UZBEKISTAN: 'Catch-22' for Tashkent's Protestant Church.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 April 2001

Five years after first applying for registration, an independent Baptist church in the Uzbek capital Tashkent has been repeatedly rejected, with officials of the district khokimiyat (administration) withholding permission because the house where the church meets is in a housing zone. `We're in a Catch-22 situation,' the pastor of Bethany Church, Nikolai Shevchenko, told Keston News Service. `The justice department can't register us because we have no legal address, and we can't get a legal address because the house is listed only for domestic use.'

Speaking on 10 March at the church building in Tashkent, Pastor Shevchenko reported that the previous day he had passed documents about the denial of registration to an aide to a presidential advisor and was told the presidential council would rule on the matter within one month. Pastor Shevchenko - who insists the problems have been caused by local, not national officials - was fined last year for continuing to lead services at the church despite the lack of registration.

In the early 1990s, the then owner of the house allowed Bible studies to begin, with full-scale services beginning in 1996. That same year Pastor Shevchenko applied to the government's Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) for registration (at that time registration was not compulsory), but was told orally that `we're against the building of a Baptist church'. The owner of the house died soon after, then came the change in the religion law in May 1998 that made registration compulsory and which drastically increased the documentation required to submit a registration application, including written approval from the local khokimiyat, the fire service, the sanitary inspectorate and the epidemiological service.

`In 1998 we began to apply again but they refused to accept the documents,' Pastor Shevchenko reported. `They told us they would complete the re-registration process for those with registration before accepting new applications.' The church applied to found a new religious organisation to the city khokimiyat in September 1999, which gave its permission. The church then applied to the CRA, which said it needed the approval of the khokim of Tashkent's Mirzo-Ulugbek district. The church wrote to him in January 2000 but he refused, citing the fact that the house where the church meets is located in a domestic zone. The church then applied to the city khokimiyat for the house to be reassigned from domestic to non-domestic use. They refused, but declined to give the response in writing despite the church's repeated requests.

The church wrote again to the city khokim later last year to try to have the house use reassigned. A khokimiyat commission examined the issue and although the fire service, epidemiological service and other bodies were happy, the architectural administration refused to give permission. `They said that as the church is not a juridical entity the transfer cannot take place - transfers can only be made to juridical entities,' Pastor Shevchenko reported.

Pastor Shevchenko insisted the church met all the requirements for registration, having presented the list of 100 adult citizen founders, the record of the founding meeting, and the certificate of religious education for the church leaders.

On 14 May last year the district police raided a Sunday service at the house. `Nine police officers and the deputy head of the local police arrived, sealed the gates and recorded the names and details of all those present. They drew up a report on an unsanctioned religious meeting.' The following day Pastor Shevchenko was summoned to an administrative hearing, where he was fined 8,750 sums, five times the minimum monthly wage, for leading the unsanctioned meeting. `Of course I paid the fine,' he told Keston. `They threatened to confiscate the house otherwise.' The police warned Pastor Shevchenko that if the church meets again he would be sent to prison. After that the church had to cancel its services later on Sunday morning, having to hold the service early in the morning before the police are active. `Since last May we have not been touched, though they have rung up to ask if we still meet. I tell them we do nothing against the law.'

Pastor Shevchenko was the founder of an Association of Independent Churches, which unites a dozen Protestant Churches in various towns across the country. He noted that their church in the town of Almalyk south east of Tashkent, which is led by Pastor Aleksandr Bondar, has had similar problems applying for registration as it too meets in a private home. Other congregations too - including those in Nukus and Takhiatash in the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic of western Uzbekistan - languish without registration. (END)