in Aravan village in Kyrgyzstan. The leader is a female politician and well-respected gender and rights-based approach promoter. What are the issues surrounding education? What are the roles of faith-inspired actors?
The general education system is still very much based on the Soviet system, especially for vocational schools and primary and secondary schools. Russian language plays an important role, which is becoming a problem. Russian-speaking people are leaving the country for better opportunities, and this influences the quality of education, because there are less Russian speaking teachers in schools. Some schools use the local languages, but the problem is that the material is still based on the Soviet/Russian system, using their materials in the Russian language.
In terms of higher education, the level of education you can get depends on who you are. If you are rich or clever, you have access to good universities, and there are many opportunities for young people to study abroad. My staff, for instance, all had education in at least one European or US-based institution. But, for simple people, there are very few opportunities to get a good, solid education in the country.
Religious education is very marginalized. Their curriculum does not include traditional subjects, like chemistry, geography, or philosophy. They teach only a narrow range of theological subjects, and graduates from these schools are not able to get good jobs, because their education means nothing in the eyes of society.
There are quite a few opportunities in religious schools in Arab countries for people with good educational foundations and who can speak foreign languages. There is, however, a big clash now between those that return to their country with a foreign education and those that are “home-made.” We see a lack by these individuals in their willingness to work collaboratively with young progressive people coming home with foreign diplomas. This is a typical problem for all post-Soviet countries that are trying to develop their own theological schools. It is the same with the Russian Orthodox Church. The education that people get in their schools does not have any meaning for the wider society; they do not receive state recognized diplomas, for instance. Are madrasas required to register with the government, and have there been efforts to include secular education, along with religious education, into faith-inspired schools?
All madrasas are supposed to be registered. It is a very confusing system. On one side we have the legal registration system for all types of non-governmental organizations and institutions, including religious educational institutions. Second, religious schools must be registered with the state agency for religious affairs as well, which has a ministry status in the government. This is because first, the state wants to control the financial activity of organizations, including taxation, and secondly, the state wants to control ideological influences in the country.
In relation to how to improve curricula, it is a very difficult question. The Eurasia Foundation is working with some religious institutions to inspire and encourage them to include “normal” subjects in their curricula to allow people to learn skills so they can get jobs if they do not find work in religious institutions. These efforts have not been very successful nor systematic, and I think this is because the religious leaders do not see the necessity. Recently I spoke with a representative from the state agency for religious affairs, and he told me that they want to organize vocational training schools, outside of the mosques, to train young theologians in practical skills, such as carpentry; otherwise, he said, there is an army of people with a theological education who can essentially do nothing if they do not get jobs with the religious system. Can you expand on the role of faith-inspired actors in conflict and peacebuilding in Central Asia? Have been successful?
I already touched on this a little, but this region is very much influenced by bad connotations related to radical movements, the Taliban in Afghanistan for instance. There is a conflict surrounding the radicalization of religion. Everyone thinks the radical movements are an imminent danger for Central Asia, and everyone knows there are religious aspects to the movements, and that they are Muslim. The Government and even some international organizations marginalize religious communities without cause & any activity by religious actors is seen by some as potential radicalism. To some extent this is the truth, because general poverty and disorder in the country pushes people to find alternative solutions to their problems; very often, people see religion as an alternative. The reason why people join religious communities is often not that they reflect deeply on their religious roots and theological ideas, but that they just want to join a group that is against the government and pretends to know how to change the situation. That can potentially lead to religious radicalization.
Regarding peacebuilding, I cannot say that generally religious leaders are successful or active. I wish they were more active or visible in the conflict. Again, what makes them hesitant to engage further is the fact that they simply don’t want to be visible or in any way related with political activity. Religious leaders are well-known and speak to people in their communities, and actually they do help a lot. If you speak with people they often mention that they go to mosque and speak with their imam for advice and even pastoral care in crisis situations, but openly, the imams do not speak on social issues. Now, in Kyrgyzstan, there is not one single leader that speaks openly about the conflict and advises people not to turn to violence. The work that is done on a grassroots level is not institutionalized. Do the imams have a well grounded fear of public engagement, in your view?
I think the fear is grounded. There are a couple of theologians who do speak publically on some issues, but it demands a certain level of education. When you are able to clearly describe your position and your mission, you automatically answer many questions. Not many people in the religious community, particularly leaders, are able to explain themselves at an appropriate level of comprehension, because of their levels of education. Can you expand on the peacebuilding initiatives surrounding the ethnic conflict in the south?
There is not very much going on, but for example, as we are approaching the Muslim holiday, Eid, on Tuesday, I know there are NGOs that speak to different communities that are trying to organize joint social events around traditional Muslim celebrations, trying to bring Uzbeks and Kyrgyz peoples together. There are still very difficult issues, because 2000 people were killed in the conflict, and people are still grieving; we must be careful and sensitive. But some initiatives, including celebrating feasts together and coming together for workshops to speak about reconciliation are taking place; but again there is not a systematic or institutionalized approach. What interfaith initiatives have you been involved in, and what roles do, or should, interfaith initiatives have in development in Central Asia?
Interfaith initiatives are not taking place on a wide scale, to my knowledge. I was called a couple of months ago by one national media representative to ask me what I thought about interfaith initiatives in Kyrgyzstan. Some people are holding formal conferences organized by the state agency & but these are very formal in Soviet style, when faith leaders come together and agree to cooperate. There were a couple of such events, but they have very little influence. It is a formality at most. It takes time to initiate sustainable interfaith cooperation. We must remember that Kyrgyzstan is a very young state in general, and all processes are also very young. This is also not the only missing link in society. Society must grow and reach maturity for such kinds of initiatives and dialogues to be sustainable.