What does the word Tashkent mean

Catholics in Uzbekistan

About a small religious minority in Central Asia

By Julia Smilga

In Uzbekistan, the Catholics are a minority of faith (here a street scene in Tashkent). (AP archive)

Although over 80 percent of the population declare themselves to be devout Muslims, Uzbekistan is also a tolerant country for other religious communities. One of the oldest is the Catholic community with around 600 members.

A six-lane road in Tashkent - Sadyk Asimov Street. The tall gray cathedral in neo-Gothic style rises in the middle of the Uzbek - Soviet prefabricated building landscape. The church is over 100 years old. It was completed 10 years ago thanks to donations from the Vatican, Germany and the USA.

The inside of the church is pleasantly cool. In the aisles - modern sculptures. The glaring sunlight falls through the windows and lets the colorful stained glass shine brightly.

The new organ is overwhelming with its powerful sound, which is very unusual in this region. The organ concerts in the cathedral are very popular with the Tashkent audience, says Archbishop Ezhi Mazulewitsch.

"In Tashkent our cathedral is known as a concert venue. We are aware that we will remain a minority here forever, and it is important that the Muslims of us are not afraid, do not consider us a sect - this is how we organize organ concerts , Choral concerts with spiritual music by Bach, Handel and Mozart, which are very popular in the city. "

Archbishop Ezhi Mazulewitsch comes from Poland and belongs to the order of the Black Franciscans. There are a total of 9 brothers who look after five congregations in the predominantly Muslim Uzbekistan. However, Mazulevich has never experienced a hostile atmosphere:

"I often take the train from Tashkent to Samarkand, in the train compartment I often meet Muslims. They are very interested in how we pray, what we believe in. Uzbekistan has always been a melting pot of cultures, around 80 nationalities still live here today . And - 100 years ago there were around 11,000 Catholics here in Turkestan! "

The General Government of Turkestan was established in the 1870s. So the Uzbek territory became the southernmost border province of the Russian empire. The first Christians came to the country with the Russian army - mostly Russian Orthodox, but also Lutherans and Catholics.

At the beginning of the XX. In the 19th century there were around 9,000 Poles in Tashkent alone. In 1910 they began to build their own cathedral - but it was not completed. With the October Revolution of the Bolsheviks in 1917, all religious practice was banned. Turkestan became the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, the half-finished cathedral - a warehouse. However, the Catholic faith was secretly practiced in the families, recalls the Polish parishioner Ewgenij Gus.

"My grandmother taught my mother the faith herself, so to speak. I often saw them praying together. But she didn't pass it on to us, her grandchildren. After all, grandmother came through all this Soviet times and was afraid that we would , at that time still small children, could gossip to us in school that we believe in God or something. Nevertheless, we somehow unconsciously kept this tradition of faith in us, and when the Catholic community was founded here in 1991, my mother and brother belonged there to the first members. In 1993 I came to the church too. "

A new era began for the Church in the USSR with perestroika and glasnost. In 1987 the first Catholic parish in Uzbekistan was founded in the city of Ferghana. After that, communities emerged in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Urgench. However, the new parishioners know surprisingly little about religion, says Archbishop Jezhi Mazulewitsch:

"We don't have a Christian culture like in the West, where everyone knows something about Christianity. Here, Islam is the most important religion. Add to that 70 years of total atheism in the Soviet Union. Our people may have heard that there is Christmas, that one celebrates Easter. But how to do it - they don't know. For example, many ask why I wear black as a priest and what this piece of plastic on my neck means ... "

Everyone who wants to join the Catholic community has to complete one and a half years of religious instruction. Every year around 20 new members are baptized in Uzbekistan. But because many Poles and Germans from Russia emigrate, the community hardly grows. But it doesn't shrink either:

"There are many Russian-speaking people here, for example the grandfather is a Tatar, the grandmother is Ukrainian, the mother has a Russian inscription in her passport, the father is Uzbek. A real mix of nationalities! In Soviet times, such people did not belong On religion, now they are looking for faith in their souls - and then come to us. "

Guitar and drums are practiced in the cellar of Tashkent Cathedral - one of the Franciscan brothers gives music lessons here. 16-year-old Samwel Petrosjans comes here to learn to play the guitar. But the young Armenian has also taken part in the Catholic service:

Suras Sarkisjan: "" I like it here very much, the archbishop is friendly to us, also the other priests. It is fun to talk to them. The young people who come here are also different than usual in the city I have friends outside the church too, but the people here are just nicer. ""

Archbishop Mazulevich is building on this youth work. And in contact with Uzbek society. It is very important that the majority of Uzbeks notice the presence of the Catholic Church in the first place. Above all, the archbishop seeks contacts with Islamic clergymen.

The Islamic University in Tashkent often sends its students to him to learn about Catholicism on the spot. Schoolchildren also come to the Tashkent Cathedral as part of religious instruction. So good neighborly relations? Yes, says the Archbishop - as long as no Muslims convert to the Catholic faith:

"There is a law here that prohibits proselytizing. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the Islamic clergy are friendly but firm in emphasizing that it is undesirable for Uzbeks to become Catholics.

They should preserve their Islamic culture and tradition. Here belief is determined based on the nation. A Pole is always a Catholic, a Russian is Russian Orthodox, a German is either Evangelical Lutheran or Catholic. And an Uzbek is always Muslim. "

There are 600 Catholic parishioners all over Uzbekistan, around half of whom live in Tashkent. Many nations - members of the embassies, foreign entrepreneurs, South Korean employees of the Daewoo automobile factory, which produces in Uzbekistan, Russians, Poles ...

There are three services every Sunday - in Russian, English and Korean, and once a month in Polish. The new church will soon be inaugurated in Bukhara, a concert is being prepared in Urgench, the Sunday school needs new books ... Archbishop Eshi Mazulevich has a lot to do:

"I think we are still looking for our place here. This is not Europe and not even Africa, where there are many believers and too few priests. We often start here with one person, with a family. And our task is to keep going Now we are only sowing. But I believe the time will come when we will reap the fruits. "