(See updates below)
It's been interesting to see the reactions to the LDS Church's announcement of a new Central Eurasian Mission. Some people seem to think anyone who is sent here will die (to which I'd say that I'd far rather my child were sent to Tashkent, which isn't even possible, than to the Mexican border, which is entirely possible). Some people are all excited about the Lost Tribes which is just weird. But I have a whole lot of other thoughts about this.
This isn't the first time a mission has been created in a Muslim-majority country- there's been a mission in Indonesia for 40 years, for example. It's also certainly not the first time a country with no branches or missionaries has been included in a mission. But it's definitely unusual to create a mission in a place where there are currently only a handful of missionaries, 5 or 6 branches total which have a lot of temporary expats in them, and absolutely no prospect of missionaries going into 3 of the seven countries* and almost no chance of their going into two more any time soon.
The boundaries are also interesting but logical. Some people have been surprised that it's geographically divided, but putting Georgia and Armenia in this mission isn't at all logical for so many reasons. I'm delighted to see what is basically a Turkic mission (plus Tajikistan which can't join its Iranic neighbors since those two countries are Afghanistan and Iran). Turkey allowed missionaries to enter the country in 2012 and was attached to Bulgaria which was fine geographically but not linguistically. Kazakhstan has had missionaries since the early 2000s, a branch in Almaty since before that, and a branch was opened in 2012 in Astana after rumors of its starting since at least 2006. Russian still dominates in much of Kazakhstan but Kazakh is making a comeback and the missionaries there have been learning some Kazakh and not just Russian. Kazakhstan has always been tacked on to a mission in Russia which is logical politically in many ways, but that also meant its unique history was easily overlooked. Kazakhs are culturally, religiously, linguistically, and ethnically not closely related to Russians.
The Turkish and Kazakh languages are reasonably closely related though. The standard divisions have Kazakh and Kyrgyz being quite similar to each other; Uzbek and Uyghur to each other; and Turkish, Azeri, and Turkmen to each other, especially as you get farther east in Turkey. My husband speaks Uzbek and Uyghur and is able to communicate with Turkish speakers reasonably well. It's certainly much easier to switch between Kazakh and Turkish than Russian and Turkish, although I suspect missionaries will serve in one country or the other and that Russian will still dominate in Kazakhstan.**
Because, and this another important point, there are almost no church materials of any type in any of the native languages of this region. The Book of Mormon is in Turkish, there are some odds and ends of things in Kazakh, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz, but that's all. Russian, however, is one of the major languages of the Church and almost everything is in Russian. It's a very strong second language (and sometimes a first language) in much of Central Asia, but if we're looking for the language of the heart, it isn't it. I hope that this mission leads to more church materials in Kazakh at least, but even that may be too much to hope for.
I am a million times delighted about this mission, not really because of the missionary work because I think that will be very slow there, but because I hope that this means that the very isolated local members (I'm not talking about expats here) will be able to get more support from the church now. Mission presidents have a lot of things they're dealing with but one of their major responsibilities is to help members who aren't in a regular unit. There aren't that many Mormons in Central Asia, but they've been so alone for a long time, some for well over a decade.
I sincerely hope the mission president*** will speak a Turkic language. If his wife did too, all the better. Or she could speak Russian and be a contact for the isolated members. Wishful thinking.
Also, I want the leaders there to know that Islam is much more a cultural and ethnic identity in Central Asia than a religious one. A person can be a Muslim and a Mormon there, just like someone can be a Jew and a Mormon. Central Asia is a very unique part of the Muslim world with its recent Soviet history and its long nomadic history and it's not just an extension of the Arab Middle East or Persia (except for Tajikistan).
I hope for leaders who understand the very unique challenges this mission will face and missionaries who are willing to immerse themselves in one of the most isolated, misunderstood, and amazing parts of the world.
*The DesNews article about the mission made a mistake, although I don't know which mistake it made. The graphic showing the mission boundary included Turkmenistan but the written list of included countries didn't. I'm including Turkmenistan in my head but if it's not part of the mission, then there's no prospect of missionaries going into 2 of the 6 countries.
**ETA that it appears that missionaries are either being assigned to the Kazakhstan or Turkey region and I assume they will learn the appropriate language and spend their entire mission in one country. That will make it easy to deal with visas and also the necessary permits in Kazakhstan.
***ETA that even though it seems that it still hasn't been officially announced even though the mission is now supposed to be functioning, the mission president is apparently Jim Toronto. He speaks Arabic but I don't believe he speaks Russian or any Turkic language. ETA again that Bro. and Sis. Toronto are reported to have been delayed in getting to Turkey and establishing the mission and that the mission may not have been established as of nearly the end of July.
ETA that if you or someone you know has been called to go to Kazakhstan, there are lots of resources here about living in Central Asia. Here are posts about everyday life in Central Asia, all kinds of interesting things about life there, photos of daily life in Central Asia, food in Central Asia, and some of the reasons why I loved living there with my family and hope to return soon.
It's been about a year since the mission was announced an a little less than that since it opened. There aren't a lot of missionaries in the mission and it's difficult to learn much about the mission since the people serving there are so careful about what they blog about.
One issue that the Turkey area of the mission is having is the restricted movement of refugees. Since Turkey has such a large number of refugees, some have been taught in the last year. The new agreement between Turkey and the EU severely restricts refugees' ability to move or even travel within Turkey so that can make it difficult to arrange for baptisms or for people to attend sacrament meeting.
While US refugee policies don't really affect this situation, the overall attitude in the world toward refugees is hampering missionary work in Turkey and other parts of the world. While that is certainly not the point of the church's new refugee relief effort, this is one more reason it would be helpful for members of the church to do all they can do ease the refugee crisis.
Please keep in mind the many isolated members living in this mission. Some joined the church many years ago and still have very limited contact with the church because of geography.
Also, keep in mind the language needs in this mission. Officially the missionaries learn Turkish and Russian, but there are also Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Arabic, Farsi and more speakers in this mission.
Stephen R. Davis has been announced as the new mission president, probably replacing Jim Toronto in July of this year. Even though mission presidents generally serve for three years, some serve for two in certain parts of the world. I don't know anything about the new president's background or if he or his wife have any experience in the Middle East or Central Asia.
Stephen R. Davis' bio has been published.