70 Stories: Avazbek Atakhanov and Religious Freedom

How has religious oppression affected Kyrgyzstan?

Religious oppression has impacted the lives of the people of Kyrgyzstan for longer than we can tell. Despite nearly a decade since the fall of the Soviet Union, the consequences on religious freedom of 70 years of living under Soviet rule were still undeniable in 2000. 

Journey to Religious Freedom: Kyrgyz Delegates in Kansas City

What brought Kyrgyz delegates to Kansas City?

Kyrgyz delegates visited Kansas City to learn about religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance in the United States on an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) coordinated by the International Visitors Council of Greater Kansas City, now Global Ties KC.

Avazbek Atakhanov was one of the delegates handpicked by the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan to learn about the First Amendment freedoms and the separation of church and state in the United States. 

“It was a difficult time and a period of great loss for us… Islam was forbidden, and many clergymen were killed, and mosques were destroyed,” reflected Atakhanov in an interview with The Kansas City Star. 

The religious oppression experience was not unique to just the Kyrgyz people, other Muslim communities endured the same hardship. There were 25,000 mosques across the Russian Empire before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, with only 500 remaining by the 1970s in the U.S.S.R. With this background in mind, Atakhanov came to Kansas City to familiarize himself “with the religious situation in the US, learn about Islam here and, if possible, establish contacts and relationships.” 

What did Avazbek Atakhanov learn about religious freedom in the U.S.?

Avazbek Atakhanov’s Quest for Religious Freedom

Avazbek was immediately impressed by the religious freedom and openness he encountered in the Heartland, engaging with Muslim and Methodist leaders, including the former Methodist pastor and a future Kansas City household name—Emanuel Cleaver II. He even felt a kinship with Kansas City and its people, finding resemblances to his own home. 

“Kansas City reminds us of our second-largest city, Osh,” Avazbek stated. “It reminds us because of the hospitality and culture. There is a river that divides Kansas City and a river that divides Osh as well.”

From Inspiration to Action: Avazbek’s Influence on U.S. Policy

Other than the Missouri River, Avazbek’s visit was anything but divisive. His passion for religious freedom was shared by U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II—who went on to help form the International Religious Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives only a year into his tenure. 

Consequently, Avazbek returned to his country inspired by his experience in Kansas City and would later become Deputy Foreign Minister in Kyrgyzstan.

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