KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 22 March 2001

UZBEKISTAN: GREATER GRACE WAITS IN VAIN FOR
REGISTRATION. One year on from its first application, the Greater Grace
church in the town of Samarkand appears no closer to gaining official
registration. Church leaders complain that officials constantly demand
further information or clarification of the documentation presented with the
application. Finnish pastor Matti Sirvio, who leads the church, told Keston
News Service in Tashkent on 16 March that the church is willing to comply
with every new demand made by officials. A senior religious affairs official
told Keston that the problem lies with the choice of a foreigner as pastor.

UZBEKISTAN: GREATER GRACE WAITS IN VAIN FOR
REGISTRATION

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

One year on from its first application, the Greater Grace church in the town
of Samarkand 300 kms (190 miles) south-west of the Uzbek capital Tashkent
appears no closer to gaining official registration. Church leaders complain
that officials constantly demand further information or clarification of the
documentation presented with the application. Finnish pastor Matti Sirvio,
who leads the church, told Keston News Service in Tashkent on 16 March
that the church is willing to comply with every new demand made by
officials. `We have no choice - we have to do it.' However, a senior religious
affairs official told Keston that the problem lies with the choice of a
foreigner as pastor. `We have enough Christian pastors who are local
citizens,' he maintained.

The church - which is based in the Samarkand suburb of Super, named after
a local factory - has been warned not to meet until it gets registration.

Contacted by telephone in Samarkand on 22 March, Khairidin Faiziev, the
deputy head of the khokimyat's justice department who has signed all the
rejection letters to the church, claimed he was not responsible for the
decision. `It is a collegial decision of the Samarkand justice department,' he
told Keston. However, he insisted there were still `inadequacies' in the
church's documents, but when asked whether his department would ever
approve the church's application once these latest `inadequacies' were
corrected he put the phone down.

Shoazim Minovarov, first deputy chairman of the government's Committee
for Religious Affairs in Tashkent admitted the denial of registration was
linked to the pastor's citizenship. `We have nothing against the church - our
complaints are only against the choice of a Finn as pastor,' he told Keston by
telephone on 22 March. `Our law on religion says the religious leader must
be an Uzbek citizen. The church must find an Uzbek citizen.' Asked how this
restriction squares with Uzbekistan's international commitments to allow
religious groups to choose their own leadership, he responded: `We know
our own laws.'

The church's application was lodged with the Samarkand regional
khokimiyat (administration) in March 2000. Despite having 100 Uzbek
citizens as founding members in accordance with the religion law of May
1998, officials initially told the church registration was `impossible'. `They
said we already have enough [Christian] churches in Samarkand,' Pastor
Sirvio reported, `but we insisted.' On 12 May 2000, after consulting the
government's Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent, Faiziev wrote to
the church to insist on changes to its statute, including the insertion of a
statement that the church functioned only in Samarkand region. Faiziev said
the application could only be considered once the amended documentation
was submitted.

After the Helsinki Commission of the United States Congress wrote to
Uzbek president Islam Karimov last June urging the `timely registration' of
the church, `the attitude changed', Pastor Sirvio added. However, this
changed attitude has not so far resulted in registration. Indeed, on 18
September Faiziev wrote again ordering further changes to the statute,
including the removal of several more provisions which had not caused
problems in the first application. Faiziev said a fresh letter of approval for
the registration of the church was required from the khokimiyat of
Samarkand's Bagishamal district where the church is located, as well as
further clarification of who owns the building where the church meets and
under what terms it is used.

After a second Helsinki Commission enquiry through the Uzbek embassy in
Washington last December, the local branch of Uzbekistan's political police
the SNB (former KGB) came to the church in an apparent bid to seize Pastor
Sirvio. However, he had unexpectedly left Uzbekistan the day before.
Instead, his assistant - also a foreign citizen - was summoned to the police
and threatened with expulsion. Most of the questions the police asked related
to Pastor Sirvio. However, since his return to Uzbekistan Pastor Sirvio says
the SNB and the police have had no direct contact with him.

Meanwhile, the application was still getting nowhere. In February of this
year, Pastor Sirvio came to Tashkent to try to discover from national
officials why the application was being repeatedly stalled. He was told the
justice department in the Samarkand khokimiyat was handling the
application and they would respond.

On 26 February Faiziev wrote again to say the application failed to meet the
requirements of the religion law and the procedure for registering religious
organisations. He cited the failure to give the number of church buildings
and their size, the absence of a copy of the rental agreement and the failure
to give sufficient - but unspecified - information about two members of the
church's ruling body. Faiziev also said the approval letter from the
Bagishamal khokimiyat had now expired and a fresh one was again required.

Other religious communities told Keston in Tashkent that similar nit-picking
and repeated objections to the wording of statutes have obstructed
registration of their communities. Officials are required to accept or reject
applications within three months, so quibbling over wording can easily drag
out an application for more than a year. Officials are supposed to present all
the objections to the documentation immediately, but successive objections
to different parts of a statute, as experienced by the Greater Grace church,
are very common.

`We were told that if I was an Uzbek citizen the church would get
registration without our needing to come to Tashkent,' Pastor Sirvio told
Keston. However, he points out that a number of other religious
communities - including Catholic parishes and congregations of Korean
Protestant churches - have gained registration with foreign citizens as
pastors. Minovarov maintains these cases are temporary exceptions. (END)