Tashkent (AsiaNews/F18) – Those who convert Muslims or keep religious books and hold meetings at home are thrown into jail and risk five years imprisonment. The Forum 18 news agency has detailed recent arrests and trials of Protestant Christians which the Uzbek authorities are trying to pull off quietly.
Pastor Dmitry Shestakov was arrested by police on 21 January during a Sunday service. For two weeks, he had no contact with his lawyer or relatives. It was only after a month that the press agency of the Religious Affairs Committee admitted that “Shestakov, who calls himself a Protestant pastor and is head of an illegal religious organisation operating in Andijan, has been arrested.”
The agency denied that Shestakov was a pastor of the evangelical Full Gospel Church, which is registered according to law, and described him as one who “abused alcohol and was dependent on drugs” and an “imposter” who led an illegal group undertaking “missionary activities and proselytism”. But his lawyer showed evidence that the pastor has been authorised to run the religious services of the Full Gospel Church since 5 October 2004. The members of that church community said he is a “fervent believer” and they are all “praying for him”. The chief prosecutor forbade his wife from visiting him because he is a “dangerous criminal”.
It appears that Shestakov has been charged with leading an illegal religious group, inciting religious hatred and distributing extremist propaganda material, crimes punishable by five to 10 years in prison. His fictionary “charismatic Pentecostal” secret group has been compared to groups of Islamic extremists and held to be a “threat to national security” .It seems that he has also been accused of “having converted Muslims to Christianity”.
In June 2006, the secret police searched his home and church and put him in prison for a short time. Forum 18 said the raid took place after Shestakov converted entire Uzbek families to Christianity. Shestakov left Andijan with his wife and three children. He returned in November and reopened the church. Now he has been arrested under an order issued in June.
Practically any kind of religious activity is persecuted in Andijan since a massacre took place there in May 2005, when the army opened fire on a crowd that was protesting peacefully, killing hundreds of people.
On 8 February, police arrested a Kazakh pastor, Rishat Garifulin, who was visiting the Protestant Greater Grace Church in Samarkand, because religious books were found in his possession. He was released on 19 February after the Kazakh Foreign Affairs Minister and Consul in Tashkent intervened, according to his family.
Forum 18 said that in the north-western region of Karakalpakstan, two Pentecostal Christians, Makset Djabbarbergenov and Salauat Serikbayev, were arrested on 15 January in Kaskol 2 village near the provincial capital Nukus, together with another 16 believers while they were meeting in a private home. Released, they will face trial for violating the law on religious organisations and face up to five years in prison. Only the Muslim and Christian Orthodox faiths are allowed in the region. Protestant churches are illegal and, says Serikbayev, “we live like the first Christians in the Catacombs”.
Local sources said that another six Protestants were arrested in Gazli in Bukhara on 10 February, because they were meeting in a house where Christian books and audiocassettes were found.