Kyrgyzstan - Religion

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A religious temple, and people praying

The majority of the people in Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz (53% of the population) and the Uzbeks (13% of the population) as well as smaller ethnic minorities, are Sunni Muslims. The Russians (18-20%) are either atheist or Russian Orthodox; a small minority of Germans, are Protestant Christians, mostly Lutherans or Baptists.

The state of Kyrgyzstan is officially a secular state, although there is some agitation in the South, to proclaim Islam as the state religion. Islam came to the Kyrgyz tribes during the 9th and 12th centuries during which time it mingled with the traditional tribal shamanistic and animistic cults. During the 17th century, the Jungar tribe drove the Kyrgyzstan from their home in the Tian Shan Mountain region, into the Fergana Valley; the population in this area was totally Islamic and this had a great influence on the Kyrgyz. However, with the collapse of the Jungars, the Kyrgyz migrated back into their homeland and the influence of Islam weakened. When the area was conquered by the Quqon Khanate in the 18th century, most of the Kyrgyz remained fairly aloof from the official Islamic practices of this regime. However, by the 19th century, most Kyrgyz were nominally at least, Islamic.

Along with Islam, however, the Kyrgyz tribes continued to practice the traditional shamanistic religion of most of the Central Asian tribes. They recognized connections between man and the rest of the natural world in a variety of ways. One such recognition involved the practice of totemism, the adoption of animals, such as reindeer, camels, snakes, owls, and bears, as object of worship. Different families and clans would be affiliated with different animals, who acted as protector deities, as well as conduits to greater spirits. These tribes practiced shamanism, that is, the reliance upon the spiritual power of shamans or healers to contact spirits and to intervene in the spirit world for healing and good fortune. These shamans also had the power to conduct "black magic" that is, to use spiritual forces to harm enemies of the clan or tribe. The natural world, including the heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon, and stars, also played a role in the religious practices. These tribes believed in animism, that is, the belief that all animate and inanimate objects, such as rocks, trees, mountains, rivers, etc, contained a spirit which could help or harm one. Many of these beliefs can be found today intermingled with more traditional Islamic beliefs. These practices are stronger in the north, among those who have retained stronger ties to their nomadic past.

Knowledge of and practice of Islam is stronger in the south, around the city of Osh, than in the north and it is from this city that calls have come for stronger Islamic ties with other states. When the constitution was created in 1993, it mandated that Kyrgyzstan remain a secular state and forbade the intrusion of any ideology or religion in the conduct of state business. At the time this constitution was passed, a small minority wanted Islam to be made the state religion. As is the case with the other Central Asian Republics, the government and people of Kyrgyzstan have been concerned about the potential of a fundamentalist Islam revolution that would emulate Iran and Afghanistan by making Islam a feature of state policy. The President of Kyrgyzstan has taken particular steps to reassure the Russian and German populations that no such revolution will take place. The Russians and Germans form a large part of the educated and skilled workforce which the country needs; their continued out-migration is feared. Thus the President has visited Bishkek's main Russian Orthodox Church and contributed 1 million rubles from the state treasury to the church building fund. He has also appropriated funds to build a German cultural center. The country tries to balance its religions by recognizing a variety of holidays. Orthodox Christmas is a national holiday as is the Muslim Oroz ait (the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting) and Kurban ait (June 13, the Day of Remembrance) and the Muslim New year, which falls on the vernal equinox.

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