UZBEKISTAN: Jehovah's Witness Registrations Obstructed.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 6 April 2001

Some ten Jehovah's Witness communities across Uzbekistan have been denied registration, despite having 100 adult citizen members and meeting all the other requirements, Jehovah's Witnesses told Keston News Service in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 18 March. `Most of these groups applied back in 1999, but nothing has changed,' declared the representatives, who preferred not to be named. `We have only two registered communities in the entire country - in Chirchik and Fergana.' The Jehovah's Witnesses attributed the registration obstructions to a `lack of understanding' on the part of the authorities at all levels, `from the mahalla [local district] right up to the Ministry of Justice'. `If they knew us better this would be overcome.' They pledged to resolve all outstanding problems with the authorities directly through dialogue.

The representatives complained that the authorities `look at the application documents constantly', but there are `no written refusals'. `They ask us to change this word in the application, this building is not suitable - all the responses are on this level.' They reported that they comply with each new demand. `Each time they mention a problem with an application we sort it out. We're not giving up.'

Tashkent's 2,000-strong Jehovah's Witness community cannot meet, Keston was told, because of the lack of registration. `We can't all meet together. It's banned. They tell us we have no right to meet.' The Jehovah's Witnesses have decided to comply with this instruction. `We want to show we're law-abiding people.'

Ever since the harsh new religion law and changes to the criminal code in 1998, the Jehovah's Witnesses have had a difficult time. `Raids, detentions of up to 15 days and administrative fines were frequent in 1999,' the Jehovah's Witnesses told Keston. `However, such actions have fallen considerably more recently.'

Although much reduced, such harassment continues. They cited one `typical example': a raid on a meeting in the Yunusabad district of Tashkent on 14 March. Eight Jehovah's Witnesses were meeting in a private house when the police arrived, insisting that they let them in. The owner opened the door after they threatened to break it down. `The police told them they had been informed that a Jehovah's Witness meeting was underway.' The eight were held for almost 24 hours and officially warned, after which six of them were sentenced under the administrative code for `unregistered religious activity'. The house owners - Pyotr and Aleksandra Kirilchuk - were each fined 24,500 sums (USD 72 at the official rate, USD 27 at the bazaar rate), ten times the minimum monthly wage.

Despite such widespread official opposition to their activities, the Jehovah's Witness representatives told Keston that there are some officials who are `more objective' and even `sympathetic' towards them. They insist that the Jehovah's Witnesses simply wish to resolve the outstanding problems directly with the government. `Our priority is to resolve these problems. Our aim is to have legal activity in Uzbekistan.' The representatives declined to give Keston details of other recent instances of harassment, maintaining that the best method to bring such harassment to an end was by quiet negotiation. They also insisted that they would obey instructions and halt any religious activities the government disliked, such as preaching from house to house or even meeting in large groups until they get registration. `We don't want to do anything in secret.'

In future the Jehovah's Witnesses would like to register a religious centre, which would then allow them officially to publish and import literature and provide education. `We would like to acquaint people with our publications, the Bible most of all. We would like our education to be available as we would like people to see that the education the Jehovah's Witnesses offer makes for better people.' However, the representatives told Keston that such hopes were not realistic in the immediate future. `At present we're focusing on registration for our communities.' (END)