UZBEKISTAN: Court Victory But Registration No Nearer.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 20 November 2001

Despite a victory in court last month overturning the local administration's rejection of the church's presence in its territory, the Bethany congregation of Evangelical Christians/Baptists in the Uzbek capital Tashkent is still fighting in vain for registration, the church's pastor Nikolai Shevchenko told Keston News Service. The church had appealed against a decision by the hakimiat (administration) to refuse it registration and on 15 October the court of the city's Mirzo-Ulugbek district upheld the church's appeal. The hakimiat had refused registration on the basis of a resolution of 9 January by the mahalla committee (the authority for the local district) that the activity of a Christian prayer house on mahalla territory was "inadmissible". A senior religious affairs official told Keston the court had come to the wrong decision by overturning the mahalla's autonomous decision and said the church should find a new home elsewhere.

The mahalla is a special social structure in Uzbek society. Members of a mahalla live on a private development in a city district and form their own community. Historically, members decide many issues collectively. They celebrate weddings and funerals together and it is normal practice in a mahalla to help one's neighbours. Customarily, the whole community will help to build a new house for a mahalla member and will collect money if any member is in urgent need.

The Bethany church has encountered hostility both at the hakimiat and mahalla levels. Church members have been subjected to an investigation under the administrative code for holding services in an unregistered church and a criminal case was even brought against Pastor Shevchenko, though this was abandoned in August thanks to international pressure (see KNS 23 August 2001).

"Sadly, our victory has turned out to be a sham," Shevchenko told Keston from Tashkent on 19 November. "Now the authorities are refusing us registration on the grounds that our church is on residential land. To transfer the prayer house from residential to non-residential use we need to have a juridical address, which is only issued if you have that registration status."

Officials have justified the registration refusals by citing the law. "We are not opposed to registering the Bethany church, but the law is the law, and we are powerless against it," the head of the department for work with non-Islamic confessions at the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, Kamol Kamolov, told Keston from Tashkent on 19 November. "We are trying to help the Bethany congregation and I even suggested to Shevchenko several legal loopholes that he might use to get out of this vicious circle." However, Shevchenko still does not trust the authorities. "It seems our difficulties with registration can be put down not just to bureaucratic procedure, but also to a deliberate policy on the part of the authorities," he declared.

The first deputy chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, Shoazim Minovarov, indirectly confirms Shevchenko's view. "The court has unlawfully set aside the decision of the mahalla committee," Minovarov told Keston from Tashkent on 20 November. "No-one can force the mahalla to do their will. According to the law on mahallas, mahalla members can even evict people they can't get on with. If the mahalla doesn't want a Christian church on its territory, then that is its right. If we are going to force the mahalla to do our will, then that will lead to increased inter-ethnic and inter-confessional tension. And so I have advised Shevchenko to find a home for the church in another sector of the city."

However, Shevchenko rejects this suggestion. "This prayer house was donated to us by a person who has already left for another world. It is a sin to refuse a donation. We have had a revelation that the church should be in this place." (END)