Hania Lubienska, a Jesuit Mission’s worker visited Kyrgyzstan meeting with other Jesuits in the aim of helping them deal with their social problems. They found it was hard to live as a Catholic as religious laws are getting stricter and life for priests are especially hard. This story describes how summer camps run by the Jesuits for Catholic young people and interfaith camps for Muslims allow faith to continue to blossom amongst young people.
JM’s Hania Lubienska recently visited Kyrgyzstan where she met up with British volunteer, Martin McKinney and some of the Jesuits of the country. The people of Kyrgyzstan have tremendous challenges; but they are being helped to rediscover their faith and deal with their many social problems.
Bordering China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan has the breathtakingly beautiful Tien Shan mountain range running across the country. A predominantly Muslim nation it contains many ethnic groups including Kyrgyzs, Uzbeks, Russians, Uyghurs and Eastern Europeans. Although the country remains mostly peaceful, tensions do break out between the ethnic groups. Religious laws are also getting stricter, making life difficult for the Catholic priests. Most of them are only granted visas for three months, and some of them are currently living precariously without visas.
I arrived in the early hours of the morning at Bishkek airport, where I was greeted with broad smiles by Martin (our JM volunteer) and Brother Damian, and driven to the Jesuit residence, situated in a communist-style drab residential block of flats. A short time later, we drove to the Catholic ‘Cathedral’ situated in some back streets in the suburbs of Bishkek which in fact turned out to be a small chapel. The Church in Kyrgyzstan has suffered from serious underfunding, so consequently it does not have a visible presence in the country. Apart from a couple of chapels, most Catholics have to meet in each other’s small homes for Mass. Consequently the majority of the Kyrgyz population view the Catholic church as a sect, or have never heard of it.
The identity and faith of Catholics have been seriously attacked over the last 60 years during the Communist rule. The Catholic population mainly consists of ancestors of people who were forcibly exiled there by Stalin. They were not allowed to practice their faith openly, so Catholicism was forced underground, without the support of priests. Many of them are keen to resurrect their faith, but actually have little understanding of it and need to be catechised. Although there were some existing Catholic churches in Kyrgyzstan, they were all abandoned. Whilst in Dzalalabad, I came across a ruined Catholic church which is now, sadly, a kick-boxing stadium.
Some of the priests are seriously overworked, trying to meet all of the needs of the people as well as establishing a clear Catholic presence. A parish managed by one priest consists of around 30 outlying villages to which he has to minister, which has about 300 parishioners. Although there is one small chapel with room for 30 parishioners inside plus 15 people in the hallway, all of the other Masses take place in private houses. Because the parish is so disparate and has no central chapel for congregating, the priest has to drive 50,000 km each year, down potholed roads, to fulfil his duties as parish priest. Because of the logistics of running this parish, he has to spread out the Sunday Mass over several days.
There are many social problems experienced by the parishioners, and life is very hard for them. Single parent families, alcoholism, traumatised ex-soldiers who fought in Afghanistan are but some of the problems he has to deal with. But there is also a sign of great hope.
Summer camps run by the Jesuits for Catholic young people and interfaith camps for Muslims are inspiring a thirst for faith in the youth. Outreach work in prisons, work in orphanages and homes for people with disabilities are witnessing to Catholic social justice.
The outreach work, however, is difficult because conditions are extremely basic. Most places do not have WC’s or washrooms. The homes for people with disabilities do not have sufficient resources and frequently only one wheelchair is available, meaning that patients have to drag their bodies along the floor to get around.
Plans are afoot to build a Spirituality Centre for retreats and outreach work, as well as a couple of new chapels, providing sufficient funds are raised. The Spirituality Centre will provide a much-needed base for the Youth Summer Camps, as well as holidays for the disabled and a place for retreats and for the Catholic Community to gather. The Youth Camps provide a wonderful combination of spiritual and outdoor activities, an experience that will influence them for the rest of their lives.
The Society of Jesus – also known as the Jesuits – is a religious order of men – priests and brothers – within the Catholic Church. They are engaged in a wide variety of works: there are Jesuit parish priests, spiritual directors, writers and teachers, but also actors, lawyers, doctors, sculptors and astronomers. Jesuits support communities in poor parts of the world as well as refugees and asylum seekers in Britain and overseas.
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