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Muslims are one of Russia’s indigenous peoples

Note: this article is from the International Mission Study: Russia, an annual missions study for individuals and churches. To view and purchase the IMS, click here.

When most people think of Russia, they may conjure up images of Romanov royalty; a parade of dictators like Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev; or maybe cultural icons such as Mikhail Baryshnikov or Dostoyevsky. What doesn’t come to mind is Muslims.

However, Muslims are one of Russia’s indigenous peoples. Many of these indigenous Muslim peoples have their roots in the North Caucasus, an area between the Black and Caspian Seas situated on the northern slopes of the mountain range that generally separates Europe from Asia. These people groups include Circassians, Chechens, the Ingush, Dargins, Avars, and Lezgis. Within these wider groups, 45–50 subsets of people and even more languages exist.

Surveys put the number of Muslims across Russia at anywhere from 6–14 percent. Many Muslims reside in Moscow, making it the largest Muslim city in Europe. It’s also one of the oldest. According to Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of Russia’s Council of Muftis, Islam spread into what became the Russian Empire in the tenth century—66 years ahead of Christianity. “Islam is a religion of native peoples in Russia and a traditional religion of this country,” he said. In fact, 89 Muslim people groups were living on the soil of Russia before it became Russia.

Arabs, Byzantines, Mongols, Persians, Tatars, Turks, Nazis, and Russians have all fought over the Caucasus region of southeast Europe. Its fame stretches back even to antiquity. In Greek mythology, fire was created there and Prometheus was chained in its mountains.

Today it is unequaled as a modern-day Babel, as within the relatively small area, more than 45 languages are spoken, with more than 100 dialects. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder reported that it took
 80 interpreters to carry on business in the Caucasus. Centuries later, Arab geographers labeled the region “Mountain of Languages.”

The plethora of languages and the absence of local believers have made Scripture translation very difficult. While in their homeland villages, many of the Caucasus peoples live and work in virtual isolation, preserving the unique and varied cultures but also keeping them from hearing the name of Jesus.

Alex* is a Balkar man who became a believer after Stalin exiled his people to a Central Asian country in 1944. He returned to his homeland in the Caucasus and lived as the only known Balkar believer for more than 30 years. During that period, he began translating the Scripture from the Russian language into his mother tongue. Twenty years later, he had completed translations of the New Testament and several Old Testament books. There are now 37 known Balkar believers.

Many Caucasus people still do not have any Scripture or gospel material in their heart language. But in God’s providence, many from this generation are emerging from those isolated villages to live and work in the bigger cities, making them easier to reach. Although the circumstances are often difficult for these migrants, Christian workers recognize the open door God is giving them to share the gospel of Christ with those who have never heard. They are praying that they can reach into the nooks and crannies of the Islamic villages of the Caucasus with the gospel through these gateway cities.

“God has given Russia the ‘Sale of the Century,’ “ said Elizabeth*, a Christian worker among Muslims in Moscow. “God says, ‘If you can’t go to them, I’ll bring them to you.’ There’s no better time to be in the former Soviet Union. God is moving Muslims right under our noses.”

*Names changed.

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