09/03/2007, 00.00
UZBEKISTAN
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Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses deemed “illegal”

Baptists are systematically persecuted, even when all they do is meet for prayer. Jehovah’s Witnesses fear their faith might be banned “like in Soviet times.”

Tashkent (AsiaNews/F18) – Police raids, prison sentences and fines against people who gather to pray at home have become systematic in Uzbekistan. A small Baptist congregation in Khalkabad near Pap in the eastern Namangan Region has been raided in successive Sundays on July 29 and August 5 as the faithful gathered to pray in a private home.

The Forum 18 news agency reports that police removed religious texts, taped those present and ordered them to sign statements. On their refusal they took them to a police station and held them for hours without laying any specific charges against them, subjected them to threats and even beaten some in order to get them to sign a statement.

The owner of the house, Nikolai Zulfikarov, was charged with the “illegal organisation of a social or religious organisation,” a crime that can result in up to five years in jail. In the past he was fined on similar grounds as well as spent time in prison for the same reason.

Baptists refuse registering with public authorities on principle, seeing it as a tool of state control. For its part the Uzbek government usually punishes unauthorised religious activities, even ordinary prayers, with fines and prison.

For similar reasons, others have been sentenced to prison (like Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov) or are currently on trial (like Makset Djabbarbergenov, another Pentecostal from Nukus in the north-western region of Karakalpakstan).

In the meantime, Jehovah’s Witnesses fear they might actually be banned. For more than ten years the authorities have refused to grant their communities a permit to operate despite tens of applications.

On August 13, the only authorised community in Chirchik near Tashkent was accused of “engaging in missionary activity,” illegal in the Central Asian country.

In August 2006 community in the eastern city of Fergana lost its permit that way. 

This year two Jehovah's Witnesses, Irfon Khamidov and Dilafruz Arziyeva, were sentenced to two years in a labour camp (actually a regular prison) for “illegally teaching religion.” Many other Witnesses have been fined.

“This will return us to how it was in the Soviet period, when we were also banned,” a Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18.

"In practice,” a permit allows us “to meet legally in one designated place, nothing more,” he said, but “even such a necessary thing as talking about our faith to others is not allowed.”

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