UZBEKISTAN: Protestant Church Too Small to Register.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 20 September 2002

The Protestant Church of Jesus Christ in the Uzbek town of Gazalkent, 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of the capital Tashkent, is typical of small religious communities which do not have the required 100 adult citizen members required for registration and whose activity is therefore never going to be legal. The church's pastor, Maksim Yakovlev, told Keston News Service that his community, which has only about 15 members, almost never manages to meet because it is afraid of persecution by the authorities and has been forced to become virtually an underground church. Asked how such small religious communities in Uzbekistan can function if they cannot register as they are too small and are treated as illegal because they lack registration, Begzot Kadyrov, the official at the government's Committee for Religious Affairs responsible for non-Muslim faiths, was unsympathetic. "They should join a registered community nearby and go there to pray," he told Keston in Tashkent on 19 September.

With Uzbekistan's laws declaring unregistered religious activity illegal, the Church of Jesus Christ - like other religious communities of a variety of faiths - is subject to surveillance by the police and the National Security Service (NSS, the former KGB). "Officers of the National Security Service forbid us to meet in our brother Marat Abdulayev's house on the grounds that our church is unregistered and that therefore we have no right to hold religious meetings under Uzbek law," Pastor Yakovlev told Keston on 15 September in Gazalkent.

Such strict controls have forced many small religious communities to adapt their practices. "We have to apply the so-called 'cell' method, which is now very widely used in Uzbekistan." Yakovlev explained to Keston that under this method church members split up into cells made up of no more than five people, of whom each one will host a meeting. "When such a small group meets in an apartment, then it can be presented not as a religious gathering but as an ordinary tea-drinking session - and we really do drink tea." However, he said that even when they meet in such small groups, they are not completely sure they are safe. "In the end, there is a very subtle line between a religious meeting and a tea-drinking session, and we are always at risk of being accused of not just drinking tea," he noted. "What is more, a denunciation by any of the neighbours would be quite enough to finish off our meetings."

At the Committee for Religious Affairs, Kadyrov admitted too that there is a fine line between a meeting between a small group of friends in a private home and an organised religious meeting. What happens if believers meet and drink tea, Keston asked. "It is not clear. If they drink tea and discuss God, that is OK," he responded, "but if the group has a leader it is an illegal religious meeting."

To Yakovlev and his church, it is evident that the NSS also monitors the activity of church members outside the town's borders, even in the mountains near the town, as attempts to meet there have been thwarted. "Initially, we organised group walks into the mountains, but NSS officers politely told us to stop doing this because they regarded it as a demonstration."

Yakovlev sees no way out of the vicious circle. "For us to function legally, we have to register the church. But that is not realistic, because under Uzbek law a church has to have at least 100 members to register as a religious community. Currently, we appear to have been left in peace, and the only demand made of us is that we should not meet in large groups. But we have no firm assurance that this will continue in the future." (END)