Persecution of Christians in Uzbekistan intensified recently after the nations Supreme Court imposed a ban not only on the activities of unregistered churches, but also the registered churches.
On Nov. 9, the Uzbekistan's Supreme Court ruled to keep the ban imposed on the Emmanuel Full Gospel Protestant Church in Nukus, the capital of the north-western autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, despite of the Churchs registered status, according to Norway-based Forum 18.
Forum 18, which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states, noted that Emmanuel Church was the last legal Protestant Church in north-west Uzbekistan.
"The court took no account of the church's views and the verdict means only one thing: it thinks the Church doesn't exist," one Protestant involved in the case told Forum 18 from Tashkent on Nov. 9. "This means the judicial system has again on the usual basis committed the crudest violation, disregarding the arguments of the church's lawyer."
Emmanuel Church has been threatened with closure since June, after the board of the Justice Ministry in Karakalpakstan formally removed registration from the church on May 4. The removal has been confirmed by both the first deputy Justice Minister of the Karakalpakstan Klara Alasheva and Protestant sources, according to a previous Forum 18 report.
In September 2004, Forum 18 reported that the church was accused for carrying missionary activity among fellow-students of Nukus University and holding its services in premises registered for business purposes, which are both violations of the law.
Alasheva told Forum 18 that two church members had actually been fined for violating the law. "Our decision to close down the church was not immediate," Alasheva therefore argued. "We warned them in writing last year about their missionary activity."
Nevertheless, the Church has denied the claims and has continued to appeal for its existence over the last five months. On Nov. 9, the Supreme Court finally ruled not to lift the ban on the Churchs activity.
Meanwhile, the Full Gospel Church congregation in Bakhor mahalla (local district) of Tashkent's Mirobad district has been banned from meeting since late October as well, according to Forum 18. It was reported that "every day at some time or other the local policeman visits the church building.
First deputy head of the Mirobad administration, Alisher Nabiev, insisted that the church must gain official registration before it can function, Forum 18 reported. Church members, however, argued that "they are already registered as part of the Tashkent church."
According to the latest annual International Religious Freedom Report published by the U.S. Department of State, cases such as that of the Full Gospel Church is actually becoming more prevalent in Uzbekistan,
"Some Christian groups applied for registration at local, regional, and national levels and were denied or never received an official answer during the period covered by this report," stated the new report released last week. Some of the examples include the Greater Grace Christian Church in Samarkand, the Mir (Peace) Presbyterian Church in Nukus, the United Church of Evangelical Christians/Baptists in Tashkent, the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Andijon and the Pentecostal Church in Chirchik.
"The 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations requires all religious groups and congregations to register and provides strict and burdensome criteria for their registration," the report said further.
To fulfill the requirements, each religious group must present a list of at least 100 citizen members to the local branches of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and a valid legal address. In this way, "the government is able to ban any group by finding technical grounds for denying its registration," the report added.
"The situation for Christians remains tense," an anonymous Protestant told Forum 18 in early November. "Harsh measures have been targeted at Christians, especially at Protestant denominations."
"Unfortunately in Uzbekistan today there is no Protestant church that doesn't face persecution, whether registered or not."
Currently, the Emmanuel Full Gospel church will continue to pursue its legal status and is preparing to present its case to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Uzbek government's human rights center, the general prosecutor's office and even the National Security Service secret police, according to Forum 18.
In the light of the rising persecution against Christians in Uzbekistan, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended the U.S. Department of State to designate it as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for particularly severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act. Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam are the eight countries currently listed as CPCs.