UZBEKISTAN: Court orders Christian literature destroyed
Nearly 600 Uzbek-language Christian leaflets for children were ordered destroyed by a court in Tashkent region on 12 August, the third time Baptists have had confiscated literature destroyed on court orders. Other books, including New Testaments, seized from a group of Baptists in July were ordered to be handed over to the government's Religious Affairs Committee. The four Baptists found guilty of "illegally" bringing in the books were each fined some 35 US dollars, members of Tashkent Baptist church told Forum 18 News Service. Senior religious affairs official Begzot Kadyrov claimed to Forum 18 that religious literature banned from distribution in Uzbekistan is not destroyed, but returned to the country from which it was brought, though he admitted religious literature has been destroyed. The Uzbek government censors all religious literature and other Protestants, independent Muslims, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses have also faced literature seizures and, on occasion, destruction in recent years.
"As for all believers, so for us," members of Tashkent's Council of Churches Baptist congregation declared in the wake of the court hearing, "Christian literature is of huge spiritual value. But at the moment we are practically denied the right to receive and distribute Christian literature freely." Because it is almost impossible for most religious communities to print literature within Uzbekistan because of the government's religious censorship, many import such literature from neighbouring states, including Kazakhstan.
Church members told Forum 18 that at the 12 August hearing Judge M. Alimuhamedov, at the urging of public prosecutor's assistant M Adilov, found their four fellow church members - V. Mayakov, E. Annin, O. Usmanova and I. Tsoi - guilty of importing religious literature into Uzbekistan illegally under Article 227 part 1 (breaking the customs law) of the Code of Administrative Offences. Each defendant was fined 39,175 sums (221 Norwegian kroner, 28 Euros or 35 US dollars). The court ruled that the literature – 33 copies of the New Testament, 160 copies of Mark's Gospel and 24 copies of "All children need to know this" - should be handed to the Religious Affairs Committee, while 598 copies of Uzbek-language Christian leaflets for children are to be destroyed.
The Baptists reported that the literature was seized on 20 July in the town of Keles near Tashkent, close to the border with Kazakhstan. The four church members, together with another Baptist, were interrogated for eight hours by S. Stenyagin and F. Abdullaev and other officers of the National Security Service (NSS) secret police, "During the interrogations, photographs were taken," the Tashkent church reported back in July. "The NSS officers behaved very crudely: they used foul language, shouted, threw the Gospels onto the table disdainfully, which offended the feelings of the believers, and threatened to send the believers to prison for 10-15 days. And all this despite the fact that two of the believers were children."
"This is the fourth time that the authorities have confiscated our religious literature," church members complained to Forum 18 on 19 August. "On two occasions the confiscated literature has been burnt (we have the official documents about its destruction). It is very likely that on this occasion as well the literature will be destroyed by burning."
However, Kadyrov, a specialist on non-Islamic faiths at the religious affairs committee, told Forum 18 on 5 September that the literature had not yet reached the committee. He stressed that the Bible and the New Testament are not banned in Uzbekistan and that therefore these are "very likely" to be returned to the Baptists in the end.
"The main problem is that certain Baptists are trying to import religious literature by unlawful means," he complained to Forum 18. "According to Uzbek law, religious literature brought into the country has to undergo preliminary analysis at our committee. There is no problem with the Bible or New Testament. The Baptists should ask us 10 days before they intend to import the books and we would no doubt give them permission to go ahead with the shipment. As far as the other religious literature goes, then we do need to check it. If we judge that it contains no call to inter-ethnic or inter-faith conflict or proselytising ideas, then we will allow its import into the country."
Kadyrov also stressed that even literature that is banned from distribution in Uzbekistan is not destroyed, but is sent back to the country from which it was brought. "It's true that there have been a few cases where religious literature has been destroyed," he admitted. "These were mistakes. We are categorically opposed to the destruction of any books."
He also recalled that in March customs officials seized Baptist literature that the authorities claimed had been imported "illegally" (see F18News 17 March 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=527), but the literature was subsequently returned to the Baptists thanks to the intervention of his committee. "On that occasion we met the Baptists half-way, even though they had broken the law," he told Forum 18. "But once again they are choosing to act illegally."
Members of other faiths frequently face literature seizures. When on 16 June, the prosecutor's office, the NSS secret police and the ordinary police searched an apartment belonging to a Hare Krishna devotee Asa Bekabayeva in Bostan, a town on the outskirts of Nukus, ninety Hare Krishna books were confiscated (see F18News 11 July 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=602).
Religious literature confiscated from the homes of Muslims, Protestant Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses has been destroyed under court orders in recent years (see F18News 17 March 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=527).
For a personal commentary by a Muslim scholar, advocating religious freedom for all faiths as the best antidote to Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=338
For more background, see Forum 18's Uzbekistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=546
For an outline of the repression immediately following the Andijan uprising, see F18News 23 May http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=567 and for an outline of what is known about Akramia and the uprising see 16 June http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=586
A printer-friendly map of Uzbekistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=uzbeki
25 August 2005
Following the Andijan uprising, the unjustified deportation of Forum 18 News Service's Central Asia Correspondent suggests that Tashkent may have, along with an ongoing crackdown on the independent media, tightened its repressive religion policy. One human rights activist told Forum 18 that "the authorities are persecuting Muslims just as much as they did before the events in Andijan." This is denied by the state Religious Affairs Committee. After the uprising, Muslims from throughout the country told Forum 18 that the situation was worsening. Protestants from a number of churches and Jehovah's Witnesses agree with this assessment. Catholic, Orthodox and Hare Krishna representatives have told Forum 18 that they had not noticed any change since the Andijan events. Protestants in north-west Uzbekistan – whose activities in the region are banned – are under great pressure, as are Hare Krishna devotees in that region.
16 August 2005
Forum 18 News Service's Central Asia Correspondent, Igor Rotar, describes how he was unjustifiably detained and deported from Uzbekistan. He was barred from contacting anyone, threatened with jail for "a very long time" for offences which officials refused to explain, and not given a reason for his deportation. One official asked him if he knew why he was being deported, and when he began to guess at a reason, the official stopped him and said "just say yes or no." When he explained to officials that detaining and deporting Forum 18's correspondent would only attract negative attention to Uzbekistan, he was told that the country didn't have specialists who could think like that. Finally, Igor Rotar expresses his deep gratitude to the very many people and organisations who fought for his release.
13 August 2005
The Uzbek government has now (13 August) officially deported Forum 18 News Service's Central Asia Correspondent, Igor Rotar, after detaining him without justification at Tashkent Airport on 11 August. The detention was ordered, so Forum 18 was told, "for political reasons at the highest levels," on the instructions of the National Security Service secret police. Initially the Uzbek intention was to try and force Igor to buy his own ticket out and claim that he was not deported, but his principled strong objections to this tactic resulted in his official deportation. Igor Rotar's unjustified detention in Uzbekistan attracted strong expressions of support and concern from a wide range of individuals, human rights organisations, foreign ministries and news and other international organisations.
Forum 18 and Igor Rotar would like to say a very big THANK YOU to everyone who by their prayers and practical actions helped end this totally unjustified detention.
The case has shown how religious freedom is an excellent "litmus test" of the state of human rights, and that attention should remain on the extremely grave human rights situation still faced by Uzbekistan's people.