I. UZBEKISTAN DENIES VISA RENEWAL TO TASHKENT RABBI

II. ARE THE UZBEK AUTHORITIES SOFTENING THEIR STANCE? Wednesday 30 September 1998 UZBEKISTAN DENIES VISA RENEWAL TO TASHKENT RABBI by Felix Corley, Keston News Service The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has refused to renew the visa of the head of Tashkent's Jewish community, Rabbi ABBA DAVID GUREVICH. The Foreign Ministry declined to give a reason for its refusal. The community is now concerned that he might be forced to leave Uzbekistan. Rabbi Gurevich, who is a United States citizen and is affiliated with the Lubavich movement, has worked in Uzbekistan since 1990. Since his arrival, he has been instrumental in reviving Jewish life in this Central Asian state, opening a yeshivah, a kolel where the Torah can be studied, and a day school for 350 students, the only Jewish school in Tashkent. He has also organised summer camps, youth clubs and humanitarian aid for the poor. The community estimates the number of Jews in Tashkent at more than 30,000. 'Even the note of the Ambassador of Israel in Tashkent, MR NOACH GAL GENDLER, where he asks the Uzbek Government to renew Gurevich's visa and to renew the registration of his institutions under the new law, did not help,' a member of the community told Keston News Service. 'The situation is very very bad. All the Jewish life in Uzbekistan and the community's wellbeing is in big danger!' The visa refusal comes in the wake of Uzbekistan's harsh new law on freedom of conscience adopted by parliament on 1 May and which came into force on 15 May. Jewish communities - like those of other faiths - have been experiencing difficulties gaining reregistration under the new law. These difficulties are perhaps surprising, given the growing ties between the Uzbek and Israeli governments and the welcome accorded to Jewish visitors in Tashkent. On 13 May, President of Uzbekistan ISLAM KARIMOV received a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. 'During the Second World War, thousands of Jews found safety in Uzbekistan,' Karimov told them in remarks published by the Presidential Office the following day. 'Up to now, there has been no antisemitism in our country. There are many functioning synagogues here and a Central Asian seminary. In several of our cities, there are networks of Jewish communities. This shows that there is inter-ethnic accord.' A high-level Israeli delegation headed by Prime Minister BINYAMIN NETANYAHU visited Tashkent on 28 May and President Karimov of Uzbekistan recently visited Jerusalem, where he gave strong backing to the Jewish state. Such vocal high-level support has not prevented the Jewish community in Uzbekistan suffering the same problems faced by other religious communities. (END) Wednesday 30 September 1998 ARE THE UZBEK AUTHORITIES SOFTENING THEIR STANCE? by Felix Corley, Keston News Service Officials of Uzbekistan's State Committee for Religious Affairs, which reports to the Council of Ministers, have given contradictory signals on whether the country's harsh new law on religion is being implemented in full. The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations, adopted by parliament on 1 May, lays down that all unregistered religious activity is illegal and, to gain registration with the Ministry of Justice, religious groups must have at least 100 adult members. An associated Council of Ministers decree of 20 June gave a deadline of 15 August for religious communities with registration under the old law to submit applications for reregistration. The decree also specified that applications require high fees and certificates from about a dozen state bodies. The short timescale allowed for applications to be completed - especially in view of the complex array of different documents required - meant that many communities had not presented their reregistration applications by the 15 August deadline. Only about one fifth of mosques are said to have done so. Following protests from minority religious communities and foreign diplomatic pressure, officials from the Committee for Religious Affairs appeared to have softened some of the harsh provisions. On 4 August SHAAMIL MINOVAROV, the deputy chairman of the Committee, told five Christian leaders verbally in the course of a meeting that the minimum requirement for 100 adult members could be waived and that the 15 August deadline was being extended until the end of the year. This statement was not published and no amendment was made to the law to allow this. State officials gave similar responses to foreign diplomats. On 24 August, two lawyers who have been working with the Jehovah's Witnesses, LUBOMIR MULLER and SERGEI SVETKIN, met SHARAFUDDIN MIRMAKHMUDOV, the Chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs. Mirmakhmudov told them that if a local religious organisation had fewer than one hundred persons (as required by the law) it could ask for an exemption from the provision, and such a request could be approved.  If several local religious organisations would like to create a centralised governing body, but they were not registered in eight districts (as required by the law), they could also ask for an exemption from the provision. Muller commented after the meeting: 'This information was very surprising since the law does not say anything about any exemptions.' The two lawyers also asked about the exact meaning of the term 'proselytism' because, while prohibited by the law, the term is not defined. Mirmakhmudov said that it meant applying constant pressure to others when spreading one's faith. He claimed that this prohibition is not in conflict with freedom of religion. At the end of August a leading Christian met the deputy justice minister, who said that the Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists, and the Bible Society, had been granted exemptions from the new law and were registered. To clarify the situation, Keston News Service telephoned the Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent. An official who answered the phone declared that the deadline for reregistration applications had been extended from 15 August to 15 October, as many religious communities had not succeeded in completing application formalities by then, although he declared he did not know whether the deadline extension was by a decree of the government or otherwise. He then referred further enquiries about such 'official information' to Minovarov, the deputy chairman. Minovarov, in a lengthy telephone interview with Keston News Service on 29 September, declared that the 15 August deadline had not changed, although he pledged that any community applying for reregistration after that date would get it. 'The process hasn't ended,' he declared. He reported that two centralised religious organisations had been reregistered, the Muslim Administration and the Russian Orthodox Church. He said that no other applications to register centralised religious organisations had been received, but that if any were received they would be considered. Minovarov also reported that as of 15 September, 721 religious organisations had been reregistered. Some 600 were Muslim, 103 were Christian of various denominations, while the rest were of other faiths. He named among the Christian denominations the Russian Orthodox, Adventists, Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists, but said he did not have a breakdown of how many communities of each denomination had been reregistered. Of the reregistered groups of other faiths, he said three were Jewish. He said the Jehovah's Witnesses had not put in any reregistration applications. Minovarov admitted that not all reregistration applications had been successful. He denied that any had been refused, but said that eleven had been returned for further additions as some of the information on the applications had been inadequate or incomplete. However, he did not have information on which religious groups these eleven represented. Asked about reports that the Uzbek authorities might have reduced the minimum requirement for 100 adult members, Minovarov - describing this as a 'change' - confirmed the statements he made to Christian leaders at the meeting in early August that exceptions could be made to the provisions of the law for groups with fewer than 100 adult members. 'If religious minorities, such as Baptists, Adventists or Lutherans, do not have enough members,' he told Keston News Service, 'we will consider their applications. If there are 70 members or even 50, in principle we will consider them. This is so as not to deprive them of their right to meet.' Minovarov declared that a commission had been set up in August to consider applications submitted by religious minorities. Asked if this 'change' to the law had been published, he declared that it had been announced 'officially' to religious leaders verbally in the course of a meeting. 'It is not necessary to publish this in the newspapers. All the people who need to know do know.' Asked whether believers who held meetings without registration were breaking the law, Minovarov said that groups of say ten people who wished to meet together for prayer, for example, would not be breaking the law. However, he said that to engage in any activity as a religious community, for example to hold a bank account, required registration. Minovarov appeared to be surprised to learn that Keston had copies of three appeals by Christian groups sent to President ISLAM KARIMOV in May and June protesting at some provisions of the new law. On 28 May the Evangelical Christians-Baptists had complained that the new law turned law-abiding believers into criminals. On 16 June the Adventists had appealed for a reduction in the minimum number of members required for registration from 100 to 10 and for groups with only three communities to be allowed to set up centralised religious organisations. They also asked for the ban on proselytism to be lifted. Also on 16 June, priests and ministers from five communities (Catholic, Evangelical-Lutheran, Evangelical Christian-Baptist, Adventist and Full Gospel) had asked for the removal of the 100-member provision and removal of the ban on missionary activity. There were apparently no replies to these letters. Minovarov told Keston that he had not seen the text of these appeals. Asked about the visa renewal problems of Chief Rabbi ABBA DAVID GUREVICH, Minovarov became clearly angry and refused to answer. 'Your questions are not journalistic questions.' At the conclusion of the interview, Minovarov requested that Keston publish the account of the interview accurately, in order to avoid any misunderstandings. Several of Minovarov's remarks seem to contradict information from other sources. Lubomir Muller reports that the Jehovah's Witness congregation in Chirchik was registered in 1994 and has applied for reregistration, although Minovarov denies any Jehovah's Witness congregations have applied. The Tashkent Jehovah's Witness community has repeatedly applied for registration without success since 1996. Both communities have assembled all the relevant paperwork for new applications, but the local heads of administration have - without explanation - refused to sign papers guaranteeing their address and mailing address. Although the applications have therefore not yet been lodged with the Committee, Muller's complaints on behalf of the two communities have certainly brought these pending applications to the attention of the Committee. Despite Minovarov's claims that registration is not absolutely required for private religious meetings, Muller reports continuing fines of Jehovah's Witnesses for holding meetings in private homes without registration.  For example, on 12 August, LYUDMILA MOISEYEVA, born 1951, PYOTR KIRILCHUK, born 1969, and ALEKSANDR VOROBYOV, born 1974, were fined by Mizo-Ulugbek Circuit Court judge M. B. KURBANBAYEV.  The fine, under Article 241 of the Administrative Code (which punishes illegal religious education), was 5500 Uzbek sum (about $US54 according to the official exchange rate).  The only reason given for the fine was that on 9 August, together with '40-50 other people', they met at the home of Lyudmila Moiseyeva and 'without permission and without registration_ preached religious doctrines without special ecclesiastical education and without permission from an ecclesiastical Centre'. 'I sent complaints against the khyakims [administration heads] in Tashkent and Chirchik to Mr. Mirmakhmudov and also to MRS RASHIDOVA, the ombudsman of Uzbekistan,' Muller reports. 'As an attorney, I also prepared an appeal against the 12 August decision of the Mizo-Ulugbek Circuit Court on the grounds that it violates obligations made by Uzbekistan according to international agreements, in particular Articles 18-20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 1-3, 6, a), e) and i) of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.' In addition, representatives of minority communities fear that those who put their signature on registration applications may face negative consequences for doing so. A Vatican official told Keston on 30 September that, while at present signatures of the 100 members are sufficient, 'there is a fear that a more detailed identification of the signatories on the part of the Uzbek authorities could discourage those willing to sign.' Such fears especially affect Catholics who, mostly of Slav origin (Polish, Ukrainian, Russian), feel less secure in Uzbekistan. However, the official was careful to highlight some of the positive developments, such as the return to the Catholic communities of the churches in Tashkent and Samarkand confiscated during the early communist period. Privately, senior Uzbek officials have told Western diplomats over the past few months that they are prepared to grant certain Christian groups concessions, believing that Western governments have little interest in problems faced by Muslims who reject government controls. Western diplomats have reportedly sressed to the Uzbek authorities that they are just as concerned about religious liberty violations against the majority Muslim population as against the Christian and other minorities. Muslims who reject government control have faced harassment and some activists have been arrested and sentenced on trumped-up charges. A number of leading Islamic figures have 'disappeared'. While it appears that the Uzbek authorities are prepared to relax some of the law's provisions on an unofficial, ad hoc basis, the principle of strict state control of all religious activity has not changed. The failure to publicise these unofficial exemptions and the failure to apply them equally to all religious groups will put in doubt the government's claims to want to protect the rights of religious communities. The government has done nothing to address other parts of the law that violate its international commitments to religious freedom and freedom of expression.