UZBEKISTAN: Threat to Baptist Sunday Schools.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 24 May 2001

Uzbekistan's Justice Ministry has ordered the Baptist Church to halt its Sunday schools and cancel the certificates given out to religious education teachers it has trained. The ministry cites the country's religion law, which bans religious communities from providing education without a registered educational establishment. However, an official of the Justice Ministry insisted to Keston News Service that his ministry was not intent on closing down the Baptist Church's Sunday schools, merely questioning the legality of the certificates the Baptist Union was issuing to teachers it had trained. `The Baptists don't have an educational institution,' he maintained. `This is a question not of the Sunday schools but of the certificates, which are the crudest violation of the law.' The Baptist Union maintained to Keston that the schools and teacher training are within the law and expressed concern at `this latest manifestation of bureaucratic pressure'.

The letter - drawn up by Jalalbek Abdusatarov, head of the ministry's department of social and religious organisations, and signed by deputy justice minister P. Samatov - was received by the Baptist Union in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 18 May. The church was instructed `to halt Sunday school lessons for underage children, as well as to consider invalid the issuing by the [Baptist] Union of certificates to 56 teachers who completed special courses and who are at present teaching underage children.' The letter also contained a warning. `If the failure to abide by the law is not removed by the leadership within a period of one month, the question will be considered of halting its activity and annulling the certificates it has issued.'

The letter cites Article 3 of the religion law, which bans `the drawing in of underage children into religious organisations, as well as the study of their religion against their will or the will of their parents or those in their place', and Article 9, which declares: `Religious educational establishments obtain the right to conduct their activity after their registration by the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan and the receipt by them of the appropriate licence.'

Abdusatarov was unavailable by telephone on 24 May, but another official of the ministry's department of social and religious organisations - who did not give his name - insisted that giving out certificates violated Article 9 of the religion law. Although the Baptist Union is registered as a centralised religious organisation, and is thus eligible to found an educational establishment, the official declared that it does not have such a registered educational establishment. He declined to say why the Baptists had been told to halt Sunday schools if, as he maintained, the problem solely lay with the certificates issued to teachers the church had trained.

The Baptist Union rejected the ministry's attempt to ban its work with children, stressing that its `position of principle' contained three elements: that Sunday schools do not constitute educational establishments; that churches do not involve children in Sunday school against their will or the will of their parents or those who have care of them; and that as few people have the opportunity to acquire the moral education suitable for Sunday school teachers, the Union has been obliged to establish such courses.

The Baptist Union told Keston on 23 May that all the Sunday schools are held within local congregations of the Union and `are not envisaged to teach children but are used only for children's moral education in the spirit of religious truths taken from the Bible'. It stressed that the `absolute majority' of children who attend come to church with their parents and `while parents take part in the service the children are in the care of the Sunday school teachers'. Seminars to train teachers are only designed to show who is suitable for such work, the Union added, by checking for example their `spiritual state and knowledge of the Bible'. `Certificates of completing the appropriate seminars issued by the Union are not documents on education, but merely serve as a kind of guarantee for church leaders and parents that a given Sunday school teacher properly understands his task and is capable of carrying it out.'

The Union notes that all its registered churches specify in their statutes a that they can create `Sunday schools for the study of the Bible and other religious literature'. `The standard statute received the approval at the time of all the required [state] agencies and the churches have been officially registered. Thus the activity of the Sunday schools in churches in the form in which they currently function is absolutely legal.' (END)