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Christians in Mongolia afraid after Kazakh house church attack

21 January 2016

Explosives were thrown into the stove chimney of a Kazakh house church in Mongolia on the night of 27 December, just days after the local church had celebrated Christmas. “Believers decided not to come together for a while,” he said. “They [are] afraid of a repetition of the explosions in the homes of believers.”

Large numbers of people had attended the church’s Christmas services and local Christians believe that this angered some of the local Muslims and led them to carry out the attack.

Kazakhs in Mongolia are a mainly Muslim ethnic group of Turkic descent which makes up around 5% of the Mongolian population – the largest non-Mongolian ethnic group in the country. Kazakhstan was incorporated as part of Russia in the nineteenth century, but during the Russian Civil War of the 1920s and 1930s, the number of Kazakhs in Soviet Kazakhstan plummeted.

Over 1.5 million of their number died, mostly as a result of starvation and illness, though many were violently killed. Hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fled into neighbouring China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Today, many Mongolian Kazakhs are returning to Kazakhstan, though some prefer to stay in their adopted homeland.

Mongolian Kazakhs live mostly in the far-western Bayan-Ölgiy province, which borders China and Russia, and is close to Kazakhstan. In Bayan-Ölgiy province, Mongolian Kazakhs constitute around 80% of the population and are strongly influenced by Islamic traditions.

In Ölgii, capital of Bayan-Ölgiy province, the mosque is placed at an unusual angle within the fabric of the city, orienting the building exactly towards Mecca. The city houses a madrassa (Islamic religious school) and various Turkish and Saudi organisations. Top students who graduate in this area often continue their education in Turkey.

Mongolia as a whole is majority Buddhist, although there is a growing Muslim influence in the country’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, where – with the help of the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency and other Muslim organisations – the city’s first Islamic Cultural centre was opened in 2010.

The Church in Mongolia is small but growing. Some estimate that over 4% of the country’s population is Christian. In capital city Ulaanbaatar, the first group of Christian believers was founded 16 years ago. Today, there are four Christian groups, numbering around 60 converts to Christianity in total.

Converts to Christianity endure a great deal of persecution and many Christians have been arrested by police. Local Muslims and police repeatedly disrupt Christian gatherings and threaten to burn their houses. According to the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), some churches have reported great difficulty in obtaining the official registration that is required for religious groups to function legally.