UZBEKISTAN: Greater Grace Church Waits in Vain for Registration.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 22 March 2001

One year on from its first application, the Greater Grace church in the town of Samarkand 300 kms (190 miles) south-west of the Uzbek capital Tashkent appears no closer to gaining official registration. Church leaders complain that officials constantly demand further information or clarification of the documentation presented with the application. Finnish pastor Matti Sirvio, who leads the church, told Keston News Service in Tashkent on 16 March that the church is willing to comply with every new demand made by officials. `We have no choice - we have to do it.' However, a senior religious affairs official told Keston that the problem lies with the choice of a foreigner as pastor. `We have enough Christian pastors who are local citizens,' he maintained.

The church - which is based in the Samarkand suburb of Super, named after a local factory - has been warned not to meet until it gets registration.Contacted by telephone in Samarkand on 22 March, Khairidin Faiziev, the deputy head of the khokimyat's justice department who has signed all the rejection letters to the church, claimed he was not responsible for the decision. `It is a collegial decision of the Samarkand justice department,' he told Keston. However, he insisted there were still `inadequacies' in the church's documents, but when asked whether his department would ever approve the church's application once these latest `inadequacies' were corrected he put the phone down.

Shoazim Minovarov, first deputy chairman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent admitted the denial of registration was linked to the pastor's citizenship. `We have nothing against the church - our complaints are only against the choice of a Finn as pastor,' he told Keston by telephone on 22 March. `Our law on religion says the religious leader must be an Uzbek citizen. The church must find an Uzbek citizen.' Asked how this restriction squares with Uzbekistan's international commitments to allow religious groups to choose their own leadership, he responded: `We know our own laws.'

The church's application was lodged with the Samarkand regional khokimiyat (administration) in March 2000. Despite having 100 Uzbek citizens as founding members in accordance with the religion law of May 1998, officials initially told the church registration was `impossible'. `They said we already have enough [Christian] churches in Samarkand,' Pastor Sirvio reported, `but we insisted.' On 12 May 2000, after consulting the government's Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent, Faiziev wrote to the church to insist on changes to its statute, including the insertion of a statement that the church functioned only in Samarkand region. Faiziev said the application could only be considered once the amended documentation was submitted.

After the Helsinki Commission of the United States Congress wrote to Uzbek president Islam Karimov last June urging the `timely registration' of the church, `the attitude changed', Pastor Sirvio added. However, this changed attitude has not so far resulted in registration. Indeed, on 18 September Faiziev wrote again ordering further changes to the statute, including the removal of several more provisions which had not caused problems in the first application. Faiziev said a fresh letter of approval for the registration of the church was required from the khokimiyat of Samarkand's Bagishamal district where the church is located, as well as further clarification of who owns the building where the church meets and under what terms it is used.

After a second Helsinki Commission enquiry through the Uzbek embassy in Washington last December, the local branch of Uzbekistan's political police the SNB (former KGB) came to the church in an apparent bid to seize Pastor Sirvio. However, he had unexpectedly left Uzbekistan the day before. Instead, his assistant - also a foreign citizen - was summoned to the police and threatened with expulsion. Most of the questions the police asked related to Pastor Sirvio. However, since his return to Uzbekistan Pastor Sirvio says the SNB and the police have had no direct contact with him.

Meanwhile, the application was still getting nowhere. In February of this year, Pastor Sirvio came to Tashkent to try to discover from national officials why the application was being repeatedly stalled. He was told the justice department in the Samarkand khokimiyat was handling the application and they would respond.

On 26 February Faiziev wrote again to say the application failed to meet the requirements of the religion law and the procedure for registering religious organisations. He cited the failure to give the number of church buildings and their size, the absence of a copy of the rental agreement and the failure to give sufficient - but unspecified - information about two members of the church's ruling body. Faiziev also said the approval letter from the Bagishamal khokimiyat had now expired and a fresh one was again required.

Other religious communities told Keston in Tashkent that similar nit-picking and repeated objections to the wording of statutes have obstructed registration of their communities. Officials are required to accept or reject applications within three months, so quibbling over wording can easily drag out an application for more than a year. Officials are supposed to present all the objections to the documentation immediately, but successive objections to different parts of a statute, as experienced by the Greater Grace church, are very common.

`We were told that if I was an Uzbek citizen the church would get registration without our needing to come to Tashkent,' Pastor Sirvio told Keston. However, he points out that a number of other religious communities - including Catholic parishes and congregations of Korean Protestant churches - have gained registration with foreign citizens as pastors. Minovarov maintains these cases are temporary exceptions. (END)