KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 20 November 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
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UZBEKISTAN: COURT VICTORY, BUT REGISTRATION NO
NEARER. Despite a victory in court last month, the Bethany
congregation of Evangelical Christians/Baptists in Tashkent is still
fighting for registration, the church's pastor told Keston News Service.
The church�s appeal against a decision by the hakimiat (administration) to
refuse it registration was upheld on 15 October. The hakimiat had refused
registration on the basis of a resolution by the mahalla committee (the
authority for the local district) that the activity of a Christian prayer house
on mahalla territory was "inadmissible". A senior religious affairs official
told Keston the court had come to the wrong decision and said the church
should find a new home elsewhere.

UZBEKISTAN: COURT VICTORY, BUT REGISTRATION NO
NEARER

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service

Despite a victory in court last month overturning the local
administration's rejection of the church's presence in its territory, the
Bethany congregation of Evangelical Christians/Baptists in the Uzbek
capital Tashkent is still fighting in vain for registration, the church's
pastor Nikolai Shevchenko told Keston News Service. The church had
appealed against a decision by the hakimiat (administration) to refuse it
registration and on 15 October the court of the city's Mirzo-Ulugbek
district upheld the church's appeal. The hakimiat had refused registration
on the basis of a resolution of 9 January by the mahalla committee (the
authority for the local district) that the activity of a Christian prayer house
on mahalla territory was "inadmissible". A senior religious affairs official
told Keston the court had come to the wrong decision by overturning the
mahalla's autonomous decision and said the church should find a new
home elsewhere.

The mahalla is a special social structure in Uzbek society. Members of a
mahalla live on a private development in a city district and form their
own community. Historically, members decide many issues collectively.
They celebrate weddings and funerals together and it is normal practice in
a mahalla to help one's neighbours. Customarily, the whole community
will help to build a new house for a mahalla member and will collect
money if any member is in urgent need.

The Bethany church has encountered hostility both at the hakimiat and
mahalla levels. Church members have been subjected to an investigation
under the administrative code for holding services in an unregistered
church and a criminal case was even brought against Pastor Shevchenko,
though this was abandoned in August thanks to international pressure (see
KNS 23 August 2001).

"Sadly, our victory has turned out to be a sham," Shevchenko told Keston
from Tashkent on 19 November. "Now the authorities are refusing us
registration on the grounds that our church is on residential land. To
transfer the prayer house from residential to non-residential use we need
to have a juridical address, which is only issued if you have that
registration status."

Officials have justified the registration refusals by citing the law. "We are
not opposed to registering the Bethany church, but the law is the law, and
we are powerless against it," the head of the department for work with
non-Islamic confessions at the government's Committee for Religious
Affairs, Kamol Kamolov, told Keston from Tashkent on 19 November.
"We are trying to help the Bethany congregation and I even suggested to
Shevchenko several legal loopholes that he might use to get out of this
vicious circle." However, Shevchenko still does not trust the authorities.
"It seems our difficulties with registration can be put down not just to
bureaucratic procedure, but also to a deliberate policy on the part of the
authorities," he declared.

The first deputy chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs,
Shoazim Minovarov, indirectly confirms Shevchenko's view. "The court
has unlawfully set aside the decision of the mahalla committee,"
Minovarov told Keston from Tashkent on 20 November. "No-one can
force the mahalla to do their will. According to the law on mahallas,
mahalla members can even evict people they can't get on with. If the
mahalla doesn't want a Christian church on its territory, then that is its
right. If we are going to force the mahalla to do our will, then that will
lead to increased inter-ethnic and inter-confessional tension. And so I
have advised Shevchenko to find a home for the church in another sector
of the city."

However, Shevchenko rejects this suggestion. "This prayer house was
donated to us by a person who has already left for another world. It is a
sin to refuse a donation. We have had a revelation that the church should
be in this place." (END)