The Steep Ascent







The Steep Ascent

The Story of the Christian Church in Turkestan

by Rachel O. Wingate






































Price Sixpence


















They climbed the steep ascent to heaven

Through peril, toil, and pain;

0 God, to us may grace be given

To follow in their train.





























For the story told here, I am indebted to the first-hand evidence of those who took part.  I was an honorary missionary in the Swedish Missionaiy Society (Svenska Missionsförbundet) in Turkestan for four-and-a-half years.  The events of 1932 onwards, which took place after I had left the country, have been reported much more fully in accounts published in Sweden from time to time between 1933 and 1947, which in places I have supplemented with information sent me in private letters from my friends.

This is only a fragment of the story of the Swedish Missionary Society in Turkestan, which, over two generations, had above thirty missionaries in that country. We are apt to forget that there have been pioneer missionaries whose native language was not English; but so it was in this, the most successful mission to Muslims ever carried out.

R. O. W.

“I shall never die”


THURSDAY is market-day in Kashgar and the square is thronged. Temporary booths are set up with mounds of raisins, dried apricots or vegetables brought in by villagers from the surrounding oases, who want to take back pots and pans, stirrup leathers and pails. Sturdy Turkis in dark crimson or bright-striped padded coats, soft leather knee-boots over white trousers, and with velvet fur-edged caps on their shaven heads form the great majority in the crowd. Here and there, however, is a slim Chinese from the east, in blue cotton or silk; a Russian from the west, in blouse and peaked cap; a bearded Indian; or a slant-eyed, smoothly leather-faced Kirghiz of the Pamir, looking down from a double-humped camel. Donkeys are everywhere, laden with logs for fuel, or with panniers of carrots and melons, or peering out through huge bundles of lucerne (fodder) like small walking haystacks. On one side of the square is the great “Festival” mosque, the ‘Id Gah, which gives its name to the square. Bazaars lined with open shops lead off from every corner, and the Street of the Carpenters is the shortest way out of the city by the Gate of the Hanging Gardens. Kashgar is surrounded by a wall, pierced by four gates which are shut from sunset to sunrise except to those who carry a pass from the City Governor. Beyond the gates cluster the great caravanserais-for the caravan masters so often depart before dawn or arrive after dusk that they must be lodged outside the city; and there, too, are the workshops of the craftsmen and the small pedlars and bakers who serve the travellers needs. Beyond the suburbs is the oasis-five miles each way-ringed by the desert; and sixty miles off to west and south, glittering in the clear sky at dawn, are the ice peaks of the Karakoram and the Pamir, “the Roof of the World,” and to northwards the Tian Shan, the “Mountains of Heaven,” which wall Eastern Turkestan off from every other country. Such is Kashgar in Central Asia, built furthest from the sea of every city in the world.

One Thursday a young dervish, Ali Akhond, rode into Kashgar to do his weekly shopping. All the sights of the market-place he took for granted, but he halted abruptly in the crowd at something he overheard. A man in a dusty grey cloak was speaking to a group of young students, and saying,” “Yes, I shall never die.”

“That old man must be mad,” thought Ali. “So old and frail! If he thinks he is not going to die, he will soon learn his mistake!”

“Who is that chatting over there?” he asked an onlooker.

“The European? Oh, he is the Padre.”

“One of the hospital people?”

“No, his language is different.”

“Is he mad?”

“Oh, no, he is just a Christian.”

“But what does he mean by saying he is going to live for ever?”

“I don’t know: I expect he would like to.   So would we all, God bless us!  Are you wanting some brick tea?” and they moved away.

 With evening, the country roads were full of home-going villagers: some riding, some driving carts, some singing love-songs in the hot summer night to keep away jinn (evil sprites), or shouting guidance to their horses as the carts lurched in and out of irrigation channels dug unexpectedly across the side-roads. Until the dog began to bark and the farmer called on his wife to open the door, it was difficult to see a house even by moonlight, for all the windows were in the roof. But the room inside was attractive, the walls whitewashed, the alcoves, with shelves for bedding, picked out with gay painted flower-patterns; and bright rugs were spread on the platform which served as a bed by night or a sofa by day. Outside was a vine-shaded verandah where it was pleasant to sit drinking tea or smoking after work. Ali Akhond and his neighbours had each his own tiny farm. The loess soil of Turkestan is so rich that in many parts it will bear two crops a year without needing manure. Water came in the elaborate network of canals and channels from the neighbouring Red River. Food was plentiful and cheap. They grew wheat, maize, oats, many kinds of vegetables, great clusters of grapes that sold for a halfpenny a bunch, or melons like marrows in size and of the most luscious flavour. Loess mud packs easily into sun-baked bricks, so that, in a week’s work, any active man could build himself a small house nearly free of cost. Cotton grew in the fields below by the river, and wool came from the thousands of sheep that graze in the mountains. Life, though austere and simple, was pleasant in the tiny country villages. Most Turkis are of an independent, generous and gay disposition and their traditional way of life has many enviable features. In Islam there is a fundamental sense of the equality of all men before God which gives self-respect and dignity, and the social graces of life are learnt and practiced by all.

The day began as the cocks were crowing for the second time before dawn, and the muezzin called the Faithful, “Come to prayer, prayer is better than sleep. I bear witness that God is One, and Muhammad is the Apostle of God.” Then the scent of burning willow-wood hung in the still dawn air, as the women cooked the morning tea and the men tended their farm beasts.

The last of the five brief formal prayers of the day came after sunset, but Ali Akhond, and many like him, wanted to do more than observe the minimum requirements of their religion. They wanted power over their own lives, and the dervish orders taught that by following certain techniques during contemplation, the reason could be temporarily laid asleep and the soul liberated to realize its union with God. But God seemed far off: how could He care for so insignificant a part of His creation? How, too, could a man expect to live uprightly and to realize anything of the presence of God while his daily work had to be done, and his share of a man’s duties towards the community?

If only family life were not so restless and so uncertain! Ali was young and his wife was a quiet girl and seemed contented as yet. In the country they all worked together, and were not so likely to think a change of partners might be an improvement. But Ali was always having to advise or help his city friends. This one was jealous, and suspected a neighbour of sending messages to entice his wife to transfer her good cooking to a richer home. That one had got into trouble with the Chinese police for knifing a rival. A third was intending to divorce his childless wife as soon as he could hear of a good successor, and meanwhile she was pilfering everything of his she could get her hands on, against the day when a nest-egg would help her to a new husband. Then there were the expenses of those who had two wives and two households, and the miseries of those who had rashly attempted to have two wives in one household; besides many who had a divorced mother or mother-in-law living in their homes and interfering.

Thank God, it was more peaceful in the country. Divorces happened there too, of course, but marriages lasted much longer, and occasionally one might even meet an accidentally happy couple who had stayed together all their lives. But Ali could see no alternative way of life.

Marriage was a necessary experience. Islam taught that men and women had duties to society, and ought not to seek escape in celibacy or free love. Even with marriage, three in four of the whole population suffered from the social diseases, so there were many who had lost babies and many were disfigured for life. There were forlorn children too, but that seemed inevitable. As the country rhyme had it

“If they call you, Orphan, remember God decreed it.”

“If your parents parted, ‘Twas fore-ordained of God.”

A curtain hung between God and man; and yet man must long to know what lay beyond in that eternal world.

Ali Akhond decided to take a job in the city where he could hear lectures on Islam. He left his old father and his wife at the farm, and moved into Kashgar. All his spare time he spent among the dervishes and in due course he was initiated into the outer circle of a dervish order.

Time went on. In 1906, Ali noticed that the old Dutch priest, Abbe Hendriks, died and was buried in the Russian graveyard, and he remembered with pity that strange hope of living for ever.

Then it happened one day that a friend suggested, “Let’s go and have a look at the Swedish Mission outside the Sand Gate.” There was the usual throng of patient’s friends sitting on the canal bridge by the hospital, and someone who knew the place well asked if they would like to see the compositors at work in the printing press. Ali Akhond could read and was interested in what he saw. Next he went over with them to watch the Europeans say their evening prayers in the church. They not only prayed, they sang, and the singing was accompanied by a comic sort of accordion that seemed to be played with the feet as well as the hands.

Presently a man stood up to read “Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.”

”Never see death!” Ali Akhond was startled. Here was the same incomprehensible word, uttered this time by a big, red-haired man in the prime of life. He looked up, and his eyes fell on the words, “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

“What do these Nazarenes believe?” he wondered. He had thought they were polytheists who worshipped a goddess, but every Muslim accepts that God is One and that Jesus Christ was a prophet. He decided to hear more about this.

One of the missionaries, seeing he could read, offered him a Gospel as he left. Ali took it home and read it over and over again. But one day someone happened to see him absorbed in a book and said, “What have you got there?”

“The Gospel,” said Ali.

“Good gracious, you mustn’t read that!” the man exclaimed, snatching the book and throwing it into the fire.

“Do you call that the way to treat a holy book?” asked Ali. But the man only swore at him and walked off.

Ali went to the Mission again and asked for another Gospel. This time he read it in secret. But when he thought he would like to discuss it with a friend the latter tore it up in haste, saying, “If you read that it will turn you into an infidel.”

Ali Akhond was not satisfied. He got himself yet another Gospel, and began to slip away on Sundays to go to church and hear it explained. Presently he gave notice to his employer and took a temporary job helping with some building that was going on at the Mission hospital: to help the sick could not be an evil action.

Meanwhile he watched the life of the missionaries closely, and quite enjoyed sharing their festivals. When the hospital rebuilding was finished, Ali Akhond took other local jobs. He could not but be impressed by the happy family relationships of the Swedes, and often discussed them with his friends. Their houses were peaceful; husband and wife had a mutual confidence which gave each so much more leisure and peace and encouragement in the service of God than anything he had ever seen before. Their neighbours in the Sand Gate suburb would frankly admit that the Swedes were a credit to their religion and an example to their Muslim friends in spite of being darkened Christians.

After a number of years it began to occur to Ali Akhond that the Swedes successful married life, their unselfishness, truthfulness and honesty might be due to obeying the teaching of Christ; so he began to try to follow that teaching himself. Then, perhaps to emphasize that he was nevertheless a true Muslim, he took a secondary wife according to the law of Islam. This meant having a second household in the city. His new wife was quite independent of his first wife and her son, and was not friendly towards Ali’s interest in Christianity.

About a year later he realized that though he still believed that God is One, and still believed that Muhammad was a great prophet, he now knew for certain that Christ was alive and that Christ was God. He saw the terrible thing that faced him. He would be cut off by his own people. But even so he decided that in common honesty he must throw in his lot with the despised Nazarenes. He parted from his secondary wife, making provision for her and undertaking to support their little son who stayed with his mother. Then he asked to be prepared for baptism. He was not the only Turki Christian. A number of others had come gradually to similar conclusions, and men of very varied ages and temperaments and from different walks in life were baptized within a few years of each other.

In some cases the wife was baptized with her husband, but Ali Akhond’s wife did not approve the step he had taken. She did appreciate, however, that she now held her position for life if she wished it and could never be dismissed. She took advantage of this and for some years the house-keeping was slovenly and very uncomfortable. But at last she was won by her husbandıs kindliness under conditions that no Muslim would ever have tolerated. She was converted and their home became a peaceful place.


The Church Grows

 Ali and his fellow-Christians were closely watched by all their neighbours who saw that, in spite of difficulties and even persecution, they were much happier as Christians. Their example won their friends and the church began to grow fast, so that during the years between 1919 and 1939 the adult communicant members of the Christian church of the country grew to number over two hundred, almost every one a convert from Islam; and if their children be included the Christian community had about five hundred members. At this time there were more than thirty missionaries in the Swedish Mission in Turkestan (Sinkiang in Chinese).

In 1928 there was a baptism which attracted much attention at Kashgar, when a young man of twenty-six, Yusuf Ryeknan, whose father had been a prominent Shi’ah mullah, openly confessed his faith in Christ. Yusuf’s father had come to Turkestan from a Shi’ah Muslim district across the Indian frontier, and Yusuf Ryekhan claimed British nationality. So, though he had to struggle against the entreaties and threats of his own large family, once he was baptized the Turki Sunni Muslims did not attack him as they would have done a Sunni of the same standing. Yusuf took the baptismal name of John. At that time he held a post in the Kashgar Mission Press which printed not only Christian literature, but also the only modern school primers and secondary text-books that existed in Turki, besides ledgers for Kashgar merchants, and public notices for the Chinese local authorities.

Some years before this, Ali Akhond, now in middle life, had become the evangelist of the church at Kashgar. Though liable occasionally to boycotting and dangerous insults in the market-place, so genial and friendly a man had never been entirely cut by his own acquaintances, and he was a gifted preacher. At the services in church there were always many more Muslims than Christians present, and when he preached on the Story of the Prodigal, he could make everyone see the handsome young Bey in a striped silk coat, white turban and crimson leather boots riding away from his father’s house on a fine Badakhshani stallion. They followed his adventures until he had fallen so low that he kept pigs for Chinese idolaters to eat, and at last came creeping back, even poorer than members of the gild of the beggars of Kashgar, and they watched the joyful welcome of his return. At Christmas there were often congregations of two or three hundred for the early morning service: the children sitting on scarlet felt rugs round the pulpit which was flanked by two tall pines, brought by camel from the mountains and covered with white candles. The Chinese schoolboys hung the whole garden with rows of marvellous coloured lanterns. The men of the printing press and the Turki schoolboys formed a choir which sang carols, and all the Muslim neighbours came to hear the Christmas message and share the Christians’ holiday.

At that Turki school was a boy, Muhammad, who lived in the caravanserai next door. His father, Tokht Akhond, a carpenter, had a room next the merchants whose camels could be heard biting and squealing at night. When Muhammad was ten years old, and his little sister Hava (Eva in English) was four, their mother died. The father got into debt and into the power of a Chinese opium smuggler who employed him as an agent.

Two years later Tokht Akhond suddenly died. The children came that same night and begged the missionaries to save them, for they were so frightened of their father's creditor who had sent a message that he claimed them in settlement of Tokht Akhond’s debts. He could use Muhammad as a servant and he could easily sell Hava into some Chinese household as she was a pretty and attractive child. “ I can run away in a few years time,” said Muhammad, “ but Hava will be sold for a concubine and will never get free if he takes her.”

A message was sent to the Chinese that the father had owed the Mission a greater sum of money, since the children had had education and a free meal a day for several years. As he was engaged in opium smuggling, the Chinese dared not take the case to law. So the children stayed with the school boarders at Kashgar until the matter had blown over, and then went to be brought up in the Children’s Homes at Yarkand.

Muhammad at this time, 1926, was a sturdy little boy who at twelve was quite a useful player at soccer, even against boys several years his senior. He went to the home in the country some three miles from Yarkand where twenty boys were being brought up, but he used to come to church at Yarkand every Sunday and then spend the afternoon with his little sister, who was at the Girls’ Home where Miss Gerda Andersson was in charge. Once Hava was crying because she had no mother, and Muhammad was overheard comforting her and saying, “Don’t cry. You know we always have each other.”

As well as being given an education that is normal in Europe but very rare among even the daughters of wealthy men in Turkestan, these twenty-five girls were trained in standards of housewifery that made them extremely sought after as brides as soon as they were over fifteen years old: Miss Andersson would not give leave for them to marry sooner.

Both Muhammad and his sister were unusually intelligent and energetic children and did well in school. Muhammad’s hobby was bird-watching, and it was amusing to see how excited and pleased he was to learn that the cuckoo laid her eggs in the nests of other birds. He had not observed that himself and, of course, had no books on birds to read in Turki.

When he was about seventeen, Yusuf Ryekhan came to live at Yarkand. There was a revival in the church and several of the young men connected with the Mission came and asked for baptism, including Muhammad, who took the baptismal name of Habil (Abel). A group of these young men, among whom Yusuf John Ryekhan and Habil took the lead, were keen on winning their fellows, and the difference between their standards of honesty, charity and clean-living and those of their Muslim friends much impressed the latter.

This year, 1931, there were rumours of impending changes in the country which made people unusually alert and thoughtful, and in 1932 civil war broke out. In northern Turkestan it was connected with some Chinese misgovernment which led to local discontent, and with a Tungan invasion from China which, it was later suspected, was partly fomented and financed by the Japanese. In the south it began as a rising of a Muslim party in Khotan, a city that had always the reputation of being both fanatically Muslim and also possessed of a high grade of intelligence among its citizens. Bands of Khotan Turkis came west, overrunning the country, plundering the villages, murdering any Chinese they met and taking their wives and daughters as lawful prey. The rebellion, being in the nature of a Holy War for Islam, was primarily directed against the Chinese who, as idolaters, were mercilessly slaughtered everywhere.

In 1933 an official message came to the Swedish Mission at Yarkand that, as their position in the country depended on the treaties between China and Sweden, they would not be safe if the Chinese were out of power, and their presence would draw attention to the Christian church there. Miss Gerda Andersson was on leave and it was decided that the other women missionaries should go to Kashgar. But after saying good-bye, they turned back, deciding that they could not leave the children in the Girls’ Home. The possibility of moving out to the country was considered, but no village was safe, and owners of suitable houses were entirely unwilling to let them; while news came that some of the Kirghiz in the mountains were also joining the rebels so that it would not have been safe to go up there.

The girls, when not wholly orphaned, came from homes either where they had not been wanted owing to the remarriage of a parent, or which were of a bad character. And it was certain that were they sent home, all over twelve years of age would be married out of hand to Muslims, which their relatives thought the only possible means of protecting any teen-age girl just then. Some of the girls were already engaged to Christian boys, but these felt them to be safer behind the strong wall and gate of the Girls Home than in some village room which was overrun weekly by bandits.

There had so often been rumours of wars which came to nothing that the missionaries at Yarkand hoped this rebellion also might pass the south of the province by. But on April 11, 1933, the Khotan rebel troops, under the leadership of three brothers, made a surprise attack on the Old City at Yarkand and seized several strong points. The eldest brother was in general charge of the campaign towards Kashgar, and the Emir Abdullah, the second, who took the title of “king,” was in command at Yarkand. After some heavy fighting both at Yarkand and in other towns in south Turkestan, the rebels gained control of the whole area, slaying the Chinese in hundreds, burning their houses and taking their wives and daughters. It was now impossible to travel to Kashgar through the intervening desert. But just before this, Habil, who had become assistant schoolmaster at Kashgar, returned to Yarkand to keep an eye on his sister, and Yusuf Ryekhan was also at Yarkand. Habil was now nineteen and Hava thirteen years old.

The First Persecution

 On April 27, 1933, the Emir Abdullah sent orders that Mr. Nyström, in charge of the Mission dispensary at Yarkand, should hand over all poisonous drugs immediately. Soldiers and two Indian Aqsaqals (heads of the Indian merchant community) were sent to fetch him. The Emir had previously refused to receive visitors, but the Indians advised the three men missionaries to take this opportunity to pay their formal respects. Mr. Nyström, Mr. Arell, who was in charge of the Boys’ Home, and Mr. Hermansson, who was responsible for the publication work of the Swedish Mission, therefore went together. They were kept waiting a long time in the Governor’s garden and then were asked to write out prescriptions for the drugs that had been commandeered. Then the Emir himself came into the room, holding a handkerchief to his nose (to filter the air contaminated by Christian breath). He began to ask such questions as “You intended no doubt to use these poisons to harm me and my followers?” Then he yelled, “It is my duty, according to our law, to put you to death because by your preaching you have destroyed the faith of some of us! Out with you- bind them.” Mr. Nyström, being furthest into the room, was first bound and the furious Emir gave him a blow. A file of soldiers, armed with rifles, swords and clubs, was drawn up in the yard outside, who seized the three and told them to prepare for instant death. But as the Emir stepped out and raised his sword to cut down Mr. Nyström the Indian Aqsaqal sprang forward and began to beg for their lives. He narrowly escaped being struck himself, but at length the Emir gave orders to wait before carrying out the death sentence. They were left standing, each bound tightly to a different post, with the firing squad drawn up ready in front of them, and a soldier with a club standing by to deliver the coup de grace if necessary. But after half an hours suspense they were loosed, told they would instead be banished within a week, and were kept under close guard in the Indian’s house.

At the Mission station, after the missionaries had left to call on the Emir, Habil went into the kitchen where Mehmed Niaz was working and said, “Aka (my elder brother), I am wearing your shirt. What do you want me to do with it?”

Keep it!   Don’t worry about that,” replied Mehmed Niaz.

You are sure you do not mind my having it?”

No, rather not!

Then Habil went up and drew a cross on the mud wall, and said to Mehmed Niaz, “Do you see that?”


Then he drew a crown.    

 “And do you see that?”

“Yes,” said the other boy.

“You see the cross comes first and then the crown.”

Yusuf then arrived and said he was feeling apprehensive. He, Habil and Mehmed Niaz asked to join the women missionaries for coffee, and that over, they all prayed. Habil wept and prayed for courage to be faithful to his Saviour in life and death, like Stephen. Yusuf put his hand on the young fellow’s head and prayed for him and with him. Four other lads from the Boys’ Home had come into town to shop, but gathering in the bazaar that something was amiss, they now arrived scared at the Mission buildings. They all met again, this time in the visitors’ room, and prayed earnestly. Habil played the harmonium and Yusuf and Miss Ryden sang the hymn, “Be ye patient and stablish your hearts.” Yusuf read the chapter about St. Peter’s deliverance from prison, and again they all prayed-but were interrupted by someone hammering at the gate. Yusuf went out, and came running back, crying “Fly, they’ve come to take you! “ But the soldiers were behind him and only one schoolboy managed to escape and hide. It was dusk by now and all the prisoners were collected in the gateway. The three women missionaries were searched, then the soldiers came to Habil. “Do you belong to the Mission?” they asked. “Yes,” said Habil. “Bind him,” ordered the officer. “You can bind me,” replied Habil, turning rather white-and then remembering he had Mr. Hermansson’s fountain pen on him, he asked Miss Ryden to take care of it.


The Death of Habil

 All the girls in the Home were taken away. When they had gone, however, the women missionaries were released from arrest and allowed to go back into their house-but as soldiers were quartered on them for some days they had to endure insults and dared to sleep only by turns, and that very little. The other prisoners were now roped together and marched into the city and brought bound before the fanatical Emir. He first asked some questions as to their names, parentage and homes, from which he learned that Yusuf Ryekhan was a British subject, while Habil, who stood next to Yusuf, was a Chinese subject. He hit them both over the head, ordered them all to be beaten and then yelled : “Shoot them all!” but at the same time gave a sign to the soldier nearest him that Habil alone should be untied and moved away from the others. Habil knelt down and looked up to Heaven with the serenity of one of the ancient martyrs. Then he looked across at his friends as if to bid them goodbye. The order was given, “Fire!” -Habil fell to the ground. A soldier standing by struck Mehmed Niaz and said: “Have you taken that in?” “Yes,” he said. Habil moved on the ground, and the Emir said: “Finish him off with your sword.”

Then they began to thrash their prisoners until two of the boys called out,” Shoot us, too, and put us out of our pain.” When he had wreaked his anger on them, the Emir sent the Christians bound to prison, and ordered that Habil’s body should be thrown out for the dogs to eat. But when it had remained untouched for three days, some kindly Muslims buried it, for they took that as a sign from God.

The other Christians were beaten and threatened in prison; Yusuf Ryekhan being heavily chained and told that he would be crucified within a week because he had spoken of Christ the crucified.


Tur Nisa’s Story

The boys at the Boys Home were taken to a garden on the other side of Yarkand and the girls were taken into the city. Tur Nisa, one of the older girls (aged about fifteen) said : “When the missionaries were taken away and we were left to ourselves we despaired. We saw that they were parted from us against their will, and we realized that we were captives, stolen from our home and completely in the power of our enemy. It seemed as if all the strength went out of us and we dropped to the floor, sobbing, and when a man unlocked the door a little later and came in, he found us crouched together in a corner. He tossed us some hard and mouldy bread as if we had been dogs, saying, ‘Here you are. Eat, eat!’ We were much too miserable and frightened to want any food, but we dared not refuse to take it. The man was half-ashamed when he saw we could not eat and only held the loaves meekly in our hands. He went away and soon returned with five fresh rolls which he gave us. He was a soldier called Gul Mehmed. We were, in fact, locked up between the prison and the garrison quarters inside the castle itself. Soldiers were lodged in the room next to ours, and on the other side were ‘the king’s’ rooms, and either soldiers or prisoners were in all the other rooms around. It was night by now, and the little ones were sleepy. There was nothing for them to lie on and the soldiers refused to bring anything to spread on the damp mud floor. However, they dropped off to sleep all the same. But we older ones could not sleep, and under our breath we sang hymns that we could remember, asking God’s help, and that comforted us. Late that night a man unlocked the door and came in with a drawn sword in his hand. ‘Get up and tidy yourselves, the king wants to see you,’ he said. We tried to be quick, and we cried to God in our hearts for help, for we knew some trial was coming. Two more men came in, one with a book under his arm and the other armed with sword and rifle. He unsheathed his sword and strutted about, making us a long speech about Islam as the only true teaching; no words were too bad for Christianity. Among other things he said that only an insignificant part of the earth was populated by Christians, whereas Islam ruled everywhere. At length he took out a paper, and, pointing to a verse on it from the Quran, he said we were to repeat it word for word after him. As the words were Arabic we could not understand them at all, and we asked what they meant. Then he burst out, ‘It is totally unnecessary for you to know the meaning of what you say. All that is important is that you should learn it correctly. Put your heart into that and God, who sees and knows all, will hear you.’ This seemed a very odd answer to us, because whenever we learned anything in school we had always been asked questions to make sure we understood it.

“Then he asked, ‘Which of you are Christians?’ The six girls who had been reading as catechumens just before the Civil War began, started to get up with us three, Ayem, Rabi and myself, who had been baptized. I signed to them to sit still and whispered to Rabi, ‘They need not suffer; let us three take what is coming.’ We three stood up and went over to his left. My poor mother, who ought to have come with us, dared not, and stayed with the children; but she turned and looked reproachfully at us. Then the man’s threats and contemptuous words began all over again. We were called unbelievers, dogs, birds of ill-omen, scum, swine, a shame to our people and accursed. ‘Were you baptized lately, or was it perhaps when you were infants?’ At last he said, ‘You must realize that this is being done to save you from damnation. Now say that you will leave your rebellious ways and come back to the faith which was yours in the cradle and which you should never have left.’

We made no answer. “How blind you children are!” he said,
Don’t you yet realize that there is only one possible answer to make? There is no If or But about it!

As he spoke, I remembered a dream I had a few nights earlier that I saw the Saviour. And as we stood there silent, so many other thoughts went through my mind. I remembered that those who had brought us up had prayed so much that we might become witnesses among our own people. And hadn’t we prayed and wanted that too?

At last the man said, very angrily, ‘Speak! unless you have lost your tongues and your ears!’ He looked as if he would lose his self- control in a minute and do something, so feeling desperate, I said, ‘We can’t answer or do things against our convictions.’

“‘Convictions!’ he exclaimed. ‘Convictions! So you are to have convictions, are you? You seem to forget your proper place. You are just women. What is your name?’ ‘Tur Nisa Khan,’ I said. ‘Oh, that explains it! You are the pig-headed girl I have heard about. It is obviously waste of time to talk to you, and unnecessary too, as you are now entirely in our power.’ With which he slammed the door and went out.”

A day or so later all the younger children were taken away and put in charge of a mullah for teaching in a local school. Fourteen girls and Tur Nisa’s mother were kept strictly locked up, in a smaller and dirtier room in the castle. On one occasion three soldiers got in and mocked and jeered at them, so that on the whole they were thankful to be kept shut up by their jailers.

Tur Nisa’s account continues:

One evening about a week later word came that the Emir wished to see those girls who were from Kashgar. Hava (Habil’s sister), Martha and Zeinap had to go with the messenger; the two latter came back soon, but Hava was kept. The longer she stayed, the more anxious we got, but it was not until after sunrise that she came in, weeping, and sank down on the floor.


Hava’s Story

 Later, when she was quieter, she told us what had happened. When the other two girls had gone, the Emir locked the door, turned to me and said, “Now you shall be mine! “ I wrenched myself away from him and shrieked, “Kill me sooner, as you did my brother Habil! Then he drew his sword and flashed it in front of me. But he sheathed it again, and stood silently staring at me. I burst out crying and sobbed, “I had only one brother. Beside him I had no living relatives in the world, and now here I am, defenceless, in the power of the man who took my brother’s life.” And then I recognized Habil’s watch lying on the table, and cried out, “Look, that’s my brother’s watch!” The Emir turned round startled, and said “What are you saying, girl- are you that fellow’s sister?” Then he shook himself as if he were shaking off something disagreeable, and became quiet and self-controlled again. “Do not sorrow for that. I mean to make you my queen. Now come here, you little frightened bird.” When he let me go in the morning he asked if I had any special girl friend. I thought he meant to be kind to me, and I said, “Yes, Buve Khan.” “Very well,” he answered, “you may go now, you unlucky child, and I will not see you again. But you must send Buve Khan in your place.”

‘And so I felt that I ought never to come here again, after telling him of Buve Khan, who was going to have married Habil. But still, they brought me back and here I am.’

Buve Khan was then taken away and as soon as the Emir saw her he called one of his friends as witness and was, by Muslim law, married to her out of hand. So Habil’s fiancee was “Queen” of Yarkand for a short time.


A Pause in the Terror

 The Khotan Emirs were deeply engaged in the Civil War all this time, and heavy fighting with the Chinese was going on. When they found that the Swedish missionaries understood the treatment of wounds, and one of the Khotan officers was healed by Mr. Nyström of a serious illness, their whole attitude changed. The Emir decided not to banish them; he remembered that Christians and Jews are “People of the Book” and that the Holy War need only be waged to the death against heathen like the Chinese or atheists like the Reds. He and his wild soldiers began to be quite friendly.

Later the small children were returned to their relatives or to the women missionaries, the Christian men were released, and the girls were moved out to better quarters until about the middle of July, when they were freed “by another party which had driven out the Khotan rebels from Yarkand, but the “freedom” consisted in their being forcibly married to such Muslims as asked for them.

The man who married Hava was an advanced syphilitic. She caught the disease from him, and when her baby was coming it died, and she lay between life and death. Her husband was meanwhile gone elsewhere in the fighting, and dared not return to Yarkand, and his family found her a nuisance. Gerda Andersson by then had returned to Yarkand, and heard that Hava lay at the point of death. She borrowed a mappa (covered Chinese cart) and went out one day to call on the family. She could not show herself eager, for fear they would refuse, but said, if they liked, she might be able to oblige them by taking Hava off their hands while she was so ill, and they agreed. Before they could change their minds, Gerda took the girl home, put her into her own bed and nursed Hava day and night back to life. By the time Hava was well again, the Khotan party were entirely gone, after their defeat in the war, and her husband sent her a letter of divorce, as he wanted no further responsibllity for her.

Tur Nisa Khan was luckier: she got a good husband and had a fairly happy life.

During the long Civil War, the lives of all the Christians were often in immediate danger, and on several other occasions they only escaped by a miracle.  But on the spiritual side it was a time of new life, and many Muslims came and made secret confession of their faith in Christ.  The Turki population in general was much more friendly to the Mission than ever before.

The Second Persecution

 Public affairs were in the greatest confusion for several years, with various political parties at war with one another in different combinations, sometimes enemies, sometimes allies. But eventually a Chinese military commander called Sheng, who though not a Communist had allied himself with the Soviets to get into power, established his authority over the whole of East Turkestan. His party put forward an anti-God policy, and opposed orthodox Islam almost as hotly as Christianity. Many leading Muslims were executed, and the Turki Christians were all imprisoned except for a very few who were able to escape over the Roof of the World to India.

In Kashgar and Yarkand, the missionaries were interned in their houses, and no one was allowed to sell them food or firewood, and the watercourses and sanitation service were cut off. In Turkestan, all water, even drinking water, comes from the rivers and irrigation canals, for the soil is too salt for well-water to be drinkable. The Mission then asked and obtained leave for the women and the older men missionaries to go home to Sweden through Russia. Three of the men missionaries stayed on at Kashgar and were interned on the Mission premises there. They had a little firewood left and water in the garden pond, and some Muslim friends threw vegetables over the garden wall sometimes by night. But a few months later they were ordered to leave; they protested, but an armed escort came and took them under guard, and put them across the frontier of India, three weeks journey away.

Even before they went they had heard news of some of their fellow- Christians who died in prison. There was Hassan Akhond of Yarkand, a lad of about twenty years and a friend of Habil. A Muslim friend who had been among those who served a term of imprisonment for having been friendly to the Mission, when he was released, crept into the Yarkand Mission garden one night by the watercourse drain. He said that he and his friends had heard the clanking of chains in an inner cell and recognized Hassan’s voice singing hymns. Some nights later they heard him again, faintly singing “Loved with Everlasting Love,” in Turki. The next two nights the chain dragged, but after that was silence and they concluded he had died of starvation.

Hava Khan was between fifteen and sixteen when the Anti-God party came into power. They set up girls’ schools in several places, and Hava was made schoolmistress of some ninety children. She educated them to the best of her ability, and also taught them hymns. The girls from the Yarkand Girls’ Home were almost the only literate women in the country, so that several of them were similarly employed. But the work was too heavy for Hava, especially after the strain she had gone through, and she died before she was twenty.

News has lately come which definitely confirms the earlier rumours that of the Christian community put into prison at Kashgar, almost all died or were put to death. Among them was the evangelist Ali Akhond, with whose story this account began, Khelil Akhond the evangelist of Yengi Hissar, Liu Losi headmaster of the Chinese school at Hancheng near Kashgar, and many, many others. They were herded into large groups and each group was then crammed into a small, unventilated cell where there was not so much as space for each man to sit down, so that they all spent day and night on end in a half-standing, half-crouching position. The few who survived said they got aches and swellings in their knees and then in the upper part of the calves of the legs and in the thighs. Late mortification usually set in and death followed. These unheated cells were bitterly cold, especially for prisoners who had not been allowed to take with them more clothes than those they stood up in when arrested. A number had been sent to prison only half clad. Some of them were put to unmentionable tortures. Consequently, apart from those who were executed, someone died almost every night, and sometimes four or five corpses were taken out of the cells in the morning. After several years’ imprisonment, when all the leading Christians were dead, the half dozen survivors were admonished with threats and released.

What Survives

 Nevertheless, one great piece of work had survived the persecution. From the beginning of the Mission in 1892, adequate time was always given for a thorough study of the Turki language. A number of books of the Bible, first the New Testament and then some from the Old were translated into Turki, and these preliminary translations were tested, printed at Kashgar, and revised again and again. At length it was decided that a complete translation of the Bible should be undertaken. Gustav Ahlbert and Oskar Hermansson, both of whom had studied in the Near East and had a competent knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and Arabic as well as of Turki, were appointed to make this translation of the whole Bible.

In 1938, during the lull between the two persecutions, Oskar Hermansson (one of the missionaries who had been condemned and escaped execution at Yarkand), after a risky but successful journey, brought the complete MSS of the New Testament down to India. Gustav Ahlbert was one of the last three missionaries to be expelled from Kashgar in 1939. The Swedish Missionary Society (Svenska Missionsförbundet) then agreed to take over some work among Muslims in India, and the translation was carried on there. Mr. Ahlbert died at Bombay in 1943, but the work was continued and completed by Mr. Hermansson, who did the whole of the final text of the translation alone, although for questions of Turki literary style and vocabulary he had the valuable help of Dr. Nur Luke, a Turki Christian with high Muslim academic qualifications.

This translation was accepted for publication by the Bible Society in 1946, and is being printed under Mr. Hermansson’s own supervision.

For the first time the whole Bible has now been translated into Eastern Turki, which is the purest and most widely understood form of the Turki languages. Since no accurate census has ever been taken, it is impossible to make an exact estimate of the total population of Eastern Turkestan. It is, however, generally agreed that the usual official figures are much too low, as they only represent the returns for poll-tax The population of the province is almost certainly over five million. Besides these millions who speak Eastern Turki, there are the kindred peoples to the west of the Tian Shan mountains, in the U.S.S.R., whose own dialects are sufficiently similar for them to understand Eastern Turki without difficulty. This means that when it reaches them the Bible in Eastern Turki will be comprehensible to a population of fifteen millions who have never been able to hear the Bible before.

The Chinese civil authorities have again recovered control of Turkestan (which they call Sinkiang Province) - but are unable at present to permit any foreigners to work in the country.

Although the Christian Church in Turkestan has been almost wiped out by martyrdom, Chinese Christians are now free to come and go in the country, and it is hoped that through them copies of the Bible may find their way to Turki readers until the day comes when there is freedom to preach the Gospel in Turkestan again, and God raises up His Church once more.

Does this seem to you a vain hope? It happened so once in Britain, when others prayed that the Gospel might reach the English. Will you be among those who pray for Turkestan, since for her salvation in Christ her own sons have not been afraid to die, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto Eternal Life”?

In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, and their departure is taken for misery. . .yet is their hope full of immortality for God found them worthy.”

By the word of truth, by the power of God, as dying and behold we live.”