Wednesday 8 December

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Local authorities in the town of Urgench in southwestern Uzbekistan have
refused registration to the local Baptist church, citing the application's alleged
failure to conform to the requirements of the law, the Baptist Union of Central
Asia told Keston News Service from Tashkent on 7 December. The Baptist
Union also complained of the refusal to register its congregation in
Akhangaran, a town south of Tashkent.

`In September 1999 the local church in Urgench collected all the documents
necessary for registration,' the Baptist Union declared. `It was with great
unwillingness and under pressure from the Committee for Religious Affairs
attached to the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan that the officials of the
Department of Justice of the town of Urgench accepted the papers for
consideration. Now, more than two months later, they have returned the
documents to the leader of the community, OLEG VADER, with an
accompanying letter pointing our formal failures to conform [with legislation]
and reporting that the church's documents will not be considered. One of the
reasons given is that the house where the believers currently meet is not
acceptable to the Justice authorities. It is not clear from the letter why.'

The Department of Justice's letter then recommends that the church find
another place to meet, something the church believes is impossible, especially
within the three-month timescale for the church to resubmit the application.
The church believes this is just an excuse for the local authorities to reject the
application. It believes the vast amount of money spent on submitting the
application is now `lost' (the registration fee for an individual community is 50
times the minimum monthly wage). The Baptist Union reports that it is
preparing to contest the rejection with the `competent organs'.

`The Urgench case confirms yet again that in Uzbekistan the question of church
registrations remains as before in the sphere of politics,' the Baptist Union
concludes. `It is practically impossible to achieve registration by normal
means, even when all the documents are present.'

The church in Akhangaran has been waiting for a response to its registration
application for nearly three months, the Baptist Union reports. According to the
registration regulations enacted in 1998, the Ministry of Justice should rule on
registration applications within one month, although this can be extended to
three months if `clarification' is needed.

However, in a telephone interview on 7 December, an official of the
government's Committee for Religious Affairs told Keston from Tashkent that
if the two Baptist churches give the CRA the details of their applications, they
will `resolve the cases positively'. PULAT BABAMAKHMADOV said the
CRA in Tashkent had not received any information about either of the
applications. `They should write to us so that we are in the picture. We did not
get the applications. They should have sent them to us.'

Having heard that the Baptists were reporting that the local authorities were
behind the refusal to register the Urgench church, Babamakhmadov took the
details of the Baptist congregation and promised to look into the case.
`Tomorrow is a holiday here in Uzbekistan but I will telephone the local
administrative (khokimat) officials and officials of the Ministry of Justice in
Urgench on Thursday and follow up the case. If the local authorities have acted
unjustly and are guilty we will contact them and tell them they are wrong,' he
pledged. He agreed to speak to Keston later in the week to report on his

Babamakhmadov was not familiar with the details of the application by the
Baptist church in Akhangaran.

The Baptist Union also reported that on Sunday 5 December the law
enforcement agencies raided a Baptist church in a suburb of Tashkent. `This is
a new, local church formed in one of the large dormitory regions of the capital.
The church is called Bethany and meetings of the congregation are held in a
private home. It is at present not possible for the community to acquire a
suitable building. Representatives of the authorities have officially banned the
community from meeting, demanding from the pastor NIKOLAI
SHEVCHENKO a signed statement that the meetings will be halted.'

Asked about these events in Tashkent, Babamakhmadov declared that if a
religious group does not have registration it is acting illegally. `They have no
registration. I say to those with no registration: let's register you and you will
have no problems. They haven't rung us. Let them come and we'll sort it out. If
they are not registered we at the Committee for Religious Affairs have no

Babamakhmadov claimed that the CRA was a `mediator' available to help
solve problems. `I want to help religious organisations so that they can register
without problems,' he told Keston. He denied that Uzbekistan's registration
system was burdensome. `It is not difficult at all,' he asserted. Asked why the
registration fee was so high he responded: `It is not high. No religious
organisations have complained. If a group does not have enough money,
though, they should tell us and we will ask the Ministry of Justice to consider
the application with a lower fee as an exception.'

Babamakhmadov was clearly incensed by the refusal of some religious groups
to register, citing in particular the churches of the Council of Evangelical
Christians/Baptists, which refused to register during the Soviet period also.
(These churches have no contact with the Union of Evangelical
Christians/Baptists.) `These Baptists refuse to register. I invited DMITRI
me here at the Committee for Religious Affairs on 1 December. I wanted to
remove the problems they have with the law-enforcement agencies by
proceeding with their registration, but they refused.'

The US-based news service Compass Direct reported on 1 December that local
Neighbourhood (Mahalla) Committee authorities in Nukus had refused to put
the necessary signature to the registration application of the Full Gospel
congregation in the city. `All the other signatures on the registration application
are there,' Compass quoted a local source as saying, `but obviously the local
authorities do not want the church to be registered.'

Although the church has asked the Neighbourhood Committee to issue a
statement spelling out why they will not sign the application, the committee
has so far refused. The church filed its registration application with the
Karakalpakstan Ministry of Justice in Nukus in early October.

The Nukus Full Gospel Church became well known when three of its leading
members were arrested and sentenced to heavy prison terms earlier in the year,
including the pastor, RASHID TURIBAYEV. The three were among five
Christian prisoners freed on President ISLAM KARIMOV's orders in August,
after intensive protests from around the world. (END)