Tuesday 27 July
UZBEK BAPTISTS CALL FOR PROTECTION FROM GOVERNMENT THREATS

UZBEK BAPTISTS CALL FOR PROTECTION FROM GOVERNMENT THREATS

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

A community of Baptists in the western Uzbek town of Karshi has written to leading Uzbek officials, including President ISLAM KARIMOV, to call for a halt to state-sponsored threats against them. The community, which belongs to the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists which rejected state control during the Soviet era, does not have state registration and has already suffered harassment from the authorities, including the late-night summoning of church members to the police station. Although they had remained silent about the earlier harassment, `we have been forced to write', they said, by the threat to plant bombs or drugs on church members if the authorities decide they need a pretext to prosecute church members. This threat is a real one - dozens of Muslims, political opponents of the government and other Christians have had drugs or weapons planted on them by the Uzbek police in cases over the past year.

According to a letter signed by church members, passed to Keston News Service by the Friedensstimme Mission in Germany, two young men entered the church during Sunday worship on 11 July, pretending to be interested in buying the property. After admitting that they had not seen a for-sale notice, but had seen a notice advertising the service, the two left quietly.

The following Friday, 16 July, one of the two men returned, this time identifying himself as D. KH. SAIDOV from the local anti-corruption department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He asked S. ANDREICHENKO, the wife of the owner of the property, to accompany him to the police station to write a statement. Asked what about, Saidov merely replied that there had been a complaint, but refused to reveal the nature of the complaint or the name of the complainant. Andreichenko declined to go, as she had no-one to look after her children, but promised that her husband - who owns the house where the church meets - would go. When A. ANDREICHENKO went at the appointed time in the afternoon, Saidov was out and, after waiting some time, Andreichenko had to go to work.

Later in the afternoon, Saidov turned up again at the church and this time S. Andreichenko and another female church member went with him to the police station. There Saidov told them that without state registration the church should not meet. Andreichenko wrote a statement on her own behalf, declaring that they read the Bible at their meetings and that there are no calls for violence or the killing of other human beings during services.

A. Andreichenko went to the police station the following day, where Saidov told him that there had been a complaint from the town of Kamashi, but declined again to specify the nature of the complaint or the source. Asked why the congregation was not registered, Andreichenko told Saidov that the church could not agree with the present law governing registration (the 1998 law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations), declaring that it `contradicts the teaching of the Gospel'. He stressed to Saidov that the church represents no political or other threat to the state and that in the wake of the bomb attacks in Tashkent last February `all of us believers were concerned that peace in our republic had been violated and prayed that peace would be preserved'. According to the church's letter, Saidov then responded that if it became necessary and if his superior ordered it, bombs, grenades and bombs would be found in their possession.

`In connection with this, we beg you urgently to protect us from these threats and infringements of religious freedom,' the Baptists write, `as we simply cannot not conduct services, preach the good news and speak about salvation.' The letter was addressed not only to President Karimov, but to the Procurator of the Kashkadarya region and the regional head of internal affairs, as well as to A. T. YUNUSOVA of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent.

Uzbekistan has enacted the harshest legislation on religion of all the former Soviet republics, making all unregistered religious activity illegal. Those conducting illegal religious activity face severe penalties, including punitive fines or imprisonment of up to five years. The government claims that the restrictions on religious practice were enacted as a response to religious-inspired terrorism - such as the Tashkent bombings in February - but there is widespread concern both within Uzbekistan and abroad over the tight, across-the-board restrictions on the peaceful exercise of the right to religious freedom. Communities that have suffered under the new restrictions have been non-officially-sanctioned Muslims, as well as Jews, Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishnas. (END)