UNREGISTERED RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES IN UZBEKISTAN FACE NEW
THREAT

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

One year on from the implementation of harsh new legislation making
unregistered religious activity illegal and changes to the Criminal
Code prescribing harsh penalties for those breaking the law,
Uzbekistan has once again enacted amendments to the Criminal Code. The
latest changes, that came into force on 12 May, seem set to cause
further problems for believers holding unregistered religious
meetings.

A subtle change of wording in Article 216 of the code makes the
establishment of or participation in the activity of a public
association or an illegal religious group punishable by a fine of up
to fifty times the minimum monthly wage or imprisonment of up to three
years. Previously Article 216 had applied only to public associations
that had been specifically banned.

Given that the harsh 1998 legislation on religion made all
unregistered religious activity illegal, and that registration is
difficult even for groups that have all the correct documentation, the
widening of the scope of the Article specifically to cover religious
groups will make life for unregistered religious groups - of whatever
faith - even tougher.

A new addition to Article 244 (Article 244-2) specifies that those
setting up, leading or participating in `religious extremist,
separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organisations' are liable
to imprisonment of between five and fifteen years with confiscation of
property. If the actions entail `serious consequences', punishment is
increased to between 15 and 20 years' imprisonment, with confiscation
of property.

Although this change seems aimed at those guilty of terrorist actions
like the bomb attacks in Tashkent in February, which the government
blames on hardline Islamists, it is not clear how widely this article
will be applied to ordinary believers trying to practise their faith
peacefully.

The changes - passed by the Uzbek parliament in Tashkent and signed
into law by President ISLAM KARIMOV on 15 April - came into force on
their publication in the local press, including the Russian-language
Narodnoye Slovo, on 12 May.

It was exactly a year ago that far-reaching changes were introduced to
the Uzbek law on religion, with accompanying changes to the Criminal
and Administrative Codes that spelled out severe penalties for
unregistered religious activity. Since then, many religious groups
that had official registration have been denied it under the
compulsory re-registration procedures.

In an interview with Keston News Service on 14 May, the first deputy
chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, SHAAMIL MINOVAROV,
gave statistics on the number of religious communities registered in
Uzbekistan. He said there were about 1,500 registered Muslim mosques,
and 122 registered non-Muslim communities. He declined to give a
denominational breakdown, but said that this number included Russian
Orthodox, Evangelical, Presbyterian, Baptist, Adventist, Full Gospel,
Catholic, Lutheran and Protestant congregations, as well as Jews and
Bahais. Asked how it was possible to obtain a detailed breakdown, he
said that an official enquiry for such information should be made
through an Uzbek embassy.

Minovarov declared that a commission from the Committee, headed by
deputy chairman SALIM MELIKULOV, had travelled in early May to Nukus,
the capital of the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic, to look into
the question of the registration of the Full Gospel Church in the
city. `There will be no problem in registering the community,' he
declared. `Of course it will be registered when the application
documents are presented. They have so far not reached the Committee.'
The Full Gospel Church in Nukus has been seeking registration for many
years, both before and after the new law on religion was enacted, but
has been repeatedly denied it.

Four members of the Full Gospel Church in Nukus, the pastor RASHID
TURIBAYEV and church members PARHAD YANGIBAYEV, ISSED and KABUL
(last names unknown), were arrested earlier in the year and now face drugs
charges which fellow church members believe are fraudulent. Compass
Direct, a US-based news service, reports that the trial of the four
was due to be held in early May, but was postponed until 25 May as the
defence lawyers were too afraid to represent their clients.

Different religious faiths have followed different tactics in seeking
to gain official registration for their communities. A group of
Christian leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, wrote a joint letter
to President Karimov last year in the wake of the adoption of the new
law, expressing their concern at some of its provisions and pointing
out where the legislation violated Uzbekistan's commitments under
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (The legislation also
violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to
which Uzbekistan acceded on 28 September 1995 as well as OSCE human
dimension commitments.) However, these joint actions had little
impact.

The only government concession appears to have been a decree that
allows officials to relax the requirement for smaller religious
communities that each religious community should have 100 adult
members before it can apply for registration. President Karimov issued
Decree No. 882 on 14 August 1998, specifying that in such cases a
special commission under the guidance of the Justice Ministry and with
the participation of clergymen and representatives of religious
organisations should examine registration applications and should
register them as an exception if it sees fit. However, Keston has been
unable to obtain a copy of this decree from the Uzbek authorities,
from religious groups or from human rights organisations inside or
outside Uzbekistan. It is also unclear how widely this exemption has
been used, as officials of the Committee for Religious Affairs refuse
to divulge specifics of registration.

In the apparent absence of any practical government concessions,
faiths have been using any leverage they can deploy on the Uzbek
authorities, preferring to ignore the problems of other faiths in a
bid to gain registration for their own.

The Catholic Church has been able to use the diplomatic relations that
exist between the Uzbek government and the Holy See to seek to avoid
registration problems for its three parishes (in Tashkent, Samarkand
and Fergana). The rebuilt parish church in Samarkand (confiscated
during the Soviet era but handed back after independence) was
reconsecrated on 27 March of this year

Following visa difficulties last year for Tashkent's chief rabbi, ABBA
DAVID GUREVICH, a member of the Lubavitch movement, the movement in
the United States has been able to exert pressure on the Uzbek
government. Following a meeting in Washington in mid-March between
Lubavitch officials and the Uzbek Foreign Minister ABDULAZIZ KAMILOV,
Rabbi Gurevich was issued again with a one-year visa and the Lubavitch
centre in Tashkent was given official registration.

However, many minority groups have experienced difficulties
registering communities, with officials frequently claiming that
registration applications have not been correctly filled in or
information provided with them is inadequate. Baptists, Adventists,
Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses are among the groups to have had
applications refused and members harassed or fined for conducting
`illegal' religious activity.

Christians and Jews in general enjoy support from Western governments
and politicians, especially in the United States, and the Uzbek
Foreign Ministry constantly has to field enquiries and protests from
those concerned about the treatment of religious groups by the Uzbek
government. The authorities in Tashkent realise that Western concern
has focused largely on Christians and Jews and this may have softened
their stance for members of these two faiths (especially by causing
postponement of criminal trials against believers of these faiths).
However, the Uzbek government believes that Western governments and
policymakers are indifferent to the plight of Muslims, sharing the
Uzbek government's belief that many Muslims are `Wahhabi terrorists'.
The government has continued its harsh crackdown on anyone practising
Islam outside the confines of the state-approved Muslim Board.

Writing in the January 1999 issue of the bulletin of the banned
opposition party Erk, ABDUFATTOH MANOPOV, head of the Organisation for
the Protection of Human Rights in Central Asia, described the campaign
against `dissident' Muslims: `They began to close the mosques in
several cities, including Namangan, Andizhan and Kokand, and at the
same time the practice began of arresting believers. Thousands of
people were arrested on trumped-up charges. The fabricated criminal
cases were mostly based on explosives, weapons or drugs, which had
been planted on the victim or in his home. According to information
collected by the human rights activist SAFARMIRSO ISKHOKOV, the number
of believers arrested in the whole country has reached 32,000, with
15,000 in Namangan alone.' Human rights groups have documented the
arrest or disappearance of numerous imams, devout students or men
accused of being hardline Islamists simply because they wear beards.

The climate of fear among religious leaders of almost all faiths in
Uzbekistan is tangible. Almost none will respond to enquiries about
the state of their community, even on factual subjects like the number
of registered communities they have. Many are fearful that information
published abroad that reflects badly on the government's religious
policy will be traced back to them and they will receive warning
visits from the National Security Ministry as a consequence. However,
it appears that they welcome publicity abroad about the fate of their
communities - provided the information is not obviously obtained from
them. (END)