UZBEKISTAN: Baptist Deaf Church Closed Down Amid Fines.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 29 July 2002

A Baptist pastor and his wife have been fined for leading a church for the deaf in the town of Beruni in the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic of western Uzbekistan and the unregistered church has been forced to halt its services. Oleg Bader and his wife Natalya, who live in the town of Urgench 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Beruni, were each fined 12,000 soms (16 US dollars, 16 Euros or 10 British pounds) by Beruni's administrative court on 10 July. "They didn't say which article of the administrative code we were sentenced under," Bader told Keston News Service from Urgench on 28 July. "They gave us no record of the proceedings and no receipt for the fines. They told us only that we had no permission to conduct any activities in Karakalpakstan."

Bader reported that the judge had initially wanted to sentence them each to 20,000 soms, five times the minimum monthly wage, but had been persuaded to reduce the fine to three times the minimum monthly wage. The Baders also had their identity documents seized until the fines had been paid, but again they persuaded officials to hand them back as they feared they would be arrested without them. They have now paid the fines.

Deacon Gairat Juraev, who leads work for the deaf in Uzbekistan's Baptist Union, told Keston from the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 25 July that he was concerned at the pressure on Bader. "The local officials aim simply to frighten and to extort money for themselves."

Keston was unable to reach Bahram Turaniyazov, deputy head of the Beruni police, to ask why the Baders had been punished for leading a peaceful religious meeting in a private home.

Bader and his wife are both registered as living in Urgench in Khorezm region, which is on the other side of the Amu-Darya river from Karakalpakstan. They often travel to serve the 20-strong Beruni church, where Oleg preaches and Natalya translates into sign language.

Although the local Beruni police had visited the church a couple of times before, Bader reports that they had on those occasions simply looked around and noted down when the church met. However, on 8 June a service was raided by officers of the political police, the National Security Service (SNB, former KGB), who had travelled over from the town of Turtkul 30 kilometres (20 miles) away. "They filmed those attending, looked through the literature and asked the believers who their leader was." The SNB then handed over the case to the police. The Baders were not present that day, but on 12 June they were detained by the police in Urgench and taken to Beruni, where they were held for the whole day. "They didn't really know what to do with us," Bader told Keston. Eventually they were summoned to the administrative court hearing on 10 July.

"We were told that the Beruni church cannot meet until it gets registration in Nukus [Karakalpakstan's capital]," Bader reported. "If it meets again, it will be bad, they told us." He and his wife were also warned not to travel back to Beruni. "The local believers cannot meet locally and they can't afford to travel to Urgench to join us in church," Bader noted sadly.

The Karakalpakstan authorities have taken a harsh line against Protestant Christian churches functioning in the autonomous republic. Such churches have found it almost impossible to register, while a number of Protestant leaders have been fined (see KNS 14 June 2002). (END)