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Reviewed by Laurie Gray for Readers' Favorite
Pilgrims on the Silk Road: A Muslim-Christian Encounter in Khiva by Walter R. Ratliff follows the eastern trek of a small group of Mennonites into Central Asia in search of religious and social freedom. Ratliff weaves the personal letters, diaries and publications of the pilgrims themselves, together with an extensive bibliography of sources into a story well worth reading. The historical account begins in the 1840's, about the time Claus Epp, Jr., a controversial leader in the Mennonite community, was born and concludes with the devastation of the Mennonites in Ak Metchet (now part of Uzbekistan) by Stalin and the Soviet Union's collectivization policies in 1935. The epilogue describes how the author accompanied descendents of Claus Epp, Jr. on a return pilgrimage to Ak Metchet in 2007 in search of healing and forgiveness. They discover that the Muslim Uzbeks remember the Mennonites as fine craftsmen, friendly neighbors and a community devoted to peace.
Ratliff tells the tale through a broad 21st century lens that seeks to include both Christian and Muslim perspectives. For those unfamiliar with Central Asian geography and Mennonite history, the story sometimes feels a bit disjointed because the presentation is not strictly chronological. Ratliff occasionally creates dangling threads, but eventually loops back to include them securely in the overall tapestry. The book exposes the underlying tension between individual freedom and a moral society in a way that is particularly relevant today. There are still Christians who, like Claus Epp, Jr., prophesy that the End Times are near, but few uphold a tradition of nonviolence the way the Mennonites have since the 16th century. Pilgrims on a Silk Road demonstrates what can happen when Christians respond to terrorist attacks by Muslims with peaceful resistance rather than equal, exceeding or peremptory force: the Mennonites and Muslims were able to forge a mutually beneficial relationship based on respect. Ironically, it seems the deepest Mennonite wounds were inflicted not by the Muslims or Russians, but by their own internal doctrinal differences and the judgments they pronounced upon each other.