UZBEKISTAN: Baptist Meeting Raided

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 24 September 2002

Local Baptists in the town of Chirchik, 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of the Uzbek capital Tashkent, have filed a formal complaint after four officers of the town's department of internal affairs raided a religious meeting in a private apartment on 8 September, Protestant sources have told Keston News Service.

During the raid the police officers drew up a report including the passport details and addresses of those attending the service and told each person to explain in writing the purpose of the meeting. The Baptists refused to write any statements, at which point the police officers started to record the proceedings on video, questioned the Baptists over why they were meeting at the apartment, and taking down names and addresses. They then compiled an inventory of all the religious literature and confiscated it, apparently for expert analysis. They brought in two neighbours and the house management committee to act as witnesses.

During their questioning of the Baptists, police officers accused them of disseminating literature which allegedly held that Christian teaching was superior to that of other religions and was therefore inciting religious hostility (see separate KNS article). The internal affairs officers told the Baptists they could not meet, and warned them that if did hold meetings they would be liable to administrative and, if they persisted, criminal punishment. They seized the identity documents of all those present and left.

"We know about this complaint by the Baptists, but at present we are not looking into the case," the official who answered the telephone at the department of internal affairs for the town of Chirchik told Keston on 19 September. "The believers' complaint is being considered at the town procuracy." The town procuracy refused to speak to Keston by telephone on 19 September. "How do we know who you are? Come to Chirchik, and we will check your documents and then we might answer your questions," declared a procuracy official, who refused to identify himself.

The raid on the Chirchik Baptist meeting is typical of pressure from the authorities on unregistered religious associations. Typically, there is a raid on a private apartment where a meeting of an unregistered religious community is underway, after which the believers are summoned to court and fined under article 240 (breaking the law on religious organisations) of Uzbekistan's administrative code.

Uzbekistan's religion law permits religious organisations to function only once they have been registered. Article 8 of the law declares that "religious organisations acquire the status of a juridical person and may function after they have registered with the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan or with its local agencies". Under article 10 of the religion law, the registration of a religious communities requires "an application signed by no fewer than 100 people". This means that in principle small religious associations of fewer than 100 people cannot gain registration (see KNS 20 September 2002).

Begzot Kadyrov, the official at the government's Committee for Religious Affairs responsible for non-Muslim faiths, told Keston in Tashkent on 19 September that if there were less than 100 believers of a certain confession in any populated area who could not therefore register their community, they should go to services in a town where there was a registered religious community of the same confession. The chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, Shoazim Minovarov, took a more cautious position when he spoke to Keston by telephone on 19 September. Minovarov admitted that the ban on unregistered communities holding services was against international norms. "The laws of Uzbekistan do not forbid members of an unregistered community from meeting and praying together," he admitted. "But if the community is unregistered, then it should not have a leader, and has no right to carry out religious instruction." Asked by Keston why the police regularly broke up meetings of believers of unregistered religious communities, Minovarov responded that "in that case, believers must appeal to the law enforcement agencies and the committee for religious affairs".

Per Normark, an expert on human rights at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Tashkent, expressed concern about action against unregistered religious communities. "The OSCE stands for freedom of expression, including religion, and regards this as a fundamental right of any individual," he told Keston in Tashkent. "Included in the OSCE commitments is also the right to freely read and disseminate religious material and writings. I would, however, like to add that this does not include extremist views aiming at an unconstitutional change of government." He described officials' demands over registration as "a contradiction per se". "How can it be possible to register if no activities can take place before registration?" (END)