UZBEKISTAN: What's Wrong with Religious Charities?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 3 April 2001

Although a number of humanitarian aid charities function in Uzbekistan, some of them affiliated to international charities, so far the Uzbek government has failed to register any local charities with an affiliation to a religious group, Keston News Service learnt in interviews in mid-March in Tashkent. Among those denied registration so far is the local branch of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), while the branch of the international Catholic charity Caritas is still gathering the extensive documentation demanded by officials before it can submit its registration application and begin functioning. The official in charge of registering religious organisations at the justice ministry insisted to Keston that ADRA's registration has not been refused and said if it makes the changes to its documentation demanded by his ministry it will be registered.

ADRA's country director for Uzbekistan, Yakov Fries, who is also an Adventist pastor, told Keston in Tashkent on 12 March that the inspiration for the charity's work is the Adventist faith, but that its work is solely humanitarian and it works on behalf of all in need. `We're not preaching,' he told Keston, `we're only involved in development and relief.' Fries stresses that ADRA works legally in `practically all' countries of the world.

Without registration the charity cannot officially engage in any aid work, cannot bring in money from abroad and cannot support the projects it would like to develop. `There is a lot of need, reviving the country and helping people where the state is not able to. The potential for money from abroad is there - sponsors are ready.' He cited one potential project in the town of Angren, 100 kms (60 miles) from Tashkent, where local Christians are involved in a small-scale project to help drug-addicts. `At present this is working on individual initiative. We would like to support it, but we can't.' Another project ADRA would like to support in Angren is work in a home for the handicapped, which has 100 residents.

ADRA lodged its registration application with the Ministry of Justice in June 2000, but the documents were returned in early September with a demand to change various points in the statute. After discussing the wording with officials, ADRA representatives amended the statute to comply with the demands and lodged the application again. However, at the beginning of December the justice ministry again returned the application, maintaining that further changes were needed. `According to the law they did not have the right to do this,' Fries declared. `They should have explained all the required changes the first time in one go.' The documents were resubmitted in December, but again they were rejected.

Fries reported that the justice ministry initially offered ADRA registration as a foreign organisation, then as a local branch of an international organisation in Uzbekistan. He said he would agree to registration as a branch of an international organisation, although this costs an extra 100 US dollars in registration fees. However, there has been no progress on this. Fries noted that the registration application has been passed from the justice ministry official handling registration of social organisations to the official who registers religious organisations.

Dyalolbek Abdusatarov, the official in charge of registering religious organisations at the Justice Ministry, told Keston by telephone from Tashkent on 3 April that `corrections were needed' to ADRA's documentation. He denied that his ministry had failed to point out all the required changes the first time round or that his ministry has been dragging its feet over the application. `We explained to them the changes they need to make and we are waiting for these corrections,' Abdusatarov declared. `If they correct the documentation and it meets the provisions of the law they will get registration.'

However, officials have remained suspicious of the charity's aims. Shoazim Minovarov, the first deputy chairman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, asked Fries in May 2000 what ADRA proposed to do. Fries outlined the charity's aims, adding that the Canadian embassy had expressed interest in supporting a clean water project on the Aral Sea and that the Japanese embassy had offered support for a hospital. However, both projects have reportedly gone ahead without ADRA's involvement.

Last year the Catholic parish in Tashkent enquired of the justice ministry about submitting an application to register a local branch of Caritas, and in December the ministry orally gave a list of twelve documents that the branch must present, including a copy of Caritas Internationalis' statute, three notarised copies in Uzbek and Russian of the branch's statute, a list of ten local founding members and a receipt to say the application fee of 49,000 sums (101 GPB/145 USD) and 100 US dollars has been paid.

The local Catholic leader, Father Krzysztof Kukulka, issued a decree on 24 November establishing an Uzbek branch of Caritas and on 25 December named Father Andrzej Bialek as acting director. On 10 January Father Kukulka signed a letter of guarantee, declaring the juridical address of the branch at an address belonging to the Catholic church. During a visit to Rome in March, he began collecting documentation from Caritas Internationalis required by the justice ministry.

Catholic officials told Keston in Tashkent that although the branch's statute has already been drawn up, `no official application has yet been made'. However, they remained optimistic that registration will be achieved. `Caritas is an international religious charitable organisation, but it helps people of all faiths without discrimination.' Abdusatarov confirmed that the justice ministry is still waiting for Caritas to submit its application and declined any further comment on the application.

Despite the apparent ban (so far) on registering local religiously-affiliated humanitarian aid organisations, a number of international religious humanitarian aid organisations do function on a small-scale in Uzbekistan with registration from the Foreign Ministry. Among such are Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity, who have a community of seven sisters in Tashkent conducting aid work among the poor. They have had accreditation with the Foreign Ministry since 1995. There are also charities functioning within individual religious or ethnic communities, such as international Jewish charities – such as the Joint Distribution Committee - helping poor Jews or assisting in emigration to Israel.

Article 20 of the 1998 religion law declares that `religious organisations have the right to conduct charitable activity' and a number of religious faiths told Keston in Tashkent that their communities are conducting small-scale projects as part of their community life. Keston learnt of rehabilitation work with drug-addicts, visiting the poor, running soup kitchens and providing food for the poor. No religious organisation Keston spoke to had obtained individual registration for a charitable body.

Foreign employees of international aid organisations working in Uzbekistan have been warned by government officials that they are not permitted to conduct any missionary or religious activity among the population. `A senior government official warned foreign humanitarian aid workers they would not tolerate any religious activities by those aid workers during their work hours or outside it,' one source told Keston in Tashkent. The government is reported to have expelled a number of employees of such organisations over the past few years it suspected of being involved in religious activity. (END)