Religious Repression Grows in Uzbekistan

Authorities have been confiscating Bibles and other Christian literature as part of a ''violent religious crackdown.''

The Uzbekistan government has intensified its repression of religion in response to the rise of Islamic terror and insurgency in recent years, according to the Religious Liberty Commission of a global network of Christians.

As part of a “violent religious crackdown” that started the day after the May 12-13 crisis in Andijan, authorities have been confiscating Bibles and other Christian literature as they try to rid the land of “destabilizing, politically activist Islamist literature,” reported the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC) in a prayer bulletin released last Wednesday.

“Whilst Uzbekistan's government is 'democratic,' it still uses Soviet-style corruption and repression to shore up elites and keep its grip on power,” the RLC stated in the July 13 statement.

“The government has also adopted harsh measures to counter the Islamist threat,” it continued. “Unfortunately these measures also affect the Protestant Christian minority.”

In 1998, Uzbekistan revised its religion laws and became one of the world's worst religious liberty abusers.

Although Uzbekistan released several Christian pastors imprisoned on false charges in August 1999, the RLC noted that the decision was due to international pressure, in particular from the United States through its Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, which links aid and trade to religious liberty.

After insurgency in 2000, the government further tightened the reins on unregistered religious groups. According to reports, thousands of Muslims allegedly associated with Wahhabis, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or Hizb ut-Tahrir and their off-shoots were subsequently arrested, creating considerable distress, hardship and anger in the community. The IMU has close ties to al-Qaeda, and its stated aim is to establish an Islamic state across Central Asia. Also Hizb ut- Tahrir, which combines Wahhabi doctrine with Leninist strategy and tactics, threatens to destabilize not only Uzbekistan but all Central Asia.

In addition, the fertile and well-populated Ferghana Valley is home to a growing number of Wahhabi Islamists and militants.

Uzbekistan, a Central Asian former Soviet state, is over 90 percent Muslim. It has a significant Islamic history and identity, and its capital, Tashkent, is the Islamic stronghold of Central Asia. After the break up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) Islamic groups, especially Saudis, poured into the newly independent Central Asian republics to build mosques and madrassas as well as flood them with Qurans and Wahhabi literature.

The Church in Uzbekistan, however, is small (1.3 percent), repressed and persecuted, according to the RLC. It is almost impossible for churches to get government registration, even when they meet all the requirements. Unregistered religious activity is illegal and Protestant leaders are regularly harassed and fined by local authorities. Christians who have converted out of Islam face persecution from Muslim society. They are condemned and punished by unofficial community courts, and receive no help or redress from the authorities. Meanwhile, all “missionary work” and Christian witness remains illegal.

According to Norway-based Forum 18, the last legal Protestant church in the autonomous Karakalpakstan republic in north-western Uzbekistan – the Nukus-based Emmanuel Full Gospel Church – lost its appeal against closure on July 5.

Forum 18, which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states, was told by an official of Karakalpakstan's Religious Affairs Committee that “cases have come to light where Christians from this church have promoted their views outside the premises occupied by the religious organization.”

“This is not allowed under Uzbek law,” the official said.

As the Karakalpakstan Justice Ministry closed down several other Protestant organizations after a revised religion law was adopted in 1998 and it is illegal for unregistered religious communities to hold worship services or other religious activities, all Protestant activities in Karakalpakstan are now banned.

According to Forum 18, this is the latest development in a long-running anti-Protestant campaign by the Karakalpakstan authorities.

Groups such as the RLC are requesting for prayers for the pastors of the unregistered Christian fellowships in Uzbekistan, “that they will have great wisdom and courage as they continue to preach, teach and lead the Church,” and that the nation’s president will pursue the political and economic reforms needed to ease social tensions, increasing liberty, prosperity and justice.