UZBEKISTAN: How many forced closures of religious communities?
Uzbekistan tries hard to camouflage its religious freedom violations and one way it does this is through statistics. Comparing February 2007 figures from the state Religious Affairs Committee with October 2002 figures, Forum 18 News Service notes that a net total of six Christian churches are indicated to have lost registration, along with one Jehovah's Witness, one Hare Krishna and one Baha'i community. The figures cannot be independently verified and conceal denominational differences, with an increase in Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic communities disguising loss of legal status of Protestant churches. Religious believers inside Uzbekistan indicate that the reality may be much worse. Some Protestant churches have recently calculated that 38 of their congregations were closed down by the state between 2000 and 2006. Over 100 religious communities of various faiths are thought to have tried unsuccessfully to gain registration. The Religious Affairs Committee asserts that "there there are no restrictions on or hindrances to registration." Without state registration, all religious activity is illegal and religious believers are subjected to harsh state action.
Attempts by Forum 18 to obtain figures of religious community closures from the Justice Ministry were likewise unsuccessful. Between 6 and 13 February, Forum 18 made numerous attempts to talk to Jalalbek Abdusatarov, head of the Religious Organisations Registration Department at the Ministry. Each time, an employee who refused to give his name said that Abdusatarov was not there and that nobody else was able to provide information. Regional Justice departments have been similarly uninformative. On 14 February, Bekmukhamad Latyrinov, head of the Religious and Social Organisations Registration Section of the Samarkand [Samarqand] Justice Department, refused to answer any questions from Forum 18 by telephone.
But, according to statistics from the Religious Affairs Committee published by the government-sponsored website press-uz.info on 15 February, 2,222 religious communities of 16 faiths currently have registration. A total of 2,042 of these are Muslim, 164 are Christian of various unspecified denominations, 8 are Jewish, 6 are Baha'i and one each are Hare Krishna and Buddhist. It remains unclear why neither the Committee nor the Justice Ministry was able to provide these figures to Forum 18 just a few days earlier.
The statistics – which cannot be verified independently – compare with the Committee's figures of a total of 2,152 registered communities in October 2002. Of these, 1,965 were Muslim, 61 Korean Protestant churches, 36 Russian Orthodox, 23 Baptist, 22 Full Gospel, 11 Seventh-day Adventist, 7 Baha'i, 6 Jewish, 5 Catholic, 4 Lutheran, 4 New Apostolic, 2 Jehovah's Witness, 2 Hare Krishna, 1 Armenian Apostolic, 1 Voice of God Protestant church, 1 Buddhist - as well as 1 Bible Society branch.
Comparing the figures, a net total of six Christian churches have lost registration in four and a half years, as well as one Jehovah's Witness, one Hare Krishna and one Baha'i community. However, these figures conceal denominational differences, with an increase in the number of Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic communities disguising the loss of legal status for Protestant churches.
Official figures should be treated with caution. For example, in 2005 the authorities falsely claimed to Forum 18 that a Catholic parish was registered in Nukus, in north-west Uzbekistan (see F18News 2 June 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=575)
Amongst the other statistical propaganda tools used to deny religious freedom violations has been an opinion poll conducted by a government-run "non governmental" organisation (see F18News 19 December 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=891). This camouflage effort has run in tandem with an increase in the state-run mass media's encouragement of intolerance against religious minorities (see F18News 19 December 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=890)
Some of the religious communities, known to Forum 18, which have been closed by the authorities in the last 18 months are: the Jehovah's Witness congregation in Fergana [Farghona] (see F18News 15 February 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=912); the Seventh-day Adventist church and a Korean Protestant church in Samarkand (see F18News 19 May 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=784); as well as the Full Gospel church in Nukus (see F18News 11 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=686).
The Bethany Baptist church, in the Mirzo-Ulugbek district of Tashkent, has long been denied official registration and therefore the right to function. Two church members were deported in 2006 (see F18News 6 September 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=838). The congregation decided to hold a celebratory meal for church members at Easter 2006 in the church building, the first time the congregation had used its church building in two years. Congregation members prepared a traditional plov rice meal and tea but, as Protestant sources told Forum 18, within ten minutes of the event beginning the local police arrived and closed it down. The congregation has not dared to use its church building since.
Escalating pressure on congregation members typically follows such closures (see eg. F18News 26 January 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=719 and 5 May 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=774).
Adventist sources in Uzbekistan told Forum 18 on 14 February their church in Samarkand was closed by the authorities as "we had been meeting in a building different from the address stated in our registration document. We don't intend to appeal against the decision." There are still four registered Adventist churches in Tashkent and Tashkent region.
An Uzbek Protestant pastor, who preferred not to be named, told Forum 18 that a number of Protestant churches, of a cross-section of non-Korean denominations, had calculated recently that between them, 38 of their congregations had been closed down between 2000 and 2006 under varying official pretexts. (Christian missionaries from Korea have been quite active in Central Asia.)
Forum 18 estimates that over 100 religious communities have been trying unsuccessfully for many years to obtain registration from the Justice Ministry. But only one Christian church per year is being registered: one Protestant church in 2005, another in 2006, and the Armenian Apostolic Church in Tashkent in January 2007.
The Religious Affairs Committee continues to deny that any pressure is being exerted against religious communities and brushes aside any complaints of denial or removal of legal status from congregations. "The Committee regards assertions that 'the republican authorities have increased pressure on Protestants over the last few months' as groundless," it claimed in a 12 February statement posted by the press-uz.info agency. "The number of religious organisations in our country is growing. This shows that there are no restrictions on or hindrances to registration." On 14 February, Aziz Obidov, the Committee's Press Secretary, refused to make any further comment to Forum 18. "We have already communicated everything we think necessary and we are not going to comment further." (END)
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=777.
A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=806, and of religious intolerance in Central Asia is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=815.
A printer-friendly map of Uzbekistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=uzbeki
15 February 2007
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
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
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.