KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 23 August 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
UZBEKISTAN: 'THE FEWER CHURCHES WE HAVE, THE
FEWER THE PROBLEMS'? For almost two years the authorities have
refused to register the Bethany Evangelical Christian-Baptist
congregation. Members of the congregation have been penalised for
conducting worship in an unregistered church building and the pastor
faced criminal charges. 'Thanks to the support of international
organizations, primarily Keston, the criminal case against me was
dropped, but our situation remains uncertain. For example, our church
has still not been registered' Pastor Nikolai Shevchenko said. Pavel
Peychev, president of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists has
told Keston that this is not an isolated incident.
UZBEKISTAN: 'THE FEWER CHURCHES WE HAVE, THE
FEWER THE PROBLEMS'?
by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service
For almost two years the authorities of the Mirza-Ulugbeksky district of
Tashkent in Uzbekistan have refused to register the Bethany Evangelical
Christian-Baptist congregation. As Keston News Service has reported
(see KNS 27 September 2000, 26 March, 9 April, 27 June & 29 June
2001), members of the congregation have been penalised for conducting
worship in an unregistered church building and the pastor faced criminal
charges. 'Thanks to the support of international organizations, primarily
Keston, the criminal case against me was dropped, but our situation
remains uncertain. For example, our church has still not been registered'
Bethany church Pastor Nikolai Shevchenko told Keston on 21 August.
The background to the conflict is that according to the Uzbek law on
religion 'religious organisations acquire legal status and may carry on
their activity after registration with the Ministry of Justice or with the
local authorities following the procedures laid down by the legislation.'
Since members of the Bethany church were meeting in an unregistered
prayer house, the Mirzo-Ulugbeksky district authorities considered that
the Baptists' activities were illegal.
Such an interpretation of the Law is debatable. 'Believers have the right
to assemble in unregistered prayer houses. The registration of a religious
congregation is necessary only for it to be able to act as a public
organisation. However, unfortunately, local officials lacking in
competence sometimes interpret the law to the effect that if a prayer
house is unregistered then the believers have no right to gather there,'
Keston was told on 22 August by Shoazim Minovarov, the first deputy
chairman of the state Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA). A slightly
different interpretation of the law is held by Begzot Kadyrov, the chief
specialist of the department for non-Islamic confessions of the CRA, who
told Keston on 23 August: 'We indeed cannot ban believers from
meeting for prayer in an unregistered church. But, if such a group of
people has a leader and he preaches in an unregistered church building,
then in this instance we can speak of a violation of the law. Otherwise a
dangerous precedent is set: the representatives of some confessions do
not want to register and if the authorities do not react to their meetings at
all, then the number of religious associations whose members consider
that they don't need to register will grow considerably.'
Regardless of the interpretation of Uzbekistan's religion law, it should be
noted that it states: 'A religious organisation may be refused registration
if the provisions of its statutes and other documents contradict the
requirements of the present Law and other legislative acts of the republic
of Uzbekistan.' The khakimiat (local authority) of the Mirzo-Ulugbeksky
district refused Bethany church registration on the grounds of a resolution
of the committee of the makhalla (the sub-district authority) on the
inadmissibility of a Christian prayer house functioning on the territory of
the makhalla. However, according to the law the consent of the makhalla
committee is not required for the registration of a prayer house. 'It is
noteworthy that on 9 December 1999 the makhalla committee voted for
the activity of our church. However, under pressure from the district
authorities on 9 January this year it unexpectedly voted against the
functioning of our prayer house on the territory of the makhalla. I believe
that such an attitude to Baptists is not the policy of the authorities of our
republic. This is the arbitrary action of local officials lacking in
competence. We have lodged a declaration with the civil court of the
Mirzo-Ulugbeksky district of Tashkent demanding that the resolution of
the makhalla committee should be appealed against. Our case should be
heard on 5 September,' Nikolai Shevchenko told Keston on 21 August.
On 22 August the president of the Union of Evangelical Christians-
Baptists, Pavel Peychev, told Keston that this is not an isolated incident.
'The authorities have refused registration to five of our churches. Over
the last year we have not managed to register a single one of our
churches. Officially it is considered that the local (district) authorities are
refusing registration, but in reality it is happening on instructions from
above. The pressure on Baptists in Uzbekistan is growing. I believe that
the authorities at republic level have no interest at all in religious
associations being refused registration,' Begzot Kadyrov of the CRA told
Keston on 23 August. 'It's another matter if local officials really do
sometimes think 'the fewer churches we have, the fewer the problems'.'