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16 January 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Four religious minority members still serving criminal sentences

Only two of the six members of religious minorities, serving sentences under the Criminal Code for peaceful religious activity, have been freed in the wake of December's prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov is still serving a four-year labour camp sentence, Jehovah's Witness Irfon Khamidov is still serving a two-year prison sentence, and another Jehovah's Witness, Dilafruz Arziyeva, is still serving a two-year corrective labour sentence, where 20 per cent of her wages are deducted and handed to the state. Protestant Sharofat Allamova is serving a six-month suspended sentence, but was not eligible for amnesty as she was imprisoned on criminal charges before she became a Christian. The failure to free Arziyeva from her sentence is surprising, as the amnesty applies to almost all women serving sentences. Khamidov's situation is getting worse, as "he has had a number of visitors in the prison, which is not to the liking of the prison authorities," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18, so "they fabricated some charges against him." The amnesty was proclaimed to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the adoption of Uzbekistan's Constitution.

9 January 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Death threats and massive fines follow registration application

Two years after applying for legal status, Jehovah's Witnesses in the Uzbek town of Kagan have still not gained state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Instead they have faced harassment, a police raid and the ten community members were threatened with death and each given fines of five years' minimum wages. Bailiffs have made repeated visits to seize property to pay the fines. Unregistered religious activity is a criminal offence in Uzbekistan, in violation of the country's international human rights commitments. When Forum 18 asked the town Hokim (administration chief), Murot Hudoyorov, why the community had been treated in this way, he stated while laughing that "You're wrong" and then put the phone down. Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants and Muslims continue to suffer from the state's repression of religious freedom. Even registered communities - such as Baptists in Jizak - are targeted by the authorities.

19 December 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Haj pilgrims still strictly controlled and restricted

5,000 people from Uzbekistan have travelled to Mecca for this year's haj pilgrimage, but Forum 18 News Service notes that the number of pilgrims allowed to travel from Uzbekistan is significantly less than from other countries with a similar Muslim population. Uzbekistan has a record of restricting the numbers of pilgrims and strictly controlling their selection. All pilgrims need approval from local authorities, the NSS secret police and the Haj Commission, which is controlled by the state Religious Affairs Committee and state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims (the Muftiate). Also, all pilgrimages can only be made using the state-run airline, Uzbekistan Airways. The amount demanded by the state for the pilgrimage is about 200 times the minimum monthly wage." Not everyone can go. The blacklist of those who can't go includes everyone the government regards as suspicious," opposition activist Vasila Inoyatova told Forum 18.

30 November 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Two years' correctional labour for unregistered religious activity

A Baptist has been sentenced to two years' correctional labour, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Nikolai Zulfikarov was yesterday (29 November) sentenced under Uzbekistan's Criminal Code for "teaching religious doctrines without special religious education and without permission from a central organ of administration of a religious organisation, as well as teaching religion privately". Zulfikarov, who led the five member Khalkabad unregistered Baptist church, was also sentenced to pay the state 20 per cent of his earnings over the next two years. It is not clear whether Zulfikarov will appeal against the decision. Asked whether it was illegal to be a religious believer in Uzbekistan, Judge Bakhrom Batyrov told Forum 18 that the laws of Uzbekistan prohibit people worshipping and praying together without being legally registered. This is the latest sentence against a member of one of Uzbekistan's religious minorities, which along with the majority Muslim community continue to be put under severe official pressure.

12 November 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Criminal trial tomorrow for Baptist leader

A Baptist who hosts worship in his home will be tried on criminal charges, starting tomorrow (13 November), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Nikolai Zulfikarov is being prosecuted under the Criminal Code for "teaching religious doctrines without special religious education and without permission from a central organ of administration of a religious organisation, as well as teaching religion privately". Punishments range from fines of fifty times the minimum monthly wage to three years' imprisonment. Local Baptists, who preferred not to be identified, have complained about continuing harassment. "The authorities have repeatedly visited worship services, drawn up official records [of alleged offences] and confiscated Bibles, concordances, hymnbooks and other Christian brochures and leaflets." They called for the case against Zulfikarov to be closed, for confiscated literature to be returned and for the congregation's worship not to be impeded. Repression of religious communities of all faiths is taking place in Uzbekistan.

5 November 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Even harsher Religion Law planned?

Uzbekistan appears to be planning changes to its harsh Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It is unclear how far the process has reached, but, sources in Uzbekistan state that the issue is under discussion in the state Religious Affairs Committee. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from the Committee or from the country's parliament whether a draft Law has already been produced. Nor is it clear how extensive the changes will be to what is already a highly repressive Religion Law. Some religious leaders Forum 18 spoke to have said they know nothing about any plans to amend the Religion Law. Others refused to discuss the issue. Since the current Religion Law and changes to the Criminal and Administrative codes were introduced in 1998, later changes to other laws and regulations have imposed even tighter restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Religious believers of a variety of faiths have pointed out to Forum 18 that many violations of their rights go beyond even the tight restrictions in published laws.

24 October 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Severe literature censorship continues

Uzbekistan continues to maintain severe religious literature censorship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Current examples include two shipments of Jehovah's Witness literature – one in transit for Tajikistan and one intended for an Uzbek congregation – which have been held for more than a year. Other religious communities, such as Protestants and Muslims, also experience problems. A Protestant, involved in sending literature requested by Christians in Uzbekistan, told Forum 18 that most shipments never arrived. "This was either through postal inefficiency or because it was rejected at Uzbek customs," the Protestant stated. "So we have given up trying to send literature." Many who would like to receive literature are afraid of the consequences of being identified by the authorities as Christians, from their receiving literature by post. Uzbek officials are reluctant to discuss the issue, but insist that religious material can only be received after specific approval by the state Religious Affairs Committee. Uzbekistan frequently burns religious literature, including the Bible, confiscated from Muslims, Protestants, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses. Even legally imported literature is confiscated in police raids.

19 October 2007

TURKMENISTAN: Did government order Orthodox diocese to split?

The Deputy Chair of Turkmenistan's Committee for Religious Affairs has refused to say whether the government pressured the Orthodox Church to split the Church's Central Asian Diocese by putting its Turkmen Deanery under the Patriarch. "I'm not authorised to respond to you," Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 News Service when asked about the split. However, Gurbanov was willing to discuss other matters, claiming for example that Orthodox parishes in the country face no restrictions. Fr Georgi Ryabykh of the Moscow Patriarchate told Forum 18 that they hope the decision will make pastoral oversight easier. "For years the bishop in Tashkent didn't visit this part of the Diocese, and that isn't normal church life." Deceased President Niyazov had asked for the split in 2005, sparking complaints from another priest that Niyazov was trying to build an independent Orthodox Church just as he had done with Islam. Fr Ryabykh, however, said that "It couldn't just be a response or reaction to a demand by a president, as if the president demands and the Church obeys." He added that "some time was necessary to understand the situation and make a decision."

18 October 2007

TAJIKISTAN: Jehovah's Witnesses banned

Tajikistan's Jehovah Witnesses have been banned throughout the entire country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Culture Ministry officials handed the community a banning order stripping it of legal status and "just said we were banned and should stop all our activity. They didn't say much," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Commenting on the ban, which Forum 18 has seen, a Culture Ministry official stated that the authorities' main complaint was that Jehovah's Witnesses refuse military service. "There is no alternative service in Tajikistan yet, so everyone ought to obey Tajik laws," he told Forum 18. The official then added that they also propagate their faith in public places, "which directly contradicts the Law". The ban follows a check-up by Prosecutor's Office and Religious Affairs officials on all Tajik religious communities. It is not known if the ban is related to the check-up, which resulted in some mosques being closed. Jehovah's Witnesses intend to appeal against the ban.

12 October 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Police still hunt "wanted" Protestant

Uzbekistan is still engaged in a nationwide manhunt for a "wanted" Protestant Christian, Makset Djabbarbergenov, police have told Forum 18 News Service. Asked why Djabbarbergenov is being hunted, a police officer stated that: "He gathers people in his home for religious activity. Let him believe on his own, but this is agitation and he shouldn't do it," the officer complained. "He doesn't have permission. He must have an official religious community to be able to do it." Asked why religious believers are not allowed to practice their faith freely he responded: "That's the law." A "wanted" poster issued nationwide states that "If the whereabouts of M. Djabbarbergenov are established I ask you to detain him and inform our office. We will send an escort immediately." Religious believers continue to be fined for unregistered religious activity, the latest known case being a group of five Seventh-day Adventists fined about two weeks wages for "unlawful" religious activity.

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