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15 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Government closes another Jehovah's Witness congregation

Jehovah's Witnesses are deciding whether or not to appeal against a decision to strip legal status from their congregation in Fergana, eastern Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The government's decision means that all Jehovah's Witness activity in the city is now illegal and subject to harsh penalties. All but one of the more than 30 Jehovah's Witness communities in Uzbekistan have been persistently refused legal status. An Uzbek-based lawyer told Forum 18 that the Jehovah's Witnesses have virtually no chance of successfully appealing, as the regional Justice Department simply carries out instructions from the Uzbek government. An official in the Parliamentary Ombudsperson's Office, Maruf Usmanov, told Forum 18 that "It is your personal opinion that any registered or unregistered religious communities are being persecuted. We've had not one single complaint from religious believers." But this claim is contradicted by a letter Forum 18 has seen from the Ombudsperson, Sayora Rashidova, in response to complaints about the criminal case launched in 2006 against Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who is now awaiting trial.

14 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Where is Kazakh visiting Pastor being held?

Concern is mounting about where Uzbekistan is holding a visiting Kazakh pastor, Rishat Garifulin, who has not been seen since his arrest by police in Samarkand on 8 February, after Christian literature was found on him. "Now it's almost a week later and we haven't heard anything about him or his whereabouts," Greater Grace sources told Forum 18 News Service. Samarkand police, who arrested Pastor Garifulin, have refused to confirm the arrest to Forum 18. His arrest comes as Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who is awaiting trial in solitary confinement, is facing increasing attacks in the state-run media. Uzbek authorities are taking greater steps to isolate local religious communities from foreign contacts and have refused visas to and deported foreigners suspected of contacts with local religious communities. Uzbekistan is also continuing to crackdown on foreign religious charities. Christian charity World Vision, which works on HIV/AIDS projects, is the latest target for potential closure.

8 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Trial imminent for Andijan Pentecostal Pastor

The trial of Uzbek Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov may be imminent, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He faces up to twenty years jail, if he is found guilty and receives maximum consecutive sentences for the charges of stirring up inter-religious hatred, leading an "illegal" religious organisation and distributing religious extremist recordings. Prosecutors in Andijan have completed their case against Pastor Shestakov, but have refused to answer questions from Forum 18. Much of the indictment – which Forum 18 has seen - is a defence of Uzbek government policy, and attacks "religious/political extremist organisations which under the guise of meeting religious needs began to strive to seize power", naming Islamic groups and "Charismatics/Pentecostals". These are alleged to want to promote "true Islam" and to turn individuals into zombies. The authorities' harassment of Pastor Shestakov appears to have begun as a reaction to some ethnic Uzbeks becoming Christians.

1 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Prosecutors refuse to say why Protestant pastor faces trial

Andijan city Prosecutor's Office has refused to tell Forum 18 News Service why local Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov is due to face trial or when. But the Prosecutor's aide, as well as independent sources, confirmed to Forum 18 on 1 February that the Pastor is still in investigation prison. Shestakov was arrested on 21 January during his Full Gospel Pentecostal congregation's Sunday service and is said to be accused of stirring up religious hatred and illegally producing literature spreading dissension. "Prosecutors and the police are accusing Dmitry of stirring up aggression against other religions, but he was not aggressive at all," one source told Forum 18. Another Andijan Protestant pastor was fined in late December 2006 for his religious activity.

20 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Government attacks on Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims continue

Uzbekistan's last legal Jehovah's Witness congregation is being threatened with closure, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. If this happens, it would make the faith illegal in the country and liable to harsh penalties. Also, several Protestant churches have been closed in the past month, while raids, fines and police interrogations continue. Some churches have had to give up holding full church services and can meet only quietly in small groups. On 18 December a Pentecostal in Tashkent was set upon by four men and brutally beaten. "The local imams turned to the mafia and they became involved," one Protestant told Forum 18. The attack follows state TV encouragement of religious intolerance and attacks on religious freedom – targeting Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses in particular. Meanwhile, further restrictions – for examples obstacles to the practice of daily prayer – have been imposed on the Muslim population of the strongly Islamic Fergana Valley area.

19 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Government tries to deny religious freedom reality

Uzbekistan increasingly claims that it is a country of religious tolerance, where religious freedom is respected, Forum 18 News Service notes. This is despite the state TV company's attacks on religious tolerance and religious freedom, the persecution of independent Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, and tight restrictions on members of other communities. In an echo of Soviet-era practice, religious leaders have increasingly been co-opted to support false claims of religious freedom. A "non-governmental" opinion poll centre has claimed that it has carried out a poll proving that "only" 3.9 percent of respondents had said their religious rights are restricted in Uzbekistan. Marat Hajimuhamedov, who was involved in the survey, laughed and declined to comment when Forum 18 asked him how the survey accorded with religious believers' experience of police raids, fines, imprisonment and harassment of religious communities.

19 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Prime-time state TV incites intolerance of religious minorities and religious freedom

Protestants across Uzbekistan have expressed great concern to Forum 18 News Service about two prime-time national TV attacks on Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses. "Almost the whole country watched it," one Protestant – who preferred not to be named for fear of reprisals for talking publicly about religious persecution – told Forum 18. "We were accused of everything, including turning people into zombies and driving them to psychiatric hospitals. Everyone points at us on the streets." The programme openly encouraged religious intolerance and attacks on religious freedom. Although they "had no impact on people without television or who have satellite TV or Russian channels," one Tashkent Protestant told Forum 18. "But everyone else with only Uzbek channels who saw it was talking about it. This has led to an increase of intolerance." The Protestant believes the programmes were screened to prepare public opinion for another clampdown on religious freedom.

7 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: State bars haj pilgrims from pilgrimage

Uzbekistan is restricting the number of haj pilgrimages – a requirement for all able-bodied adult Muslims who can do so – to some 20 per cent of the country's total possible number of pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Controls on pilgrims have been significantly increased, with potential pilgrims having to be approved by local Mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS secret police and the state-run Haj Commission. "The authorities are deliberately giving a lower quota in regions of Uzbekistan where there are more believers," an Uzbek Muslim told Forum 18. "It would be better if most Uzbek pilgrims were elderly" the state-controlled Muftiate told Forum 18. Turkmenistan imposes the strictest Central Asian controls on haj pilgrims. Apart from Kazakhstan, all the other Central Asian states also ban non-state organised haj pilgrimages. In Kyrgyzstan last year, there were complaints that Kyrgyz places were taken by Chinese Muslims on false passports.

28 November 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Despite official denials, religious freedom violations continue

Repression of religious communities from the majority community Islam to religious minorities such as Christians has increased, Forum 18 News Service notes. Protestants have been attacked in state-controlled mass media, such as a student, Tahir Sharipov, accused of holding "secretive meetings with singing," and pressure is applied to stop ethnic Uzbeks attending Protestant churches. Andrei Shirobokov, a Jehovah's Witness spokesperson, told Forum 18 that he has had to leave the country as "my friends in the law enforcement agencies warned me that an attempt was to be made on my life." Religious minority sources have told Forum 18 that schoolteachers have been instructed to find out the religious communities schoolchildren attend and where their parents work. US designation of Uzbekistan as a "Country of Particular Concern" for religious freedom violations has drawn a harsh response. Forum 18 has itself been accused of trying "at every opportunity to accuse Uzbekistan without foundation of repressing believers."

27 November 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Court fines Baptists and burns Bibles

Following a raid on a Baptist church in the southern Uzbek town of Karshi, two visiting Baptists were on 25 October given massive fines of over 45 times the country's minimum monthly salary each for participating in unregistered religious worship, while four local church members were given smaller fines, Protestant sources told Forum 18 News Service. The court ordered Bibles and hymnbooks confiscated during the raid to be burnt, a regular official practice. The judge refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. After 30 police officers raided a Pentecostal church in the capital Tashkent on 13 November, one church member has so far been fined. A senior policeman told church members complaining that he was smoking in the church "It may be a church to you, but to me it's nothing. I'll smoke where I like." The Karshi Baptists called for Uzbekistan's harsh Religion Law to be brought into line with the religious freedom guarantees in the country's Constitution and international human rights standards.

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