06/21/2010, 00.00
UZBEKISTAN
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Uzbek authorities force Christians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to go underground

Church members and religious groups complain that the state does not authorise them to operate on the basis of pretexts or by silently ignoring them. Without a permit, even meeting to pray can be punished. After many years, the Central Protestant Church is still fighting for its rights.
Tashkent (AsiaNews/F18) – “For more than a year our Church has been trying to establish” that the decision to strip us of our permit was illegal; however, “All the courts either say it is not within their competence or remain silent” on the matter, a member of Samarkand’s Central Protestant Church told the Forum 18 news agency. This illustrates how Uzbek authorities pursue a systematic strategy to deny religious groups the permit they need to exist, and then use it as a pretext to crack down on believers.

Under Uzbek law, religious groups are required to register and obtain a permit to legally operate and organise. Without a registration, religious activity is strictly forbidden, even in the privacy of the home. Anyone caught engaged in illegal religious activity can expect hefty fines or even prison.

Local sources told Forum18 that on 27 March 2009, the Central Protestant Church in Samarkand was stripped of its permit on the pretext that where they met for years was a residential property, unfit to serve as a church.

Since then, the Church has been entangled in a legal battle for its survival. One member said that the judges, including those of the Supreme Court, refuse to hear the case, claiming that it is not within their jurisdiction, or simply keep silent on the matter.

In fact, the Church had applied years ago to have the residential property reclassified as a place of worship without getting a response from the authorities in question.

According to Forum18, this is the seventh Protestant Church to lose its permit in four years at the hands of the Regional Justice Department in Samarkand. The others are the Samarkand Church, the Miral Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Congregation, the Esther Church, Grace Church and Namdemun Church.

Usually, new applications for registration have not been approved—a situation that has forced many groups to go underground. Case in point: the Samarkand's Greater Grace Church applied for registration in 2000, a request that is still pending. Since then, Church members have been intermittently harassed and fined.

Even registered Churches are concerned that the authorities might strip them of their permit on any pretext. On 16 May, police raided the Protestant Church of Christ in Tashkent and arrested six members, who were held in custody for 15 days. Now, Church members fear they might lose their permit to operate.

Forum18 has called on Uzbek authorities to explain the situation, but has not received an answer yet, other than suggestions that the news agency address its questions to some other office.

The situation for Jehovah’s Witnesses is even worse. Of 30 communities that exist in the country, only one has been officially recognised, in the city of Chirchik, near Tashkent.

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