UZBEKISTAN: 'The Fewer Churches We Have, the Fewer the Problems'?

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 23 August 2001

For almost two years the authorities of the Mirza-Ulugbeksky district of Tashkent in Uzbekistan have refused to register the Bethany Evangelical Christian-Baptist congregation. As Keston News Service has reported (see KNS 27 September 2000, 26 March, 9 April, 27 June & 29 June 2001), members of the congregation have been penalised for conducting worship in an unregistered church building and the pastor faced criminal charges. 'Thanks to the support of international organizations, primarily Keston, the criminal case against me was dropped, but our situation remains uncertain. For example, our church has still not been registered' Bethany church Pastor Nikolai Shevchenko told Keston on 21 August.

The background to the conflict is that according to the Uzbek law on religion 'religious organisations acquire legal status and may carry on their activity after registration with the Ministry of Justice or with the local authorities following the procedures laid down by the legislation.' Since members of the Bethany church were meeting in an unregistered prayer house, the Mirzo-Ulugbeksky district authorities considered that the Baptists' activities were illegal.

Such an interpretation of the Law is debatable. 'Believers have the right to assemble in unregistered prayer houses. The registration of a religious congregation is necessary only for it to be able to act as a public organisation. However, unfortunately, local officials lacking in competence sometimes interpret the law to the effect that if a prayer house is unregistered then the believers have no right to gather there,' Keston was told on 22 August by Shoazim Minovarov, the first deputy chairman of the state Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA). A slightly different interpretation of the law is held by Begzot Kadyrov, the chief specialist of the department for non-Islamic confessions of the CRA, who told Keston on 23 August: 'We indeed cannot ban believers from meeting for prayer in an unregistered church. But, if such a group of people has a leader and he preaches in an unregistered church building, then in this instance we can speak of a violation of the law. Otherwise a dangerous precedent is set: the representatives of some confessions do not want to register and if the authorities do not react to their meetings at all, then the number of religious associations whose members consider that they don't need to register will grow considerably.'

Regardless of the interpretation of Uzbekistan's religion law, it should be noted that it states: 'A religious organisation may be refused registration if the provisions of its statutes and other documents contradict the requirements of the present Law and other legislative acts of the republic of Uzbekistan.' The khakimiat (local authority) of the Mirzo-Ulugbeksky district refused Bethany church registration on the grounds of a resolution of the committee of the makhalla (the sub-district authority) on the inadmissibility of a Christian prayer house functioning on the territory of the makhalla. However, according to the law the consent of the makhalla committee is not required for the registration of a prayer house. 'It is noteworthy that on 9 December 1999 the makhalla committee voted for the activity of our church. However, under pressure from the district authorities on 9 January this year it unexpectedly voted against the functioning of our prayer house on the territory of the makhalla. I believe that such an attitude to Baptists is not the policy of the authorities of our republic. This is the arbitrary action of local officials lacking in competence. We have lodged a declaration with the civil court of the Mirzo-Ulugbeksky district of Tashkent demanding that the resolution of the makhalla committee should be appealed against. Our case should be heard on 5 September,' Nikolai Shevchenko told Keston on 21 August.

On 22 August the president of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Pavel Peychev, told Keston that this is not an isolated incident. 'The authorities have refused registration to five of our churches. Over the last year we have not managed to register a single one of our churches. Officially it is considered that the local (district) authorities are refusing registration, but in reality it is happening on instructions from above. The pressure on Baptists in Uzbekistan is growing. I believe that the authorities at republic level have no interest at all in religious associations being refused registration,' Begzot Kadyrov of the CRA told Keston on 23 August. 'It's another matter if local officials really do sometimes think 'the fewer churches we have, the fewer the problems'.' (END).