UZBEKISTAN: Being Protestant a Crime?

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 29 October 2002

The leaders of a Protestant church in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in north western Uzbekistan, have been charged under article 216 part 1 of the Criminal Code, which punishes "participation in the activity of illegal religious organisations" with a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment. Keston News Service has learnt that the decision to launch the criminal investigation followed an early October police raid on the Mir (Peace) Presbyterian church in the town of Nukus that targeted members of traditionally Muslim ethnic background. It is not known when the investigation will be completed and when the church leaders will face trial.

"During the raid on our church the police forced ethnic Karakalpak, Kazakh and Uzbek members of the congregation to write statements indicating the reasons they come to our church," the pastor of the Mir church Konstantin Kmit told Keston on 27 October. "It is interesting that the policemen did not demand such statements from Russians and Koreans. As the police took statements only from people of Muslim origin, we can infer that the authorities intend to charge us with proselytism, which is prohibited by Uzbek law."

Kmit reported that investigators have also accused church leaders of luring minors into their activities. However, he maintained that the parents of all the children who attend the church have signed declarations that they do not object to the religious education of their children. Consequently the church's leadership has not broken the law.

On about 10 or 11 October officials sealed the door of the church office, prohibiting anyone to enter. Pastor Kmit told Keston that the police also confiscated a computer and religious literature from the church office.

The senior investigator of the Karakalpakstan Internal Affairs Directorate, Kural Dzhakaev, is leading the investigation into the case. He told Keston on 28 October that the computer and religious literature "were not confiscated, but only temporarily removed in the interests of the investigation". Dzhakaev explained that the investigation into the Mir church leaders had been launched because they were conducting religious activity without having registered the church with the Justice Ministry. However, some suspect that the crackdown on the church might be connected with the fact that it is in the final stage of gaining official registration. Previously it had been one of only two Christian churches in Nukus to be registered and had only one document left to obtain before being officially re-registered under current Uzbek law.

The Mir church - which has more than one hundred members - has made three unsuccessful attempts to register since 2000. On the most recent occasion, church leaders submitted registration documents to the Karakalpakstan Justice Ministry in April. In May they received an official reply ordering them to agree the membership of the church's council with the religious affairs official of the Karakalpakstan cabinet of ministers, Khusneidin Khamidov. In July Khamidov wrote to the church advising it that "due to the lack of specialists in non-Muslim confessions in Karakalpakstan", the Mir church leaders should apply directly to the national Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent.

In mid-October Pastor Kmit travelled to Tashkent and applied to the Committee on Religious Affairs. However Bekzot Kadyrov, an official of the department for non-Muslim confessions at the Committee for Religious Affairs, declined to consider Khamidov's letter. Kadyrov also declined to put his refusal to consider Khamidov's letter in writing.

"By law we can only give an expert assessment of the expediency of the activity of the Mir church on the written request of the Justice Ministry of the Republic of Karakalpakstan," Kadyrov told Keston on 28 October. "Khamidov's letter has no legal standing."

Pastor Kmit is less than satisfied. "The Justice Ministry refuses to consider our documents unless we agree the membership of the church's council with Khusneidin Khamidov, and he refers us to Tashkent. It's a vicious circle."

The criminal charges against the leaders of the Mir Presbyterian church is the latest difficulty facing Protestants in Karakalpakstan, where the majority of the population regard themselves as (at least nominally) Muslim. Currently only one Protestant community, the Emmanuel church, is officially registered in Karakalpakstan but even the Emmanuel church has been refused permission to build their own premises on the site where they have a plot of land. Keston has learnt that four members of the New Life church who were fined in May (see KNS 6 June 2002) have been refusing to pay the fines, which they regard as unjustified. They now face possible confiscation of their property. The four were each fined up to 27,000 Uzbeks sums (about 32 Euros, 31 US dollars or 20 British pounds) in a country where average incomes for many people are about 15 US dollars (15 Euros or 10 British pounds) per month. They were among eighteen Protestants, primarily from churches which had been unable to receive official registration, arrested for attending a religious meeting. The police wrote down the names and addresses of the fourteen others and let them go. (END)