Religious hatred and violence are now a sorrowful fact of life, with the killing of Catholic nuns in Yemen on March 4 being only the most recent tragic example. It is a rarity these days to come across a story that offers a ray of hope for those believers or persons of goodwill who desire nothing more than harmony between peoples, whatever their ethnic or religious background may be. But such is the case, described by a recent report from Vatican Radio, in the central Asian country of Turkmenistan, where a tiny—but growing—community of Catholics has taken root.
Historically, Turkmenistan has been known as one of the major stops along the “Silk Road,” that famous trade route between the West and the East. Today, Turkmenistan is a nation of about 5 million people, bordered by the Caspian Sea to the west and by formerly Communist states Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to its north and east. To its south, it has Iran and Afghanistan for neighbors. Given the country’s small Catholic community was almost wiped out by conquering Bolshevik revolutionaries a century ago, it is remarkable to see Catholicism is being resurrected in the former Soviet Republic.
As the Vatican Radio report relates, what Catholic presence there was was due to the remnant of Polish Catholic families from the World War II era. By the 1990s, the Holy See saw the opportunity to start afresh when two priests of the Order of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were dispatched there as diplomatic representatives. They were given that designation because there was no other way they could have been allowed into the majority Muslim country (Muslims make up 89 percent, Orthodox make up 9 percent and non-practicing or non-believers make up the final 2 percent).
The priests, Andrej Madej, O.M.I., and Radoslaw Zmitrowicz, O.M.I., began in 1997 to set up (with the help of a layman) a small Catholic community in the national capital of Ashgabat. In time, the group of 15-20 people grew to form three faith communities of about 200 people today (with a third priest assisting now).
The Superior General of the Oblates, Father Louis Lougen, who visited the country to see for himself how Catholicism was faring, found pleasant surprises and grounds for great hope. While there, he encountered a Muslim woman who found faith in Jesus. As she said (through a translator): “We discovered a God of love, compassion, and mercy, and we never knew this kind of God before.” Her husband, also a Muslim, was so moved by his wife’s transformation that he, too, is making that spiritual journey with her.
And that wasn’t the only thing that the Oblate Superior General saw. He also witnessed ecumenism in action between Orthodox, evangelicals and Catholics. The evangelicals, for example, while meeting in the Divine Mercy chapel, somehow had an acquaintance and knowledge of St. Eugene de Mazenod (the French-born founder of the Oblate order). They spied the crucifix that Father Lougen held and one of them took it and held it up, exclaiming that through St. Eugene’s intercession, he was dedicating Turkmenistan to Jesus. And as to the Orthodox, Father Lougen noted they have become more friendly toward Catholics thanks to the personality and charisma of Father Madej, whose openness and charity helped chip away the wariness and distrust that have usually been the case between the two faiths.
It is heartening to read of such good news in a time when religion is either being denigrated or used for nefarious political purposes. In Turkmenistan, we are seeing the opposite: The goodwill that is fostered there gives the lie to the view that people of different faiths cannot come together to acknowledge their common humanity and bear the daily burdens of life together. Important, too, is the fact that no one is being coerced into believing or embracing a faith other than their own. Those who advance religion through violence perverse the true meaning of faith, which is to be freely given and freely shared.
These small faith communities of Turkmenistan can serve as a model for the universal church and for society generally. In a world that is constantly—and scandalously—racked by religious hatred and violence, it is a positive sign that there is a place where people are lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness. And given the violent temper of the times, we are in a great need of more light and less heat.