UZBEKISTAN — A small Baptist congregation in Uzbekistan is under fire again from authorities.
The charge is failing to comply with a mandatory registration requirement. The church flock in Khalkabad near Pap in the eastern Namangan Region of Uzbekistan was harassed four years ago for not registering its activities with authorities.
Uzbekistan is in Central Asia, north of Afghanistan.
Local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service that police raided Sunday services on July 29 and August 5. Following the raids, church member Nikolai Zulfikarov – who hosts services in his home – could face criminal trial with a possible sentence of up to five years imprisonment.
Baptists told Forum 18 that an investigation was initiated against Zulfikarov under Article 216 of the Criminal Code, which punishes so-called “illegal organization of a social or religious organization.”
Charges are also reportedly being prepared against others present at the services, as well as Baptists from the city of Fergana who traveled to Pap to try and find out what is going on.
“The authorities wanted to sentence Nikolai Zulfikarov immediately, but after church members complained the process stopped,” one Baptist speaking on condition of anonymity told Forum 18. “There’s now total silence, but it is not clear if this means they will abandon the attempt or if they are moving stealthily behind the scenes.”
According to Forum 18, the head of the Pap District Criminal Investigation Department, Abdumalik Motboev, is leading the investigation into Zulfikarov and four other church members. An official who answered Motboev’s telephone and declined to give his name, confirmed to Forum 18 that a criminal case has been launched against Zulfikarov. However, the official said he did not know the details of the case.
“All I know is that they didn’t have any documents authorizing them to hold such events,” he told Forum 18. Told that the Council of Churches Baptists – to which the congregation belongs – reject registration on principle, the official replied, “That’s their problem.” He referred all further enquiries to Motboev. However, Motboev was not in the office on two subsequent days and calls made to his cell phone by Forum 18 were not answered.
The Baptists maintain that the pressure on the congregation was initiated by Abdukadyr Nazarov, the deputy chief of administration for Pap District. However, he too was not in his office when Forum 18 called on two successive days, and his cell phone also was not answered.
Forum 18 reported that the threat to prosecute Zulfikarov comes as Makset Djabbarbergenov, a Pentecostal from Nukus in the north-western region of Karakalpakstan, is also facing criminal charges to punish him for his religious activity. Another Pentecostal, Dmitry Shestakov, is serving a four year labor camp sentence.
Two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Irfon Khamidov and Dilafruz Arziyeva, have already been sentenced this year for “illegally teaching religion,” and Uzbekistan’s last registered Jehovah’s Witness congregation could lose its legal status. If this happens, Forum 18 said that all activity by the entire community will – under Uzbekistan’s highly restrictive Religion Law – become illegal.
Forum 18 reported that no one was available at the government’s Religious Affairs Committee in the capital city of Tashkent to explain to the news service the escalation in activity against religious minorities. Committee chairman Artyk Yusupov was not in the office on Aug. 23. The man who answered the phone of Committee specialist Begzot Kadyrov told Forum 18 that it was a wrong number.
But Ikrom Saipov, an official at the government’s National Human Rights Center involved in religious issues, defended government policy. “We don’t repress religious believers because of their faith,” he told Forum 18.
Told about the recent harassment of the Khalkabad Baptist congregation and the sentencing of the Pentecostal pastor and two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Forum 18 reported Saipov responded, “I can’t comment on those individual cases as I have no documentation about them. But if religious believers have problems they can bring their cases to us. We can then ask the relevant authorities.”
Saipov denied that Uzbekistan’s laws restrict religious activity. He said that the law’s ban on unregistered religious activity represents a restriction. “Religious organizations must register – they just apply to the Justice Ministry for registration,” he told Forum 18.
Saipov was unable to explain why unregistered religious activity is banned and why so many religious communities that want legal status have had their registration applications rejected. Forum 18 reported he was also unable to explain why religious material is censored.
Local Baptists told Forum 18 that after the Khalkabad church’s Sunday service on July 29, held in Zulfikarov’s home in his absence, five church members stayed behind to talk. “Without any warning seven people in civilian clothes and with a video-camera burst into the (apartment),” church members told Forum 18. “They immediately started a search.”
Forum 18 reported that one church member, Odiljon Solijonov, asked the intruders who they were. Instead of answering, the intruders – who turned out to be police officers – pushed him up against the wall and said, “We’re the ones who ask the questions.” Church members told Forum 18 the officers’ behavior was “crude.”
They confiscated all the Christian literature they could find (which church members said was “illegal”), and tried to force the five church members to sign statements. When Solijonov told the others not to sign anything, the officers threatened him physically.
Forum 18 reported that all five members and Solijonov’s five-month-old child were then taken to the Pap District police station five miles away. Solijonov’s wife Nilufar was given no food or water, despite having a young child to feed. All except Solijonov were freed after six hours. Solijonov refused to sign any statement and was held until 1am. He was told to come back in the morning. He ended up walking home, arriving at 3 am. Solijonov returned to the police station in the morning, where he was held for nine hours.
Church members told Forum 18 that Solijonov was beaten in the face and chest. “This was done not just by the boss but by his subordinates too,” Solijonov later said. When fellow-Baptists complained to Motboev about the way Solijonov had been treated, Motboev told them he feared no-one and that they could complain to whomever they liked.
Forum 18 reported that church members complained their Sunday worship service was again raided on Aug. 5. Zulfikarov, who had been absent on July 29, was there during the Aug. 5 raid.
“Afraid that all our written statements would be used against us, we refused to sign anything,” Forum 18 said church members wrote in a complaint to Uzbek president Islam Karimov. “But we were taken to the police station and forced to write statements after being subjected to moral pressure for six hours.”
Church members complained that police officers ignored the fact that their right to refuse to write statements is an integral part of the Criminal Procedure Code. Forum 18 reported that when the Baptists told Motboev that they could not go against their conscience, they said Motboev responded, “I spit on your conscience.”
They said he cursed at Zulfikarov. Motboev reportedly told the Baptists they were “state criminals,” and threatened to hand them over to the National Security Service secret police.
The Khalkabad congregation belongs to the Council of Churches Baptists, who refuse on principle to register with the authorities in any of the former Soviet republics where they operate. They claim that such registration leads to unwarranted state interference in their internal activities. “We don’t feel the need to receive legal status,” the Khalkabad congregation wrote in its complaint to President Karimov.
In Nov. 2006 police raided the Khalkabad congregation. Zulfikarov was fined 12,420 Soms (10 U.S. dollars) under Article 241 of the Administrative Code. This punishes “failing to observe the correct procedure for teaching religious beliefs.” The court also ruled that Christian literature confiscated from church members was “extremist” and ordered that it be destroyed.
According to Forum 18, amid an earlier period of heightened pressure in fall 2003, five church members – including Zulfikarov and Solijonov – were each sentenced to ten days’ imprisonment, costs for which they had to reimburse the state. Three other church members were fined.
Also threatened with a criminal case was Mikhail Goryachev, a member of the Council of Churches congregation in Tashkent. Local Baptists told Forum 18 that prosecutors prepared a case against him under the country’s Criminal Code, which punishes “violation of the law on religious organizations.” However, by late July Forum 18 reported it appeared that the charges had been dropped, despite contradictory messages from the prosecutor’s office and the court in Tashkent’s Khamza District.