UZBEKISTAN: Police Follow Pentecostal Church Members.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 15 July 2002

A pastor of the Christian Full Gospel Church in the town of Andijan in the Fergana valley of Uzbekistan near the border with Kyrgyzstan has complained that members of his church are being openly subjected to pressure by the authorities. Bakhtierjon Tuichiev told Keston News Service that he and other leading church members have been followed by the political police, the SNB (formerly the KGB), since they lodged a registration application which was blocked by the town administration. The local SNB declined to discuss this surveillance with Keston.

Tuichiev told Keston by telephone on 11 July that his church's problems began last September, when he was summoned by the regional police and asked to describe the activities of his church. He reported that he succeeded in persuading the police that his church was not engaged in illegal activities but "simply doing good to people". Then he gave the police the addresses of those whom he had succeeded in convincing that they should stop using drugs. Tuichiev himself had been a drug addict in the past.

In order to legalise his church's work, Tuichiev decided to register it. In an attempt to make negotiations with the authorities easier, the church united with another church in Andijan - the Worship Church, which also belonged to the Full Gospel Christians. In February, Tuichiev overcame the first registration hurdle when he received the necessary permission for the church to operate from the mahalla committee (the authority for the local district) and handed in the documents required for registration to the town hakimiat (administration).

However, the chairman of the mahalla committee later came to Tuichiev and begged him to return the permit to him as the hakimiat did not wish to register the church. Tuichiev replied that, even if he wanted to, he could not give back the permit, as he had already taken it to the hakimiat. Nevertheless, in March a meeting of the mahalla's residents was called, which decided that a functioning Christian church was "undesirable". Tuichiev is convinced that this new meeting was organised by the hakimiat's ideological department. He told Keston that it is now simply impossible to register the church, as the hakimiat based its decision on the fact that the religion law requires the mahalla committee's consent to a religious group's activity.

The mahalla is a distinctive social institution in Uzbek society. Members of a mahalla live in a single urban district in privately-owned accommodation and form a special kind of community. Historically, mahalla members have resolved many issues collectively. For example, they celebrate weddings and funerals together. It is customary for mahalla neighbours to offer each other financial support: the entire collective generally helps to build a new house for a mahalla member, and collects money if a community member is in urgent need.

After Uzbekistan gained independence, state ideology assigned exceptional significance to the mahalla as a traditional form of Uzbek grass-roots democracy. The mahalla committees have been given very wide-ranging powers, even so far as turning a family out of a mahalla by decree of a general meeting.

In order for a religious community to be registered with the Ministry of Justice it is necessary first to receive permission from the mahalla committee. However, in practice the mahalla committees have become an obedient instrument of the state authorities (just as in Soviet times the district councils unquestioningly followed the secret orders of the city's party committee). A mahalla in Kashkadarya in southern Uzbekistan has refused to allow a Jehovah's Witness community to function on orders of the local SNB (see KNS 19 June 2002). A number of chairmen of mahalla committees from different parts of Uzbekistan have told Keston that they have refused permission for a religious community to operate on the orders of city authorities.

Mirvakhid Khalmatov, an instructor at the ideological department of Andijan's hakimiat who had visited the church more than once as a representative of the hakimiat, claimed that the permission given by the mahalla committee in February for the church to operate was not valid, as the mahalla committee had merely given permission for the congregation to rent a house for the church's activities. Speaking to Keston by telephone on 11 July, he insisted that it was only at the March meeting of the mahalla residents that the final decision concerning the expediency of the church's activities had been taken. He also denied that the hakimiat had exerted pressure on the mahalla committee. Khalmatov told Keston that in the meantime he had not come to a final conclusion on how far the activities of the Full Gospel church were "expedient".

Tuichiev told Keston that after the March decision of the mahalla committee, the position of the church had become "depressing". He reports that the SNB is having him and other active church members followed and maintains that SNB officers are trying to incite the mahalla's residents against him. He claimed that the SNB is spreading rumours that Tuichiev gives every Uzbek who converts to Christianity 1000 US dollars, a very large sum of money in the Andijan region, where the average wage is less than 20 dollars a month.

Keston tried to establish whether the Andijan SNB was following church members, and if so, why. But its telephone call to the local SNB on 12 July produced no answers. An officer, who did not give his name, asked the correspondent detailed questions about the organisation he represented and noted down his name and position. After this interrogation, the SNB officer, without answering any of Keston's enquiries, said "thank you" and rang off. (END)