An Overview of Central Asia

Central Asia has also sometimes also called Middle Asia or Inner Asia. Over time it has meant the land from Iran to Mongolia. Today it usually is used to refer to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The nation of Iran is also sometimes included in Western Asia. It could be thought of as a bridge between the two regions.

Most of Central Asia is landlocked, with no access to the ocean—only Iran has a southern coastline. The region has a wide and varied terrain, ranging from the mountains of the Tien Shan (home to the highest peaks on earth) to vast deserts and grassy steppes. There are several large rivers and lakes, including the Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea. However, the governments in the region have not taken very good care of these resources, and environmental disasters have been the result. The Aral Sea in particular is drying up.

The combined population of the countries in the region is over 120 million people. About half of these (sixty-six million) live in Iran. Afghanistan is the second most populous country, with twenty-three million people. The tribes considered part of Central Asia include the Eastern Turkic, Eastern Iranian and Mongolian peoples.

The arid nature of Central Asia’s land makes farming very difficult. Its distance from the sea forced trade to go overland through the famous Silk Road routes. With little farming or trade, few of the tribes settled; as a result, few cities were developed. For thousands of years Central Asia has been controlled by the famous horse-riding peoples. Their nomadic lifestyle was ideally suited to mobile warfare, and they were some of the most powerful military peoples in the world during their time. Some of the most famous armies to originate in this region included the Huns and the Mongols who at different times controlled much of Europe and European Asia. Their military power declined in the sixteenth century with the proliferation of firearms that shifted power into the hands of the settled people. Russia and China had taken control of most of the region by the nineteenth century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union (mostly sparked by the conflict with the rural and semi-nomadic peoples of Afghanistan) much of Central Asia gained its independence.

Central Asia is politically fragmented, with divisions between tribes and between different political ideologies.

Today, Central Asia still follows the historical patterns established over the centuries. The peoples tend to identify themselves more by tribes than by national identity. The region is politically fragmented, with divisions between tribes and between different political ideologies. Local “strongmen” and “warlords” may be far more powerful than the national governments. In Afghanistan, for example, President Hamid Karzai has little control outside the city of Kabul. What national governments exist are highly controlling if not outright dictatorial, and when elections occur they may be influenced, bought or completely rigged. As in China, one could say Central Asia is ruled mostly by men rather than laws. The region’s policies are dominated in turn by Russia, China, Iran and Turkey. These “great powers” continue to be concerned about the region, whose instability can give rise to individuals with the power to do a great deal of damage (one example being extreme fundamentalists who, unable to muster significant military forces, resort to terror attacks to achieve their goals).

Oil and natural gas are two major resources contained within the region. There are significant reserves of both in the region. Strategic pipelines carrying oil to distant ports have also been built across the countries. However, it is unlikely that the oil reserves in Central Asia will last much beyond the next two generations. Most of the Central Asian nations are struggling to wisely use their petrodollars, but economic corruption is rampant in these countries. Iran is in a much better place to manage its oil wealth, which is not likely to run out as quickly as the northern states. However, little of the oil wealth trickles down to the average individual.

In the midst of this instability and geopolitical shuffling, some significant wars and conflicts continue to be fought. There is ongoing strife in Afghanistan. There are a number of small scale civil insurgencies in the northern states, as well as violent battles fought with drug lords. Central Asia supplies much of the opium that becomes heroin trafficked in Europe and the United States.

Christianity in Central Asia
Christianity itself came to the region within a generation of Christ, brought mostly by the Apostolic Church of the East. However, it was largely wiped out by the armies of Timur (Tamerlane). Today all of the countries of Central Asia are majority-Muslim countries. The governments are generally anti-Christian. They deal harshly with Christian evangelizers, with punishments ranging from expulsion to assassination or imprisonment, torture and execution. Christians make up less than five percent of the countries; the one exception is Kazakhstan, where fifteen percent of the population is Christian. Throughout the region Christianity is in decline due to repression and migration. Many people are leaving due to poor economies and unstable governments.

Name P'00   P'25 C'00  %  C'25   % 75-00  00-25  Issues affecting the future
Afghanistan  23.7  55.4  0.0  0%  0.0  0%  +-  ++ War, reconstruction, heavy restrictions/persecution, drugs
Iran  66.4  89.0  0.4  1%  0.5  1%  +-  ++ Persecution, oppression, nuclear politics
Kazakhstan  15.0  14.8  2.2  15%  2.0   13%  +-  — Sporatic restrictions, enormous resources, ecological disasters
Kyrgystan  5.0  6.3  0.3  7%  0.3  4%  +-  +- Growing political freedom
Tajikistan  6.2  8.8  0.1  2%  0.1  1%  +-  +- End to civil war, political reconstruction, religious repression
Turkmenistan  4.5  6.1  0.1  2%  0.1  1%  +-  +- Political repression, economic mismanagement, religious restrictions
Uzbekistan  24.7  34.0  0.4  1%  0.1  1%  +-  +- Harsh repression, poverty, dictatorship

P’00 – Population, AD 2000
P’25 – Population, AD2025
C’00 – Christianity, AD 2000 (followed by the percentage of the overall population)
C’25 – Christianity, AD2025 projection, World Christian Database (followed by percentage of overall population)
75-00 – Growth rate. The first (+/-) indicates whether Christianity is growing or declining; the second (+/-) indicates whether it is growing faster or slower than the population (thus whether Christianity’s influence is growing or declining). (+-) means Christianity is growing, but not as fast as the population, and so is declining as a share of the country.
00-25 – Growth rate projected for AD2000-2025
Issues – A brief encapsulation of the issues affecting the growth of Christianity in the nation

Justin Long manages and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].