You may remember the plaintive desert theme from the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially the beautiful solo by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The Gobi Desert in China served as one of the film’s most evocative filming locations. The Gobi was also an essential segment of the legendary Silk Road.
The ancient city of Chang’an, now Xi’an, in north-central China, was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, a network of caravan routes that connected China with trading centers in South Asia, the Middle East, and ports that carried goods from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. More than silk, tea, and precious stones moved westward, and more than wool, gold, and silver traveled eastward along these trade routes from the 2nd century BC to the 18th century AD. In addition, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Early Assyrian Christians took their faith to Central Asia and China, while merchants from the Indian subcontinent exposed China to Buddhism.”
At the heart of the Silk Road are the five nations that comprise the core of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Dominated by the Soviet Union for seven decades, the “stans” of Central Asia have been recapturing their historic Muslim identity since gaining independence in the late 20th century. However, in addition to observing four sects of Islam, the peoples of this region also practice animism, Bukharan Judaism, Orthodox and Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, and even Zoroastrianism (the religion of ancient Persia). According to the Joshua Project, there are 159 unreached people groups in the five nations. Evangelical Christians in the region make up less than 0.3% of the total population.
Nevertheless, God is at work. ANM’s regional director for Central Asia, who has on-the-ground ministry experience and significant personal relationships in the region, has vetted four new ministry partners there and has recommended several more for partnership. Some of the new partners are planting churches in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as in southern Russia. In addition to the five “stans,” ANM has two partner ministries in nearby Azerbaijan, also considered a part of the Central Asia region. As the global COVID pandemic reached Central Asia in 2020, a new partner in Tajikistan, the only evangelical witness in his community, turned to beekeeping to help support his ministry work. Donations given through the ANM Gift Catalog helped provide his business with startup funds. (You can watch a recent interview about this Tajikistan venture here.)
Central Asia is as devoid of the gospel of Jesus Christ as is the Gobi Desert of significant rainfall. Serving as a missionary in this region is full of cultural, religious, and political challenges but also great opportunities. The vision of people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” worshipping before the throne of God (Revelation 7:9–10) continues to inspire and direct ANM’s partnerships with fruitful native missionaries in Central Asia and 110 other countries worldwide.