Fr. Johannes Kahn, S.J. has spent decades doing pastoral work in various countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia as well as Russia. For almost ten years, he served a small Catholic minority in Kyrgyzstan. In February 2021, he spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

How did you come to faith during Soviet times?

The faith was instilled in me by my mother and grandmother. We often prayed in our family, before meals, before going to bed, but also in between. There were no priests in northern Kazakhstan where we lived. This changed when my family moved to Central Kazakhstan in 1978. Mass was held regularly, and my faith grew stronger. I came to realize that I wanted to become a priest. After completing the two years of compulsory military service in the Soviet army, I was able to enter the seminary.

The faith and the military: how did that go together?

In the military, being a person of faith was not without risk, but I was fortunate: I was able to pray a great deal during this time. Furthermore, as an ethnic German living in Russia, I was prohibited from handling weapons during my service, which I was fine with. I worked not only in the office, but also as a lorry driver. They often deliberately assigned me to work on Christian feast days.

Father Kahn

What happened after you finished your military service?

After I was discharged, I entered the only Catholic seminary in the former Soviet Union, in Latvia. The seminarians joined from all republics of the Soviet Union. On March 1, 1991, I decided to become a Jesuit. I spent several years in Latvia before the order sent me to Innsbruck (Austria) to study at the university. After completing my degree, I was sent back East. First to Tajikistan, then on to Siberia (Novosibirsk), later to Kazakhstan and finally for a longer period to Kyrgyzstan.

Why Kyrgyzstan?

My older brother Alexander Kahn, who is a theologian and a Jesuit, was the superior in Kyrgyzstan. He was looking for priests because there weren’t enough of them there. That is how I ended up in that magnificent country with mountains soaring up to 23,000 feet and lots of sunshine. The Catholics live scattered across the entire country as a small minority of about 1000 families. They are a heterogenous group, which also includes Korean and Russian Catholics. In total, there are eight priests, one religious brother and six sisters. There would be more, but for months they have been prohibited from entering Kyrgyzstan because of COVID-19 entry restrictions. Up until now, there have not been any vocations in the country itself.

Does religious freedom exist?

In theory, yes, but, in reality, not always. There are major administrative hurdles that must be overcome to be recognized as a religious community. You must prove that the community meets the minimum membership requirement, which the Catholics do not. Pastoral workers from outside the country always must be prepared that their residence permits may be revoked. The freedom to celebrate divine services is also restricted, which has nothing to do with the protective measures in place because of the pandemic.

Catholics are tolerated, but many obstacles are put in our path. There is only a single Catholic church in all of Kyrgyzstan, the Chapel of Brother Klaus in Talas. To date, the construction of additional churches has not been approved. However, increasingly, signs seem to indicate that the Church will soon be granted approval to build a church in the capital city of Bishkek. Muslims, who make up 80 percent of the population, and Russian Orthodox Christians do not experience any restrictions. Russia still exerts a great deal of influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union; a fact that is very much to the advantage of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Why the reservations against Catholics?

The Catholic Church holds a difficult position in Russia and thus also in Kyrgyzstan. It is not valued because it is actively involved in social welfare. This angers Russia and so the Russian state puts pressure on the Catholic Church also via Kyrgyzstan. Furthermore, there are also radical Muslims in Kyrgyzstan who are opposed to anything and everything that is not Muslim. Money is being pumped into the country by Turkey and Pakistan to promote a more radical interpretation of Islam. Up until now, Kyrgyzstan has always been considered peaceful and tolerant.

What kind of work does ACN do there?

The charity supports the pastoral workers with subsistence aid. New vehicles are regularly needed because the priests must travel long distances. In the winter, the temperatures can drop to -40°F, which makes good and robust cars absolutely vital. 

How would you assess the political situation?

Presidential elections were held in early January 2021, and the new president, Sadyr Shaparov, won 79 percent of the vote. No one knows what to expect from him. In the past, Kyrgyzstan was a peaceful and hospitable country. We hope that this will not change while Shaparov holds power.

—Ivo Schürmann