Uzbek government closes NGO on false proselytism charges

The judges found that the US organisation was guilty of proselytism in a village, where one of the accused never even went. Analysts say the truth is that the authorities fear western cultural influence on the population.

Tashkent (AsiaNews/ICC) – The Uzbek government has accused foreign NGOs of "illegal religious activities", but its true objective is to shut them down to distance any possible influence of western culture. This fate has befallen the non-governmental organization, Central Asia Free Exchange (CAFE), based in the US, which is now fighting to return to work for the people of Uzbekistan.

The Tashkent authorities ordered the definitive closure of the nationwide activities of CAFE after a court found its workers guilty of illegal religious activities geared towards Christian proselytism. Local experts said there was no chance of a hearing for the appeal submitted by the NGO because the courts were in the hands of officials of President Karimov. The verdict is expected in these days.

According to the charges presented by the prosecution, NGO personnel distributed illegal religious material and resorted to intimidation to convert 20 people from the village of Komi Cho'li. One of the accused never even went to this region. Other alleged crimes of CAFE – which is employed solely in technical projects like formation of health personnel, teaching English and reconstruction of orphanages – included using a non-registered logo and not having an Internet license.

CAFE Chief Executive Officer, James Hall, said all the NGO workers were Christian and he described the charges as "complete nonsense". He said: "In our projects there is no religion of any kind and we do not seek to convert Uzbeks to Christianity." He said that in order to comply with local norms, CAFE employees were forbidden from attending large religious gatherings, and did not discuss religious matters.

Some observers in Uzbekistan said the CAFE case was politically motivated and the proselytism charge was just an excuse to conceal the government's true scope: shutting foreign NGOs down to distance all possible influence of western culture from the country.

In Uzbekistan, 90% of the population is Muslim, violations of religious freedom are rife, and the government aims to control every aspect of the life of society.