Uzbekistan Churches Denied, Harassed by Authorities

Though Uzbekistan does not openly persecute Christians while it is receiving support from the west, several instances of persecution, imprisonments, and threats have been reported in the former Soviet nation. And while officially Uzbekistan is a democratic secular state, the government supports Islam, the nation’s predominant religion.

According to a recent report released by the Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, it is almost impossible for a church to be registered in Uzbekistan. Even two of the largest Uzbek churches in the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent, with over 600 and 500 members respectively, cannot get state registration, although they are two of many churches which have over 100 members—one requirement needed for registration. Without registration, any religious activities are considered illegal - even meetings in believers' homes. For this reason some churches meet in different places and on various days.

The RLC also reported that a Full Gospel church in Andizhan unsuccessfully tried three times for registration, with the police interrogating church members following each attempt. After being advised to close the religious 'office', the Uzbek pastor wrote an open letter on behalf of local pastors in his region to the Christian newspaper, Vechnii Zov, in February 2004. Conditions then worsened for him and his church, and some members moved to other cities and countries, fearing persecution.

Other churches face similar situations. Of the 182 registered religious organizations in Andizhan, 180 are Muslim and only two are Christian. No Christian churches have been registered there during the last 12 years.

In February 2004 a registered Baptist church in Urengech was closed under the pretext of illegal work with children against their will or without their parents' consent. In July 2004 at least two of its members were detained by police and harassed with threats of a long imprisonment. One was beaten and threatened he would be falsely accused of keeping drugs. The police called them agents of Western secret services.

A Pentecostal Uzbek pastor in Fergana has been arrested twice. Once he was reading the Bible in a market and a crowd gathered around him to listen. He was detained at the police station for eight days and interrogated by the police chief, his assistant and another police head. They said he could not be a Christian because he is from a Muslim family. The second time this pastor was arrested his wife was called in too. He knows of other instances when pastors have been arrested and fined. He is quoted as saying in May 2004 that there is religious freedom for Russians in Uzbekistan but not for Uzbek Christians.

According to the RLC report, Uzbek converts to Christianity suffer severe hardship with opposition from their families, society and even state officials. “An Uzbek who becomes a Christian faces three stages of persecution,” the RLC reported. “It starts in the convert's family who pressure him forcefully to return to Islam, with threats, beating or even eviction from the home. If that does not work, the community starts oppressing him in the same way. For community-oriented Uzbek people, expulsion from family or society is a real tragedy. State persecution is the third stage.”

One pastor told the RLC that due to the country's poor economic situation, the state does not openly persecute Christians while people in the West are helping Uzbekistan. If the aid stopped the times may become much harder for Christians, the pastor said.

Uzbek pastors have asked their Christians worldwide to continue praying for the Church in Uzbekistan.