UZBEKISTAN: Zoroastrians and Old Believers Without Registration.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 30 March 2001

While many religious communities of a variety of faiths have been denied registration in Uzbekistan - either because they do not have the required 100 adult citizens required by the restrictive 1998 religion law or simply because the government does not like them – two faiths that have no registered communities are the Zoroastrians and the Uraltsy Old Believers. One Zoroastrian in the Uzbek capital Tashkent highlighted the difficulty in raising the fee needed to register an individual community, set by the Cabinet of Ministers in June 1998 at 50 times the minimum monthly wage.

The Zoroastrians' and Old Believers' lack of registration makes all communal activity technically illegal, although Keston News Service has not learned of any specific incidents of harassment from the authorities.

Zoroastrian representatives in Tashkent told Keston in March that they have some 150 adherents in the whole country and would `very much' like to establish a functioning temple (they point out that there are `many ancient Zoroastrian temples' in the country). Asked whether any communities had applied for registration with the authorities, one Zoroastrian responded: `Not yet, because it is necessary to pay some money for registration and we must find the money.' However, he confirmed that the community does meet in private homes. He added that there are a number of books about the faith that the community would like to see published.

Another community forced to meet without registration is the Uraltsy Old Believers, a Christian group mainly found in villages near Nukus, the capital of Uzbekistan's autonomous Karakalpakstan republic in the west of the country. The Uraltsy are descendants of Ural Cossacks deported from their native villages to what is now the Karakalpakstan republic in the 1870s for insubordination. Although many younger Uraltsy have emigrated from Uzbekistan since independence in 1991, Keston has learnt that older members of the community still practise their faith in villages around Nukus, with believers conducting rituals in private homes.

Timur Abdullaev, a senior expert at the Department for International Cooperation of the government's National Human Rights Centre, told Keston in Tashkent on 17 March that there were also functioning communities of Buddhists in Uzbekistan, but had no information about where they met. No Buddhist communities currently have registration.

Another religious community that has been able to meet officially for worship despite failing to get registration so far is the International Church, an English-language Protestant community in Tashkent with a membership of more than 100, mostly foreign nationals. Guy Cosnahan, the church secretary, told Keston in Tashkent on 15 March that his church managed to collect the required documentation and lodged a registration application despite years of opposition from local and national officials, although the founding 100 adults were not Uzbek citizens as required by law but foreign residents. In January 2000 church members went to the local khokimiyat (administration), where officials refused to tell them what was wrong with the documentation. `Registration is not going to happen,' they were told bluntly. In May 2000 the Ministry of Justice telephoned church members, telling them to take the application back, together with the rejection letter. Until they had received the rejection they were unable to take their case to the commission that reviews registration applications by minority communities. A meeting at the offices of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) in Tashkent last August failed to resolve the deadlock.

However, despite the denial of registration, Shoazim Minovarov, first deputy chairman of the CRA, wrote to Karim Rasulov, chairman of the Republican International Cultural Centre in Tashkent where the church meets, last October to say that the application was still being considered. He added that `until the final decision is adopted, we do not object to the rental by the church's leadership of premises to conduct their services'.

Although the church is able to function publicly in legal limbo, Cosnahan insisted that the church's aim is to gain registration with full legal rights, arguing that foreign nationals living in Uzbekistan legally had the right to carry out religious activity legally.

As long as Uzbekistan's religious laws continue to criminalise unregistered religious activity, such groups functioning without legal registration will remain vulnerable to criminal punishment. (END)